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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


William Kaufmann was a longtime RAND defense analyst who originated the counterforce-no cities doctrine and served as an advisor to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He describes the U.S. policy for defending Europe, known as massive retaliation, at the start of the Kennedy administration, then defines several of the problems inherent in that strategy, and details his role in moving away from it. He acknowledges that at first he had little faith that Western conventional forces could handle the task alone, and that there was a basic lack of intelligence about the capabilities of both sides, at least in the early 1960s. He describes contingencies for dealing with the Berlin crisis of 1961, viewing it as potentially a more dangerous confrontation than the Cuban Missile Crisis. He recounts some of the nuclear options that were under consideration at the time. The European allies accepted the conventional options but refused to sign any agreement on the nuclear ones in advance, a fact Mr. Kaufmann finds ironic given the allegations of American unreliability as a contributor to European defense. He recalls a reassuring war game after the fact at Camp David involving allied participation in which no scenario led to the introduction of nuclear weapons. His lesson from the crisis was that there is a need to maintain adequate conventional strength. He then describes his initial meeting with Robert McNamara in February 1961, where he discussed the concept of counterforce targeting, and goes into considerable detail about its underlying principles and rationales. He discusses the Ann Arbor speech, which Mr. Kaufmann says raised problems with the allies, and he describes some of the discussions that were held with them on the subject. In addition, he describes the Air Force’s response, which was to demand more weapons in order to fulfill the new targeting requirements. He notes that attacking cities has remained an option for the president but the option not to do so was what was put into effect in 1962. He then goes into McNamara’s evolution in thinking about defense and deterrence over the rest of his tenure at the Pentagon. This is followed by a lengthy discussion of Mutual Assured Destruction.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Education of Robert McNamara, The
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Interview with William Kaufmann, 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


Great Britain
Antimissile missiles
Nuclear arms control
Warsaw Treaty Organization
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
United States. Dept. of Defense
Berlin (Germany)
Soviet Union
United States
Civil defense
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Wohlstetter, Albert J.
Rowen, Henry S.
Deterrence (Strategy)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Rand Corporation
United States. Air Force
Nuclear warfare
Norstad, Lauris, 1907-1988
Acheson, Dean, 1893-1971
Warfare, Conventional
Hilsman, Roger
Kaysen, Carl
Nuclear weapons
Adenauer, Konrad, 1876-1967
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Kaufmann, William W. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with William Kaufmann, 1986,” 03/05/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 10, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with William Kaufmann, 1986.” 03/05/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 10, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Education of Robert McNamara, The; Interview with William Kaufmann, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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