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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Denis Healey was the British secretary of state for defense from 1964 to 1970 and chancellor of the exchequer from 1974 to 1979. In his interview conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age: “The Education of Robert McNamara,” Healey begins with a comparison between Soviet and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conventional military strength. He reflects on the period in which he was defense secretary under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He recalls the opposing interests of Germany and the United States with regard to nuclear strategy, explains his “Healey theorem” of deterrence, and clarifies France’s position that alliances can’t coexist with nuclear weapons. Healey also assesses U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara’s quest for tidy solutions to “insoluble” nuclear problems. Healey elaborates on France’s opposition to the notion of “extended deterrence” and on his own role in persuading NATO to adopt “flexible response” strategy. He traces the evolution of his military analysis of massive retaliation, describes his collaboration with McNamara in developing flexible-response doctrine, reiterates the expectation that SALT III would follow shortly after a ratified SALT II Treaty, and shares how he ultimately lost faith in flexible response. He also discusses the extraordinary growth of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, Britain’s response to the proposal for a Multilateral Force in the early 1960s, German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s distrust of U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and his own opposition to U.S. Euro-strategic missiles. As a fellow defense intellectual, Healey was encouraged by national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s appointment: he was sure that détente could move forward. He admired Kissinger’s boldness in dodging “all official channels … which he doesn’t like anybody else doing,” but he was disappointed by Kissinger’s failure to consult with allies. For the future, Healey believes that there should be fifty-percent reductions in strategic and conventional weapons, particularly when “one side or the other has superiority.” He also advocates a “nuclear-free corridor” to avoid accidental war.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Denis Healey, 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


Taylor, Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport), 1901-1987
Wilson, Harold, 1916-1995
Deterrence (Strategy)
Richardson, Elliot L., 1920-1999
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II
Massive retaliation (Nuclear strategy)
Kissinger, Henry, 1923-
Nuclear weapons
Soviet Union
Tactical nuclear weapons
Wilson, Harold, 1916-1995
Great Britain
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Warfare, Conventional
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Soviet Union. Treaties, etc. United States, 1972 May 26 (ABM)
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
Nuclear arms control
Nuclear warfare
Schmidt, Helmut, 1918 Dec. 23-
Multilateral force (Nuclear strategy)
Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Sandys, Duncan, 1908-1987
United States
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
London, United Kingdom
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Healey, Denis (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Denis Healey, 1986,” 10/27/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Denis Healey, 1986.” 10/27/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Denis Healey, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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