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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Pierre Messmer was the French Minister of Armies from 1960-1969, and Prime Minister from 1972-1974. Most of the interview is taken up with descriptions of the thinking of President De Gaulle toward NATO and nuclear weapons. His basic point is that De Gaulle opposed a NATO integrated military command and pressed for a French nuclear capability primarily because he believed in France’s need for independence. The French president did not think that the threat from the Soviet Union was significant at the time, Mr. Messmer argues, but because of his “tragic view of history” believed that the need would eventually arise for the country to develop all possible resources at its disposal. Mr. Messmer relates several instances of further disagreement with the United States, including France’s refusal to accept the offer of Polaris missiles in 1963. He identifies a number of mistaken U.S. conceptions about Europe and France, noting for example that Robert McNamara’s flexible response doctrine was inappropriate for Europe. Other governments accepted it, in his opinion, because they had no choice. He also touches on France’s sometimes difficult relations with Germany and Britain. After witnessing a nuclear test in the Sahara, De Gaulle, according to Mr. Messmer, called it “magnificent”; however, he contends that the president was referring to the implications of the test for France rather than the impressiveness of the device. The interview concludes with Mr. Messmer’s assertion that the attractiveness of nuclear weapons in the early days derived from both security concerns and national prestige.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Pierre Messmer, 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.”



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Soviet Union
Great Britain
United Nations
Strauss, Franz Josef, 1915-1988
Tactical nuclear weapons
Bowie, Robert R. (Robert Richardson), 1909-
Nuclear warfare
Mitterrand, Francois, 1916-1996
Ball, George
German rearmament
United Nations. Security Council
Multilateral force (Nuclear strategy)
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
United States
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Polaris (Missile)
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Churchill, Winston, 1874-1965
Nuclear weapons
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
Peace movements
United States. Atomic Energy Act of 1946
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
World War II
Norstad, Lauris, 1907-1988
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Messmer, Pierre, 1916-2007 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Pierre Messmer, 1986,” 05/11/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 8, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Pierre Messmer, 1986.” 05/11/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 8, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Pierre Messmer, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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