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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Alain Enthoven, an MIT-trained economist, was the country’s first assistant secretary of defense for systems analysis from 1965 to 1969. In his interview conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, Enthoven sets the stage for the missile age. He discusses how the arrival of nuclear weapons that could reach the United States made it necessary to rethink military strategy and the nation’s overall defense posture. What was new, he points out, was the establishment of systems analysis for making key decisions on force requirements, weapon systems, targeting theory, and other military matters. Enthoven recounts how public interpretation of “flexible response” strategy ran counter to both the administration’s overriding goal—to prevent nuclear war—and its bottom line: that nuclear war is unwinnable. He recalls that dismissing “massive retaliation” and the untenable consequences it posed, canceling an array of bomber and ballistic programs, and focusing on a conventional military buildup and a survivable retaliatory force generated immense controversy among U.S. military circles and European partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Alain Enthoven, 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


Massive retaliation (Nuclear strategy)
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Bundy, McGeorge
Rand Corporation
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Warfare, Conventional
Healey, Denis
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Mutual assured destruction
United States. Dept. of Defense
Kaysen, Carl
Single Integrated Operational Plan
Nuclear weapons
Nuclear warfare
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
First strike (Nuclear strategy)
United States
Polaris (Missile)
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Taylor, Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport), 1901-1987
Nuclear arms control
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Soviet Union
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Enthoven, Alain C., 1930- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Alain Enthoven, 1986,” 02/22/1986, GBH Archives, accessed June 22, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Alain Enthoven, 1986.” 02/22/1986. GBH Archives. Web. June 22, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Alain Enthoven, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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