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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Albert Wohlstetter, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Albert Wohlstetter was a prominent nuclear strategist starting in the 1950s. He was a long-time analyst with the RAND Corporation from 1951-1963. The interview begins with a description of strategists' worries about a nuclear Pearl Harbor in the early 1950s, and the specific concern that the Strategic Air Command could be taken by surprise. The challenge, in his view, was to be prepared to respond without committing to war. Avoiding responses to false alarms was another challenge. He says that U.S. strategists began to rethink force structures after it was discovered that American forces could plausibly be destroyed by a first strike, which meant it would have no deterrent effect. In his view, the changes the Kennedy administration made to develop hardened missiles and speed up response times were very positive. Among other measures to reconsider strategy was the Acheson Report, which posited building up Western capabilities to respond to conventional attacks by conventional means rather than solely with nuclear weapons. Up till then, he states, American bombers did not even carry conventional bomb racks because of the presumption of an escalation to nuclear conflict. Robert McNamara's 1962 Ann Arbor speech, in his opinion, was another constructive step for U.S. strategy. Dr. Wohlstetter discusses the concept of active defenses, which he promoted, then disagree with McNamara's notion of inevitable action-reaction. He also criticizes McNamara's inclination to measure U.S. military capabilities by the number of people expected to be killed. He further believes the former Secretary of Defense did not adequately consider what to do if deterrence failed. He catalogues his recommendations to the Gaither Committee and recounts SAC's and the Air Force's generally positive responses to his views on vulnerability. He closes with an extended discussion of Mutual Assured Destruction and related questions of deterrence.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Albert Wohlstetter, 1986

Series Description

The first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, changed the world forever. This series chronicles these changes and the history of a new era. It traces the development of nuclear weapons, the evolution of nuclear strategy, and the politics of a world with the power to destroy itself.

In thirteen one-hour programs that combine historic footage and recent interviews with key American, Soviet, and European participants, the nuclear age unfolds: the origin and evolution of nuclear weapons; the people of the past who have shaped the events of the present; the ideas and issues that political leaders, scientists, and the public at large must confront, and the prospects for the future. Nuclear Age highlights the profound changes in contemporary thinking imposed by the advent of nuclear weapons. Series release date: 1/1989

Program Description

In the 1960’s Secretary of Defense Robert Mcnamara confronts the possibility of nuclear war and changes his views on questions of strategy and survival.

McNamara was Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1968. By the 1960’s the Soviets’ increased nuclear capabilities raised disturbing questions. What would the United States do if attacked? American strategy had been “massive retaliation.” But, as McNamara explains, it became increasingly apparent to the Soviets that the US was unlikely to respond. If the United States did launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the remaining Soviet forces would destroy the US. McNamara’s Defense Department developed a new strategy. “Flexible response” was based on a “ladder of escalation” from conventional to nuclear options. But by 1967, McNamara, who tried to create rules for limited nuclear war, concluded, “The blunt fact is that neither... can attack the other without being destroyed in retaliation. And it is precisely this ... that provides us both with the strongest possible motives to avoid a nuclear war.”



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Raw video

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Gaither, H. Rowan (Horace Rowan), 1909-1961
Warfare, Conventional
Hoffman, Fred S., 1922-
Enthoven, Alain C., 1930-
Soviet Union
Polaris (Missile)
Nuclear warfare
Minuteman (Missile)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Deterrence (Strategy)
Warsaw Treaty Organization
United States. Air Force
Rowen, Henry S.
Antimissile missiles
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
United States
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Nuclear weapons
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Acheson, Dean, 1893-1971
Los Angeles, CA
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Wohlstetter, Albert J. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Albert Wohlstetter, 1986,” 02/26/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Albert Wohlstetter, 1986.” 02/26/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Albert Wohlstetter, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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