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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Harold Brown was Director of Defense Research and Engineering from 1961-1965 and the Secretary of Defense from 1977-1981. In the interview he first discusses early reactions within the Air Force, and particularly by Gen. LeMay, to the notion of phasing out bombers and bringing in missiles. He also provides recollections of briefing President Kennedy on the Nike anti-aircraft system. Most of the interview focuses on nuclear strategy. He describes Robert McNamara’s effort to change US strategy to one that targeted military facilities exclusively. He then discusses the issue that arose subsequently of how to limit damage in the event deterrence fails and nuclear war ensues. He goes into detail about the thinking behind damage limitation studies in the early 1960s, which postulated reducing casualties from 80-100 million to 60 million. McNamara, he recalls, concluded it would be better to focus on decreasing the likelihood of war than on attempting to effect casualty reductions that were essentially meaningless. Dr. Brown then delves into the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction and the thinking behind McNamara’s Ann Arbor speech in 1962 on “city avoidance” policy. Other topics include the SIOP and the difficulties of making changes to it, or creating options as McNamara wanted; the notion that the US moves too slowly with changes to its strategic system; the rationale behind MIRVs; and some of the myths of MAD.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with Harold Brown, 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


Antimissile missiles
Deterrence (Strategy)
Nuclear warfare
Mutual assured destruction
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Nuclear weapons
Kent, Glenn A., 1915-
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy, 1929-1994
Wiesner, Jerome B. (Jerome Bert), 1915-1994
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
LeMay, Curtis E.
United States. Dept. of Defense
United States. Air Force
Taylor, Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport), 1901-1987
Civil defense
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Brown, Harold, 1927- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Harold Brown, 1986,” 03/13/1986, GBH Archives, accessed July 13, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Harold Brown, 1986.” 03/13/1986. GBH Archives. Web. July 13, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with Harold Brown, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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