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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Europe Goes Nuclear; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [1]

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


When Robert McNamara moved from president of Ford Motor Company to secretary of defense in 1961, he brought his very active management control and systems-planning philosophy to the Kennedy administration. Reports from mid October 1962 confirmed that the Soviet Union was installing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, ninety miles off the shore of Florida. McNamara recalls this pivotal moment in the Cuban missile crisis and reads from the first of two letters that Soviet general secretary Nikita Khrushchev sent President John F. Kennedy. After careful deliberation, the president and his advisers crafted a reply that became the turning point in the crisis: it triggered Khrushchev's decision to remove missiles from Cuba. The period from November 1962 to the end of the Cuban missile crisis is generally seen as the most dangerous period of the entire Cold War. In his interview conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age: "At the Brink," McNamara traces the thirteen-day crisis that closed this chapter: the secret, high-level debates within the Executive Committee; his firm oversight of the quarantine of Soviet ships heading to Cuba; the U-2 reconnaissance plane lost over Siberia; and the pressures for prompt military action that mounted daily. McNamara concludes with lessons he learned from the crisis, which he regards as the "watershed that divides the pre-nuclear and the nuclear age."

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Europe Goes Nuclear
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Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [1]

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

France and England rush to acquire their own nuclear weapons, NATO worries about the threat from the East, and Europe becomes the most nuclear-saturated place on Earth.

British and American scientists worked side by side to build the first nuclear bombs. “There was a strong desire on the British side for that collaboration to continue into peacetime. There was no such desire on the part of the United States,” recalls British diplomat Roger Makins, Lord Sherfield. Britain decided to proceed on its own and in 1952 joined the US and the Soviets in what pundits would call “the nuclear club.” General Charles De Gaulle, president of France, wanted to join the club, too, and not rely on the US for nuclear protection. Prestige was also an issue. In 1960, France exploded its first atomic weapon. Since World War II the Soviet Union had had a superiority in conventional forces in Europe. NATO countered by deploying thousands of nuclear weapons. “They were accepted as being perfectly reasonable weapons to use in a tactical battle in continental Europe,” said Sir Richard Powell of the British Defense Ministry.



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Middle East
Massive retaliation (Nuclear strategy)
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Nuclear weapons
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
Soviet Union
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
LeMay, Curtis E.
Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
United States
Photographic reconnaissance systems
Bundy, McGeorge
Mutual assured destruction
Nuclear arms control
Castro, Fidel, 1926-
United States. Navy
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Intermediate-range ballistic missiles
Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
U-2 (Reconnaissance aircraft)
McNaughton, John T. (John Theodore), 1921-
Washington, DC
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Europe Goes Nuclear; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [1],” 02/20/1986, GBH Archives, accessed April 13, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Europe Goes Nuclear; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [1].” 02/20/1986. GBH Archives. Web. April 13, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Europe Goes Nuclear; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 [1]. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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