UCI Libraries - The Quest for Peace Interviews: Robert McNamara Interview Transcript
UCI Libraries: Quest for Peace


The Creation of a Framework for a More Enduring World Peace


Robert S. McNamara, 1985

Robert S. McNamara has been former President of the Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defense in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and for fourteen years, President of The World Bank. Among the many honors bestowed upon him are the Legion of Merit, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and The Albert Einstein Foundation Peace Prize. In this interview Mr. McNamara focuses on ways to reduce the risks of nuclear war.

Whiteley: Mr. McNamara, four decades into the nuclear age how secure are we?

McNamara: Not as secure as we think. What has four decades brought us? We moved from July 16th, which I think forty years ago saw the first nuclear explosion. We moved in four decades to 50,000 warheads, roughly 25,000 U.S. and 25,000 Soviet Union. And worse than that we moved to acceptance of a warfighting doctrine. Those 50,000 warheads aren’t just in storage. They’re associated with strategies and war plans which contemplate their use. It is a very, very dangerous situation, and one which I am unwilling to pass on to my children without endeavoring to change it.

Whiteley: What are the steps that should be taken to make the world safer?

McNamara: Well, the first and most important step above all else is to recognize that these warheads are not weapons. We wouldn’t have 50,000 if they weren’t thought of as weapons. There are plans to use them. NATO strategy is based on what’s known as early first-use of those weapons. NATO, it is thought, has a conventional capability, a non-nuclear capability, inadequate to resist a Soviet conventional force aggression, and it is believed, therefore, that NATO would be forced to respond to a Soviet conventional attack by utilizing nuclear weapons. General Rogers, the Supreme Allied Commander of all the NATO forces in Europe, has said that under current circumstances, he would be forced, in the face of a Soviet conventional attack, to ask for authority to utilize nuclear weapons either within a few hours, or a few days, of the start of such an attack. And yet I have said publicly, and my statement has never been refuted, there is not a single piece of paper in the world that states how one can initiate the use of nuclear weapons with benefit to one’s society. And the reason is that nobody knows how to limit a nuclear war once it starts, and an unlimited nuclear war will destroy our society. This is why President Reagan has repeated on numerous occasions in the last year or two, "Nuclear war cannot be won; it must never be fought." I agree with that 100%. But that’s not the way we’re going, that’s not why we have 50,000 weapons, that’s not the premise on which the strategy and the war plans of either side have been developed.

Whiteley: Let’s focus back on the early first-use doctrine. Is NATO vulnerable to a conventional attack?

McNamara: Well, I don’t believe it’s nearly as vulnerable as is commonly supposed. We shoot ourselves in the foot by exaggerating the strengths of the Soviets and underestimating the strength of NATO, and that is not something that began in this administration. That’s been going on for decades, and it’s understandable in one sense. We’re dealing with a relatively closed society. We have imperfect knowledge of Soviet forces, and therefore, given that imperfect knowledge we tend to look at the worse case and that’s understandable. But when it results in such gross mis-estimates as I think are represented today by our estimates of Soviet forces and of NATO forces, then I think it reacts to our disadvantage, and what it does is cause us to place much greater reliance on potential use of nuclear weapons than is justified.

We must, to get back to your point, if we are to deal with this terrible risk, 50,000 warheads, each one on average with a power roughly thirty times that of the Hiroshima bomb, therefore a total destructive power something on the order of a million and a half times that of the Hiroshima bomb, and with war plans that would initiate their use under certain circumstances, and with a clear recognition that once they’re used we cannot stop the nuclear war short of complete destruction of our societies. If we’re to change that situation, we must begin by recognizing these are not weapons. They cannot be used. They have no military utility whatsoever excepting only to deter the other sides from initiating their use. And if that’s the only purpose, we can get by with instead of the two sides having 50,000, Hans Bethe, the Nobel physicist, who as you know was one of the inventors of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos - Hans Bethe and I are publishing an article which states that we believe (and neither one of us I think is softheaded; neither one of us is a dove in the sense of wishing to engage in unilateral disarmament or believing that only one side need act to change this situation), Hans Bethe and I state that we believe, over a period of time (and it might take a decade or two), that we, the Soviets and U.S. combined, could reduce our present nuclear inventories by approximately 95%. We could go from a total of 50,000 warheads to 2,000.

Whiteley: Are we secure enough with 2,000?

McNamara: Yes, without any question. Now I would like to point out to you something that I think is not recognized, which is that President Reagan would, I think, agree with everything I’ve said so far. He has said, as I’ve suggested over and over again, nuclear wars cannot be won; they should not be fought. And he’s gone on to say, and this is an insane world with 50,000, it’s immoral. We must get ride of nuclear weapons. To do that he has suggested we should proceed with what’s known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, more popularly called Star Wars. And he put that concept forward in a famous speech March 23, 1983. I think he’s attacking the right problem, and he’s got a totally wrong answer.

Whiteley: First, what’s the right problem?

McNamara: The right problem is to stop thinking of these warheads as weapons, to eliminate any likelihood that they will be used militarily. One cannot eliminate from men’s minds the knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon, and therefore we in the West must always recognize the Soviets may have the potential - or may actually build a weapon, if we were to give up all of ours they might go ahead and build some, and that would be placing us in very serious jeopardy. And therefore, we must maintain enough weapons so if they were to build some we could deter them from ever using them.

Whiteley: How do you cope with the problem of proliferation, the fact that it’s a dangerous world out there, and there’s some world leaders who have spoken out on behalf of terrorism and act that way?

McNamara: Well, we should do much more - we and the Soviets together should do much more than we have to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. One thing we could do for example that would certainly assist in stopping proliferation is to agree on a comprehensive test ban. As you know, in 1963 the Kennedy Administration negotiated with the Soviets a limited test ban, and this was a major step forward. It was something the President and I and others were immensely proud of. We should have gone further then, and we certainly should go further today to negotiate with the Soviets a comprehensive test ban. It was not negotiated then because of a fear that we would not be able to verify violations by the Soviet Union. The means of verification, seismic technology, and other forms of independent verification have advanced considerably in the last twenty years, and I believe it would be very much in our interest to negotiate a comprehensive test ban with the Soviets. If we did, it would be more difficult for other powers to test and more difficult for them to develop independent nuclear capabilities.

Whiteley: In indicating that the President’s speech of March 1983 addressed the right issue, what is the wrong solution?

McNamara: Well, let me repeat what he said. What he said was that we must get rid of nuclear weapons. The way to do that is to develop a perfect defense, a leakproof defense, and he called upon (in his words), he called upon the scientists and engineers of the country to develop a defense such that it would "render impotent and obsolete" offensive nuclear weapons. That’s what has become known as Star Wars. He went on a little later and said, however, if we are unable to replace offensive weapons with a defensive system, and instead add the defensive system to the offensive system, the Soviets would consider that aggressive, and he said, "We don’t want that." That’s exactly what we’re doing. Let me start by differentiating what I call Star Wars I from Star Wars II. Star Wars I is a perfect defense; that’s what he was seeking. A perfect defense that, assuming both the Soviets and the U.S. had it would permit us to destroy all offensive weapons. That was his objective. I don’t know a scientist today who believes that that is possible anytime in the next several decades, say the next forty or fifty years. Today those who are supporting Star Wars are really working on what I call Star Wars II...

Whiteley: And what is that?

McNamara: ...which is an imperfect defense. It’s a less than perfect defense which might, for example, protect our missile sites, or protect command centers, or offer some partial protection to populations, but which would be added to the offense. Now President Reagan recognized, and said on March 23, 1983, that that combination of defense and offense the Soviets would consider aggressive...

Whiteley: Are they right?

McNamara: ...and that is exactly the direction we are moving in and that’s exactly the way the Soviets are considering it. I was with - in a meeting with a small group of Western and Soviet scientists, military leaders and political leaders over the weekend. I had a long conversation with Foreign Minister Gromyko on this subject two months ago, and they both made that exact point. Now why do they consider it aggressive? For this reason: In the first place they believe that the U.S. has nuclear superiority today. We say exactly the opposite. We say we’re inferior today; they have superiority. But they believe we have nuclear superiority today, that we would be able to target our weapons on their weapons and destroy their weapons. And they see the MX as giving us additional power to do that, and they see what is known as the D5 which is a new submarine-launched weapon that will come into our Trident submarines in another 3 or 4 years - very, very accurate - the first submarine-launched weapon with sufficient accuracy to destroy a protected missile launcher on land in the Soviet Union. And they look upon that as an intention on our part, under certain circumstances, to launch an attack on their missile force and destroy so much of it that what is left, when it passed through our defense, even though our defense was imperfect, would be inadequate to inflict unacceptable damage on us, and therefore, at that time, when we had these accurate missiles, and when we had this partial defense in place, they would be at our mercy. Now that’s the way they interpret what I call Star Wars II.

And I tell you we would interpret an action by them in exactly the same way. We did in June of 1967. Let me regress a moment to say the reason we have an ABM Treaty today is that we began in November 1966 to try to move the Soviets to negotiate an agreement not to proceed with ballistic missile defense because we feared that if we were to proceed, they and we together, to proceed with ballistic missile defense, it would stimulate an expansion of the offense, and what we wished to do was limit the offensive systems. And we said to the Soviets - Mr. Soviet - and I said this specifically to Prime Minister Kosygin in a meeting in Glasboro in June of 1967 when President Johnson had thrown up his hands in an inability to convince Kosygin that he should stop the then partial deployment by the Soviet Union with anti-ballistic missile defense. I said "Mr. Prime Minister, you don’t seem to understand that if you proceed with that defense our response, if we're rational, will not be to put in a defense. Our response will be to expand our offense because we must maintain a deterrent. We must maintain an ability to deter you, the Soviet Union, from launching your offensive weapons against us. The way we deter you from that is to confront you with the knowledge that if you launch those offensive weapons against us we will have a sufficient portion of our offensive force survive your attack, and survive with sufficient power to inflict unacceptable damage on you. That’s the deterrent. We must continue to have it. If you put in a defense, it simply means we must expand our offense to penetrate that defense."

Whiteley: Okay. Nearly two decades have passed. You’ve indicated that Star Wars I won’t work because, with the nuclear weapon and the level of offense we have, a leakproof defense won’t work. What’s wrong as you view Star Wars II is that it will simply lead to an expanded offensive by the Soviet Union.

McNamara: Just as their action in 1967 was leading us to consider an expansion of our offense. At the time I said this to Prime Minister Kosygin, he became livid, and he was expressing a deep emotional feeling. He pounded the table and he said, "Defense is moral; offense is immoral." And he didn’t, at that time, understand the action/reaction phenomenon. Today the Soviets are saying exactly the same thing to us, and they are absolutely right. If we proceed with Star Wars II they will proceed to expand their offense. They’ve said that; they are beginning the action. That is what they will do. That’s what we would do today if they were to proceed with defense. If they do proceed with defense today or tomorrow that’s what we will do.

Whiteley: What are the steps to a safer world given this analysis?

McNamara: We must both recognize that rightly or wrongly we fear the other. In speaking to Foreign Minister Gromyko in February I said Mr. Minister, "You have been Foreign Minister since 1957, three years before I was even Secretary. There is very little I can tell you about the United States. But I want to tell you one thing. The majority of experts in the U.S. fear that the Soviet massive land-based missile force has the power to destroy, or will shortly have the power when it’s achieved increased accuracy, to destroy our Minutemen force. And for some reason the majority of experts don’t put the weight I would on our submarine force and our bomber force and other forces we have, and they consider that that gives the Soviet a first-strike capability. I don’t agree with that, but that’s what the majority of experts believe." And I said to the Foreign Minister, "You must understand the perception that our leaders have of the Soviet Union. That is reality, whether you recognize it or not. And I said now don’t say a word - I know just what you’re going to say. You’re going to say you hold a mirror image of us. The average American can’t conceive of you, the Soviets, believing that we have either a first-strike capability, or if we had it that we would ever use it against the Soviet Union. But you’re going to tell me that that’s what you believe, and you’re going to tell me why you believe it. I’m prepared to accept that you believe it, but I ask that you accept that the majority of our experts believe the same thing of you. Now, can’t we start with the recognition that each of us fears the other’s strategic - I’m going to call it superiority - and can’t we agree therefore, that not only should we reduce the numbers of offensive weapons, but we should reduce them in ways that eliminate these fears that the other side will initiate a strike against us." And that can be done by the way.

Whiteley: Given that statement of the problem, the need to reduce the fear, the fear that each side has a capacity with a first-strike to destroy the other, and a willingness to do it, where do you begin...

McNamara: You begin at Geneva. You begin at Geneva. I am of the opinion that if we will satisfy the Soviet fear that we are moving ahead with the defensive system, Star Wars, in order to strengthen our first-strike capability, if we will satisfy that fear (and I will suggest in a moment how we might satisfy it) then I believe together at Geneva, we could agree on deep cuts, large cuts in our strategic offensive forces, let’s just say on the order of 25 to 50%. And even more importantly we could agree on shaping those cuts in a way that would reduce or eliminate each side’s fear that the other side has a first-strike capability. Now how does one do that? One reduces the ratio of their warheads to our vulnerable launchers, and the ratio or our warheads to their vulnerable launchers, so we increase each side’s belief in the invulnerability of its force, and that increases stability of deterrence. Now the way to address the Soviet fear of our defensive initiative, and their fear that we are going to develop that and deploy it in addition to our offensive system (in order to strengthen our first-strike capability), the way to address that fear is by stating and demonstrating that it is our intention to adhere strictly to the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and to eliminate certain ambiguities that exist with respect to that, and to add to the treaty (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) a treaty banning the testing of anti-satellite weapons.

Whiteley: What would you do with the nature of our strategic forces? Some critical decisions were made two decades ago to put on each intercontinental weapon ten warheads or twelve warheads.

McNamara: So-called multiple independent reentry vehicle (the MIRV).

Whiteley: Would you change the nature of that?

McNamara: Absolutely. We must move away from MIRVing because it is the MIRV which affects this ratio of one side's warheads to the other sides vulnerable launchers. Now how did we get the MIRV. That’s an interesting point in itself, if I may digress a moment to comment on that. At the time the Soviet Union in the mid-60s was moving to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system - and they did, we shouldn’t forget. They actually deployed the system around Moscow. Because we didn’t know what their intentions were we had to assume that they would deploy it across the rest of the Soviet Union. This is why we told Kosygin that if you continue in that direction we must expand our offensive force. It took us two years to persuade the Soviets to move to negotiation of what became the ABM Treaty and also SALT I which limited offensive forces. But during that intervening period, when we saw them moving toward deploying an anti-ballistic missile system, we had to take actions that would put us in a position to expand our offensive force. The most effective way of doing that was to increase the number of warheads per launcher, and that is what the MIRV is. It’s anywhere from three to ten warheads per launcher. We started the research on it at that time, but in the initial papers authorizing that research you will note that it says, "God forbid if we have to proceed with this because we probably won’t be alone. If we move in that direction the Soviets will move in that direction, and ultimately, while we might maintain a technological advantage for a short period of time, ultimately together, we will have vastly escalated the arms race and we will simply have moved to a higher level of weapons and a less stable relationship with a greater temptation for one side or the other to preempt at a time of tension to avoid what they consider to be an almost certain first-strike by the other side." That’s where we are today. We must move back, we must unwind that situation. Steps to do so could be taken at Geneva.

Whiteley: Let’s take some outcomes that in your view would lead to a safer world. The first would be to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on each side.

McNamara: Well, the first thing to do is to stabilize this defensive problem. We believe they’re moving ahead with research beyond what we have contemplated, or had contemplated until the last year or two. We believe that they have actually begun to put certain bits of hardware into place that are part of defensive systems. They believe that we have underway a massive program of deploying defense which will increase our first-strike capability. We must address those fears, and we can do within the context of the present Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, strengthening it where necessary. That’s the first step.

Whiteley: Okay. A second step to get to a level of 1,000 nuclear weapons on each side instead of 50,000.

McNamara: Well before we move from the 50,000 to 1,000 the most important thing we can do is to reshape our forces. Now it will be easier to reshape them while we’re reducing them, but reducing the forces while leaving them in the form that conveys the fear to the other side of a first-strike capability would not achieve the objective I had in mind. It would not increase the stability of the deterrent relationship. So as important as a reduction in the number of forces is a change in the structure, a change in what I call the shape of the forces, and that’s where it’s so important that we reduce the number of warheads. We unwind the MIRV decision, if you want to call it that. We reduce the number of our warheads that threaten their vulnerable launchers, and they reduce the number of their warheads that threaten our vulnerable launchers. And all of this can be worked out at Geneva. It’s going to be very, very difficult but it can be done. It’ll be difficult because we start with asymmetrical forces. They have a much higher percentage of their strategic force land-based; we have a higher percentage seabased and air-based.

Whiteley: You have a real belief that arms control is central to the national security of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

McNamara: I do. It’s a plus sum game. This is the important thing. From these arms control agreements there need emerge no loser. We both can be winners.

Whiteley: We’ve negotiated three treaties with the Soviet Union in the last 20 years under three different presidents that haven’t been ratified by the Senate. What needs to happen differently within our democracy if arms control is in our national interest?

McNamara: We need much more discussion of the pros and cons of these treaties. I read just yesterday that the SALT treaties have not led to a restriction on expansion of arms. They’ve permitted the Soviets to gain superiority. I don’t believe that. I don’t want to say that because I don’t believe it it’s not true, but I do suggest that I think there needs to be much more public debate on this issue. I strongly believe that the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and SALT I and SALT II have dampened the arms race, dampened down the arms race. We would be much worse off today had there not been those treaties. Now they haven’t dampened it down enough, or we have a long way to go, but we’re far better off with the treaties than without the treaties.

Whiteley: Mr. McNamara, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.