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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with Robert Bowie, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Robert Bowie was the Chairman of the Policy Planning Staff, U.S. State Department, from 1953-1957. In the interview he describes the evolution of NATO and U.S. defense strategy in the 1950s and early 1960s. His discussion of U.S. policy focuses in part on what came to be known as the “New Look,” introduced in 1953. He also discusses the consideration to use nuclear weapons to defend a Europe that the Europeans couldn’t and the Americans wouldn’t defend with conventional forces. He describes Secretary of State Dulles’ speech on massive retaliation policy in January 1954. That policy, he says, was never intended for local wars, like Korea or Vietnam, nor was it as simple as most people think now, incorporating both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons to provide mobility and flexibility in devising responses to Soviet aggression. He offers background to Eisenhower’s thinking on strategy, including his determination not to involve American troops in another land war in Asia. On a related point, he expresses doubt that Dulles ever offered to the French to use nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu. His discussion of NATO policy starts in 1950, when European NATO members insisted on having American troops deployed in Europe to serve as a stronger deterrent than just the promise of troops should Europe need them. The credibility of the American deterrent is another topic Mr. Bowie deals with in the interview, including the Norstad proposal for a NATO nuclear force. In addition, he comments on the subject of deploying tactical nuclear weapons for defense of the continent. He also discusses at length the Multilateral Force (MLF) plan, which was formulated in 1960, in an attempt to solve the problem of Europe’s dependence on and lack of control over U.S. military strength. This approach helped to mitigate the German sense of being treated as second-class in comparison to the British and French, who were developing their own national nuclear forces. The MLF did have the drawback of requiring the absolute consensus of all NATO nations for any retaliatory action. Mr. Bowie adds that the plan was essentially derailed when Secretary of Defense McNamara canceled the Skybolt missile program between the U.S. and British, which led to President Kennedy’s offer of Polaris missiles as a replacement, ultimately giving the British a stronger national capability but also undermining the MLF concept.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Bigger Bang for the Buck, A
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Interview with Robert Bowie, 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

For the destructive power they deliver, nuclear weapons are cheap and efficient. In the 1950’s the United States begins to rely on nuclear, rather than conventional, weapons for its defense.

As nuclear policy evolved during the Eisenhower Administration, three factors combined to produce a new American reliance on nuclear weapons: pressure to control the federal budget (the “bigger bang” argument); competition as each branch of the American military adapted nuclear weapons to its mission; and Soviet bluffs that fueled American fears about a “bomber gap” and later a “missile gap.” On October 4, 1957, Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that was the first to orbit Earth, shocked Americans and delighted the Soviets. A month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with a dog on board. Both the Soviets and the Americans knew that a booster capable of carrying a dog into space could also deliver a nuclear warhead across a continent in 30 minutes.



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Raw video

Media Type


Dulles, John Foster, 1888-1959
Herter, Christian Archibald, 1895-1966
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
Great Britain
Polaris (Missile)
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
United States
Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Norstad, Lauris, 1907-1988
Nuclear weapons
Massive retaliation (Nuclear strategy)
Multilateral force (Nuclear strategy)
Macmillan, Harold, 1894-1986
Acheson, Dean, 1893-1971
Geneva Conference (1954)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Radford, Arthur William
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
German rearmament
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Thorneycroft, Peter
International relations
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Dien Bien Phu, Battle of, Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, 1954
Korean War, 1950-1953
Soviet Union
Washington, DC
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Bowie, Robert R. (Robert Richardson), 1909- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with Robert Bowie, 1986,” 12/12/1986, GBH Archives, accessed July 15, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with Robert Bowie, 1986.” 12/12/1986. GBH Archives. Web. July 15, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with Robert Bowie, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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