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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Sir Richard Powell was permanent secretary at the British Ministry of Defense from 1956 to 1959. In the interview he conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age: “The Education of Robert McNamara,” Powell recalls British officials’ shock that, although their scientists had originated work on the atom bomb, the McMahon Act of 1946 barred British access to U.S. nuclear information. He asserts that Britain’s own bomb project flowed easily from its self-image as a world power and from its fear that the United States might again become isolationist. Only after the 1948 Berlin blockade, Powell explains, did European defense become a more prominent national issue. Subsequently, Britain’s chiefs of staff produced a paper on global strategy, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) formed, and a protracted debate took place over the rearmament of Germany and whether a European mutual-defense community could be established under supernational command. As Powell recalls, relatively little concern was paid to the massive deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on German soil. Powell describes the background and contents of and the reaction to the landmark 1957 white paper “Defense: Outline of Future Policy,” which he helped write. The white paper represented a culmination of trends already prevalent in British defense policy. Not only did it place more emphasis on nuclear forces, but it also ended conscription, reduced conventional-force capability, and called for the reduction of many overseas garrisons. The former defense secretary also chronicles Britain’s efforts through the 1950s to restore its “special relationship” with the United States, which nearly collapsed after the 1956 Suez crisis. He discusses the high-level talks that helped repair that alliance and explains why nuclear cooperation reopened in 1958. Powell assesses the upsurge of protest that followed the detonation of Britain’s first hydrogen bomb and the country’s agreement to host U.S. Thor missiles at the end of the decade. Finally, Powell reflects on Britain’s independent deterrent and how it fits under the larger U.S. nuclear umbrella, and he shares his views regarding deterrence and morality.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Richard Powell, 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

Media Type


Sandys, Duncan, 1908-1987
International relations
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
Lodge, Henry Cabot, 1902-1985
German rearmament
Korean War, 1950-1953
Adenauer, Konrad, 1876-1967
Hydrogen bomb
Dulles, John Foster, 1888-1959
Tactical nuclear weapons
Deterrence (Strategy)
Fuchs, Klaus Emil Julius, 1911-1988
Nuclear arms control
Berlin (Germany) -- History -- Blockade, 1948-1949
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Attlee, C. R. (Clement Richard), 1883-1967
Strauss, Franz Josef, 1915-1988
United States
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Great Britain
Lloyd, Selwyn, 1904-1978
Churchill, Winston, 1874-1965
Nuclear weapons
Macmillan, Harold, 1894-1986
London, UK
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Powell, Richard 1909-2006 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Richard Powell, 1986,” 10/27/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 4, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Richard Powell, 1986.” 10/27/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 4, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Richard Powell, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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