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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [3]

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Robert McNamara was the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961-1968. He opens the interview with an explanation of why there are 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, saying that it was reduced from 15,000. In the course of discussing a number of significant theoretical questions of deterrence and nuclear and conventional deployment policies, Mr. McNamara makes the assertion that deterrence has been achieved through a basic conventional balance, and that it is a misperception that only the nuclear threat restrains the Soviets from a conventional attack. He calls the idea, favored by some in Europe, of persuading the Soviets that they are facing "madmen" in the West extremely dangerous. He criticizes the Skybolt program as a "pile of junk," nevertheless he notes that the Kennedy administration was reluctant to provide the British with Polaris missiles because of the problems it would cause with the French. The Kennedy administration, he insists, did not seek a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but wanted allied participation in the development of plans and strategies. He dismisses the MLF idea as "a hardware solution to a political problem." Drawing lessons from the Cuban missile crisis he points to the grave danger of the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, and further concludes that such weapons have very little military utility. Vietnam, he says, had little impact on U.S. strategic nuclear thinking. He provides a succinct explanation of the concept of crisis instability. He then discusses at length his disagreement with the perceived need for more and more accurate missiles. Responding to the question of what is wrong with having a first-strike capability, he claims that the level of damage to the U.S. from launching a first strike and from retaliating with a second strike would be essentially the same. The point, he argues, is to avoid a first strike by either side.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
Program Number



Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [3]

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.”



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Nuclear warfare
Deterrence (Strategy)
United States
Tactical nuclear weapons
MX (Weapons system)
Healey, Denis
Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
Military weapons
Warfare, Conventional
Dulles, John Foster, 1888-1959
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Great Britain
Power, Thomas S. (Thomas Sarsfield), 1905-1970
Nuclear weapons
Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Soviet Union
Trident (Weapons systems)
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [3],” 10/31/1986, GBH Archives, accessed April 21, 2021,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [3].” 10/31/1986. GBH Archives. Web. April 21, 2021. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [3]. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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