Russell E. Hershey,
INT: ... In comes McNamara and says, "Forget everything you've learnt up to now. ... We're going to bring in flexible response and then assured destruction." How did they react to that?
HB: Well, the military response to these changes of strategy and of policy, I think was mixed. Certainly, the piece of it that involved adding conventional military capability, on the basis that the strategic forces were stand-off - they helped to deter conventional war but they didn't prevent it, and therefore the disparity of conventional forces on the two sides needed to be redressed - that appealed to the US military leadership, because it implied an intention to build up the conventional forces, which happened, which did happen. And indeed, he - and right through the 1970s, when I was Secretary of Defense, I - pushed our NATO allies to build up their conventional capabilities so that there could be less reliance on the strategic forces. That was applauded. The thought that, no matter what you did to build up your military forces - conventional or strategic - your population, your nation was at risk of destruction anyway, because if the Soviets were crazy enough to launch a nuclear attack or to launch a conventional attack that escalated to a nuclear attack, it would end up in mutual destruction through strategic thermonuclear war - that was disconcerting to the US military leadership, as it was also to the Soviet military leadership. After all, the first function, primary function, of a military force and a military leadership is to preserve the physical nature of their country; and in a thermonuclear world they cannot give that assurance, no matter what they do. That was hard for them to accept, and it caused at least some of them to say, "We have to damage-limit successfully." Now, the position of McNamara and of the rest of the civilian leadership, of which I was a part, was: yes, you take out some insurance to try to limit damage, but you have to recognize that it's a diminishing-return investment, and that if you really try to do it so that there aren't 10 or 15 million casualties but only one million - which of course is also an unparalleled disaster - the other side can offset that by spending much less than you have to spend. That was the civilian leadership position, and I think many military people came to understand that and to accept it, although not to like it. Some did not want to accept it, and urged continuing investment in strategic offensive forces to be able to knock out the strategic offensive forces of the other side, either in a pre-emptive strike, or, if you were sure war was coming, you want to strike the first blow, was the thought; or, in the middle of a strategic war that might involve strikes back and forth on both sides, maybe first at military targets and then at civilian...
HB: Some military people and some civilian analysts also, therefore, suggested increased expenditures on strategic offensive forces to destroy the other side's strategic forces. Others pushed hard for ballistic missile defense and air defense, both of which also were relatively cost-ineffective compared to what the other side could do to penetrate them for the same money. And civilian authorities, including President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, became very interested in civilian defense, which was indeed the most cost-effective in protecting lives, but would not have done very much to protect productive capacity. And there was, for a period of a couple of years - at least a year - a strong effort to persuade the Amerpublic that it was worth investing in and practicing civil defense. That campaign fell flat; the public wasn't very interested, and so that was abandoned as well, along with attempts to deploy ballistic missile defense, although research and development on ballistic missile defense did go forward.
INT: Why do you think the general public refused to accept civilian defense?
HB: Partly, I think, a disinclination to want to behave as if thermonuclear war was a real likelihood; and partly common sense: I think they understood that it really wouldn't work.
INT: Can I just ask you... that's such an interesting answer... can I just ask you to rephrase that for me in the form of a more complete...
INT: Yeah, the general public...
HB: I think the public concluded that if a thermonuclear war were to take place, civil defense, although it might preserve some lives, would not preserve most lives, and what came afterwards would have made life not worth living. There was a real concern, which continued right through the Sixties and after, that the Soviets had a massive and somehow very effective civil defense program. Well, they paid quite a lot more attention to it, but their public didn't believe in it either, and I think it never really amounted to very much either, for similar reasons.
INT: Excellent answer. Can I ask you a few specifics of that period now? In October 1961, the Soviets dropped the largest bomb ever to have gone off on the face of the planet. What was both your personal reaction and the government's reaction to that?
HB: There was a moratorium on nuclear weapons tests that President Eisenhower had set into effect toward the end of his term. The Kennedy Administration continued that moratorium, and the Soviets were not testing either. They had wanted a relatively unverifiable nuclear test ban. In August of 1961, much to the surprise of the Kennedy Administration, and using continuation of French nuclear tests as an excuse, the Soviets began a substantial nuclear test program, culminating in the explosion of a 60-megaton weapon. As I say, this surprised the Kennedy Administration and angered the President personally. I remember how angry he was about it. We had, in the United States, plans for resuming testing, but they weren't very far forward, they'd not been kept up to speed. And it turned out that the most that we could do on short notice was a relatively small underground test, and even that was going to take several months. And I remember the President was quite annoyed at that. So that was a shock. Looking back, I find it still a little bit hard to understand why the Soviets did what they did. It certainly soured the atmosphere. I suppose there were internal arguments in the Kremlin, with Khrushchev having to show his hard-liners that he meant business. And of course it was about that time that the Berlin crisis, one of many Berlin crises, took place. That, however did not change any of the strategies that we were working on. It was seen, as I recall, principally as evidence that it would be hard to predict what the Soviets would do, and that they weren't nice people.
INT: Would it be possible to have any idea of what a weapon of that size would have done to a city?
HB: Well, it would have wiped out a city, and a 60-megaton weapon would probably have knocked down all the buildings out to a radius... well, five miles anyway - it depends of course on whether you're talking about reinforced concrete structures or something else. But 60 megatons on a big city, would probably kill a million people. In fact, of course, 60 megatons didn't have all that much bigger effect than 20 megatons, which had been exploded by both sides, and therefore, the fact that they were exploding a 60-megaton bomb was seen primarily as a threat essentially, to show that they had enormous capabilities and could intimidate the world with them. I don't think it had that effect, but I think it made people more angry than frightened.
INT: What were the key nuclear technologies of the Sixties period? I'm thinking particularly in terms of ABMs and MIRV.
HB: Ah, well, yes, the key technologies in the Sixties were no longer those dealing with nuclear weapons themselves. The nuclear weapons had by then evolved fairly far along, and further improvements or increases in yield or yield to weight, however important they may have seemed to the people who were designing them - of which I was no longer one; I had been earlier - were not the key to military balance. The key were the missiles themselves, aircraft and air defenses, and ballistic missile defense. Now ballistic missile defense in the US had started to be worked on very seriously in the mid-Fifties, almost immediately after the existence of a successful Soviet ballistic missile program was imagined, and before the Soviet space flights showed that they had the capability to have a substantial ballistic missile force. And they proceeded... those ballistic missile defense research and development activities persisted through the Fifties, Sixties and right to the present day, in various forms. There were a whole series of them: there was the Nike Zeus program, there was the Nike X program, and so forth. In principle, all those programs indicated that you could, with sufficient effort, intercept one incoming re-entry vehicle with an interceptor. What they were never able to demonstrate is that for a cost comparable to the cost of the attacking force, that you could defend enough cities against a large number of re-entry vehicles, accompanied by all sorts of what are called decoys, electronic countermeasures and so forth. The offence, by being able to pick its targets at the last minute, could saturate the defenses and confuse the defenses and overwhelm the defenses. That continued to be the conclusion that we in the Defense Department, at least at the senior civilian levels, reached all through the 1960s, in terms of trying to defend against a sophisticated, advanced military capability such as that which the Soviet Union could launch. One has to caution against using that same conclusion with respect to now, to rogue states which may not be able to have anything like the offensive capability. But at that time, against the Soviet Union, it seemed clear to me and to those others who were making the decisions that it was not a successful... you cannot mount a defense successful in those terms. At the same time, the Soviets, who had in the 1950s, though no longer in the 1960s, been ahead of us in terms of ballistic missiles, also had a massive ballistic missile defense program, and it was very important to us to be able to be sure that would penetrate the Soviet anti-ballistic missile system. Now the intelligence estimates, I think, in the 1960s consistently overestimated the Soviet anti-ballistic missile capability. They tended to ascribe substantial ballistic missile defense capability to air defenses that the Soviets had, which, looking back on it, clearly didn't have much in the way of ballistic missile defense capability. But they also had a very real ballistic missile defense capability: they did all kinds of tests against their own intermediate-range ballistic missiles and their own intercontinental ballistic missiles. The MIRV program, the Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicle program, which consisted of putting several re-entry vehicles on a given US ballistic missile, so that it could hit several different targets accurately, was motivated by two things. First, to be sure that our ballistic missiles, our re-entry vehicles, could penetrate the Soviet anti-ballistic missile system. And to do that, we wanted to have more re-entry vehicles so that they would have more target stuff to shoot at, and we wanted to be able to target them precisely, so that we could separate them by the right amount and assure that the Soviets would have a tougherinterception problem. Second, by putting several re-entry vehicles on a single ballistic missile, and aiming those separate re-entry vehicles at differ