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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Solly Zuckerman, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Lord Solly Zuckerman served as Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Ministry of Defence from 1960-1966 and as Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government from 1964-1971. In the interview he discusses the developing British nuclear program and strategy. He describes the beginnings of that program during and just after World War II, specifically the political players in charge of deciding how to proceed. The program was so secret that even Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee did not learn about it until the Potsdam Conference. He describes the McMahon Act and it's effect on British-American collaboration. He also discusses the war games he undertook to conceptualize the consequences of tactical nuclear battles in Europe, which would have led to "chaos of a fantastic kind" and rampant escalation. He argues that it is the scientists behind the weapons technology who drive the arms race, because without their work the military and political leaders would have no basis to move forward. One example of this phenomenon offered is the work at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories on nuclear-powered lasers, which he understands is what prompted Edward Teller to approach President Reagan, which in turn led to the idea of SDI. He also describes Harold MacMillan's support of a comprehensive test ban treaty, and his disappointment in the American system, powered substantially by military and related scientific circles, each with their own powerful constituencies in Congress, that would only allow a limited test ban.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Solly Zuckerman, 1987

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


Nagasaki-shi (Japan) – History -- Bombardment, 1945
Hiroshima-shi (Japan) -- History -- Bombardment, 1945
Groves, Leslie Richard
Harriman, W. Averell (William Averell), 1891-1986
Intermediate-range ballistic missiles
Great Britain
World War II
McMahon, Brien, 1903-1952
Churchill, Winston, 1874-1965
Bevin, Ernest, 1881-1951
Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972
Tizard, Henry Thomas, 1885-1959
Nuclear arms control
Reagan, Ronald
Nuclear energy
Nuclear nonproliferation
Teller, Edward, 1908-2003
Macmillan, Harold, 1894-1986
Perrin, Michael, 1905-1988
Acheson, Dean, 1893-1971
United States. Congress
Waverley, John Anderson, Viscount Westdean, 1883?-1958
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Nuclear weapons -- Testing
Strategic Defense Initiative
United States. Atomic Energy Act of 1946
Gromyko, Andrei Andreevich, 1909-1989
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Soviet Union
United Nations
Polaris (Missile)
United States
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963)
Nuclear weapons
Land, Edwin Herbert, 1909-1991
Edicia Sputnik
Attlee, C. R. (Clement Richard), 1883-1967
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945
United Kingdom
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Zuckerman, Solly Zuckerman, Baron, 1904-1993 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Solly Zuckerman, 1987,” 02/11/1987, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Solly Zuckerman, 1987.” 02/11/1987. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Solly Zuckerman, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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