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Netanyahu, How Many People Will Die in a Nuclear War in the Middle East?

In the early 60s, the U.S. estimated that the number of victims in a nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China would total some 600 million. 20 years ago, ‘Doomsday Machine’ author Daniel Ellsberg posed a similar question about the Mideast

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A mushroom cloud rises 20,000 feet over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.
A mushroom cloud rises 20,000 feet over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.Credit: AP

With the Iran nuclear deal on the rocks and tensions rising across the Middle East, it is worth revisiting a question that was posed more than two decades ago by Daniel Ellseberg, the former U.S. military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers, about the potential cost in lives of nuclear warfare in this region.

In October 1996, Ellsberg took part in a conference in Tel Aviv entitled “Democracy, Human Rights and Mordechai Vanunu,” dedicated to the jailed Israeli nuclear whistleblower and led by Prof. Joseph Rotblat, winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. The conference was organized by the Israeli Committee for Vanunu and for a Middle East Free of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons. All the conference speeches were included in a book called “Vanunu and the Bomb” (edited by Giora Neumann and myself), which was published in 1998.

Here is an excerpt from Ellsberg’s 1996 speech, in which he drew on his Cold War experience in making plans for nuclear conflict and expected casualty figures.

“In 1961 I drafted a question for the president, John [F.] Kennedy, to ask the joint Chiefs of Staff. I was in the process of drafting the guidance notes for the operating plans for general nuclear war. I wrote a 20-page top secret draft adopted totally by [then-Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara and sent by him, as the secret guidance for joint Chiefs of Staff for totally changing the Eisenhower war plans. I was very proud of that as I thought the current plans to be a disaster and my plans were far better. (I can still say they were better but not as much as I had thought: I bear that on my conscience.) Therefore it was possible to draft questions to the High Chief, which he accepted, one of which was: If your plans were executed, and not interrupted by typhoon, preemptive attack or total incompetence, how many people would have died in the Soviet Union and China?

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Daniel Ellsberg, November 1, 2004.
Daniel Ellsberg, November 1, 2004. Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Hird/File Photo

“I asked that in the belief that they did not have an answer. I had been working with the planners in the air force, who had never done such calculations. I thought they would have to waffle, it would be very embarrassing, or they would give some absurdly low estimate. But they did have an answer. It was addressed ‘for the eyes of the president only,’ but as I wrote the question, I saw that I held in my hand an unusual piece of paper.

“The number was for people in the Soviet Union and China alone, so they could avoid undue delay. It was a simple graph. An ascending line starting with deaths on the first day and leading on to deaths from fallout and so on in six months’ time. The figure was 320,000,000 dead. So they knew what their plans entailed. Obviously a computer model had done the calculations.

“So I asked about the rest, the answer was about 100,000,000 in Western Europe and roughly the same in Eastern Europe. Neutral countries adjacent to the Soviet Union, non-aligned; Afghanistan, Austria, Japan, were wiped out by fallout from our attacks, without calculations from retaliation from first strike.

“Total body count over the next couple of weeks was 600,000,000. I asked myself how people I drank beer with and worked with every day, could have written such plans. Not just hypothetical ones, this was a targeting estimate for planes on instant 10-minute alert all over the world; missiles, submarines, and machinery which was already there, not 10 years in the future. This was next week.

“This is what would have happened had we gone to war over Cuba, which was possible in 1962, or Berlin in 1960. 600,000,000 people. I thought they were the most evil plans that had ever been made in the history of humanity. I have spent 30 years since, trying to understand how Americans had created such plans, and such a machinery, but with very ordinary motives. The word evil is almost misleading as it suggests satanic forces or demonic motives. These were well intentioned people with very ordinary, very banal motives.

“If one returns to Israel, what if that question were asked by Benjamin Netanyahu [at the time in his first term as prime minister]? Has he done so? With virtual certainty I feel he has not. Has any lsraeli ever asked such a question? Has the calculation been made? I had thought that the general security service had not done so, but I was wrong. Perhaps the lsraeli military do know the answer. If we gave them enough time to work it out, what would the answer be to the question, supposing the weapons are used on the targets for which they have been prepared? Supposing the ground zero were hits on targets such as cities or other areas for which target folders have been prepared showing coordinates, how many people would die? It is a very simple calculation.

A partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert, March 2014.
A partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert, March 2014.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

“Assume Israel with more than 100, maybe 200, warheads – each on average the size of the Nagasaki bomb – each could produce 100,000 deaths.

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“I am a Jew. Should Jews have created machinery for the instant annihilation of 10 to 12,000,000 people? I do not want to be told that I don’t have the right to ask that question because I am not an lsraeli.

“If being a Jew means anything, it gives me a right to ask that question.

“I have already described what I, as an American, thought about the primary identity of my country, possessing capabilities to destroy 600,000,000 people. How would the Israeli military justify having the capabilities to kill 10-12,000,000, having bought it, trained for it, disciplined for it, prepared targets and so on. If the number is lower, let us hear it.

President John Kennedy arrives in Hyannis Port, Mass., puffing on a cigar May 11, 1963.
President John Kennedy arrives in Hyannis Port, Mass., puffing on a cigar May 11, 1963. Credit: AP Photo/Cecil Stoughton, National Archives, John F. Kennedy Library

“My question is, should not the lsraeli president, parliament, people, know the answer to that question and then discuss whether the machinery needs expanding, as it is in the process of doing? How many could have been killed in 1986 when Vanunu made his decision? Why has Dimona been at work for the last 10 years? The discussion could not get started without Vanunu or his photos, and we would not have been believed about the scale of the program without these documents.

“This discussion is long overdue in Israel. This conference can contribute. There is a chance for change.”

Ellsberg was too optimistic. More than 20 years have passed since that conference and the discussion has yet to take place here – certainly not publicly.