Great moments in nuclear war planning

Daniel Ellsberg is famous now as a strong whistleblower advocate who released the Pentagon Papers that showed that the publicly stated premises on which the US waged its invasion of Vietnam were based on lies. But before that, he was steeped in the Cold War military establishment as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation. In that role, he was asked to evaluate various proposals suggested by the military.

In a new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a War Planner, he reveals the extent to which the US military was willing to go in its war scenarios and some of them are truly crazy. Perhaps the craziest one was called Project Retro to securely attach to the Earth one thousand massive Atlas engines pointing in the direction opposite to the Earth’s rotation. Why?

The officer originating this proposal envisioned that if our Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars detected and reported on the huge viewing screens at NORAD a large flight of missile warheads coming across the North Pole from the Soviet Union – aimed at our missile fields in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Missouri – the array of Atlas engines would be fired, as near simultaneously as possible, to ostop the Earth’s rotation momentarily.

The Soviet missiles, on their inertial path, would thus bypass or overfly their intended targets. Our land-based retaliatory force would be saved, to carry out – presumably, when things had settled down and Earth was again spinning normally – a retaliatory attack against the cities and soft military targets (their missiles having already left their hardened silos) in the Soviet Union.

Ellsberg says that one did not need to be a rocket scientist (Ha! He actually used the word genius) to see that the idea was crazy. First of all, stopping, or just slowing the Earth’s rotation even slightly, would have catastrophic global effects far worse than would be suffered under any nuclear attack, such as earthquakes and tsunamis on an unimaginable scale. Secondly, on a purely practical level, one thousand Atlas engines going full blast would shift the Earth’s rotation by the width of just a few atoms.

Scott Manley goes into more detail on why Project Retro was so ridiculous.


  1. ridana says

    But…but God made the Sun and Moon stand still for like half a day (which actually means the Earth stopped rotating) and nothing bad happened (except to the Amorites). So it would be fine if we did it for just a few seconds, right? ::eyeroll::

  2. Curious Digressions says

    “Ok guys, what have you got? Remember, THERE ARE NO STUPID IDEAS!”

    “We can stop the rotation of the Earth with engines so that the missiles hit our country somewhere other than our missile fields.”

    “Right. There is one stupid idea. Next?”

  3. DonDueed says

    Somebody was reading Larry Niven stories. One of his ( I forget the title) portrays a group of survivors, having been stuck in hyperspace for a gazillion years, returning to an Earth that was a dead rock, tidally locked to the Sun. They used their ship’s engine (running for years) to spin the planet back up.

  4. kestrel says

    I would think this was utterly ridiculous and perhaps an Onion story, but we did have a program of people trying to stop the heart of goats and kill them by staring at them.

    Also, just take a look at who is in charge these days. I guess this is not as ridiculous as things can get.

  5. says

    Ellsberg’s credentials as a humanist hero are somewhat problematic, to me. He was part of the brains behind SIOP, which was one of the great moral crimes of the 20th century. Now that he is at the end of his life he is coming out about it, conveniently too late. Ellsberg and the RAND wizards of armageddon helped make the US arsenal dramatically more effective and more likely to use. They are traitors to humanity.

  6. says

    I wonder how hard it is to make a key blank? That is what milling machines are for, but I don’t have the machinist skills.

    Since the interior of locks are generally soft brass (to record scratch-marks from attempted lock pickings) a hardened damasteel key would tear them right up. Not that that’s not a feature…

  7. robert79 says

    “Secondly, on a purely practical level, one thousand Atlas engines going full blast would shift the Earth’s rotation by the width of just a few atoms.”

    I’m surprised the effect is that big. Wouldn’t the rocket be pushing against the atmosphere, which then pushes in the opposite direction against the Earth’s surface? It sounds as effective as trying to move a sailboat with no wind by blowing into the sail.

  8. Mano Singham says

    robert79 @#11,

    I had never heard of this book but you are right. The comments are a real hoot!

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 11 Robert79 & 12 Mano
    I had heard of the book but have never seen it. It seemed like a useful tool back in the Medieval times when I was an undergraduate.

    Try generating a set of a 100 random numbers if you need to have a random sampling pattern and you do not have a computer. The book seems similar to the tables of various standard distributions that one used to see in the back of statistics text books.

    Come to think of it, there were tables of square roots, too (try calculating the square root of 9,763 when all you have is a pencil and a pad of paper[1]). And there were log tables too, IIRC. There certainly were in earlier centuries.

    1. If you have ever calculated a square root of a number using Newton’s method you immediately see the value of the tables.

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