Russell E. Hershey,
INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT McNamara
INTERVIEWER: Mr. McNamara, can you tell me the nature of the security position, the neutral position was when you took office?
ROBERT McNamara: Well, the first point I wanna make is that I came from Ford Motor Company. I had been President of Ford but I hardly knew the difference between a nuclear weapon and a conventional weapon. But my introduction and indoctrination was swift because a major element of the election campaign that President Kennedy had just won was the charge by the Democrats, including President Kennedy, that , Eisenhower had left a missile gap, that the Soviets had been permitted by inaction on the part of the U.S. to build up a superior nuclear missile force. So, clearly, my first responsibility as Secretary of Defense was to determine the degree of the gap and initiate action to close it. So my deputy Ros Gilpatric and I immediately began to work on that on January 21st, 1961 and it took us about 3 weeks to determine yes, there was a gap. But the gap was in our favor. It was a totally erroneous charge that Eisenhower had allowed the Soviets to develop a superior missile force, superior to the U.S. Now how did it come about? Was President Kennedy lying? No. The problem was that, at that time, there was no unity in our intelligence service. The CIA presented one report of Soviet versus U.S. forces, the Air Force presented another. And the Air Force report -- and it was not deliberate lying on their part, don't misunderstand me -- the Air Force report stated that the Soviet force was superior. That report was leaked to a former Secretary of the Air Force, Senator Symington, who leaked it to President Kennedy. Kennedy, believing he was speaking the truth, put that forward as a campaign charge against Eisen.. it was totally erroneous and took me about 3 weeks to learn that and then to my great embarrassment then and today I presented this to the press at the request of my Press.. Secretary in a way that I thought would simply inform our public of the truth. Instead, it led -- you won't believe this -- it led, the next day, to Senator Dirksen, the Republican minority leader of the Senate, charging the election had been a fraud and asking it be ray-run!! (sic) (laugh) It was a terrible situation! (laugh) But it all came about because of the fear for us, to organize our intelligence service and we promptly moved on that a few weeks later.
INT: Excellent answer. Could you tell me then what your response was?
RM: Well, the first response was that.. and we stated over a period of time -- rather cautiously -- but we stated publicly that we did not have a missile gap and we did have an adequate force to assure to a second-strike capability which was the foundation of our nuclear deterrent. But what it really led me to do was to immerse myself in the foundation of our nuclear policy or the foundation of NATO's nuclear policy and to draw conclusions that have influenced me over the past 35 years and which I am still working with. Conclusions regarding the role of nuclear weapons in this world. And the NATO policy, I believe, has been founded on false premises for 35 years. And it's just becoming apparent. There was a report published here in Washington about 6 or 8 weeks ago issued by the Stimpson Center, signed by four retired four-star officers including a former SACEUR, General Goodpaster, along with Paul Nitze and myself and some others which recommends - over a period of time, through forth (sic) steps - elimination of nuclear weapons. And we recommend that because we believe it's contrary to the interests of the world to continue to have these weapons used and incorporated in strategic planning the way NATO has planned to use them for the 35 years I've been familiar with it.
INT: So would you say that the concept of limited nuclear weapon is an oxymoron?
RM: It is an oxymoron, you're absolutely correct. I know of no one that has put down on paper a scenario for the use of nuclear weapons that ensures it will be a limited nuclear war. I know of no way to accomplish that.
INT: So going back to the Sixties, what happened after you took office. You were then charged with bringing the defense up to the.. requirements. The story you told me earlier of you and Kennedy and General Powers, what happened with....
RM: Well, the first thing that happened was, I began to examine under what circumstances NATO could use nuclear weapons in accordance with NATO policy. The NATO policy then was that in the event of Soviet conventional attack , in a sense overrunning NATO's Western European forces, NATO would respond by initiating the use of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons at the time. What would they have done? They would have responded with nuclear weapons. And I concluded very quickly that, as Helmut Schmidt later said -- on a BBC broadcast, as a matter of fact -- NATO's nuclear policy, if implemented, would have destroyed NATO instead of defending it. And that was the conclusion I came to and therefore in later in 1961, I spoke very privately to President Kennedy - and after President Johnson took over in.. late 1963 I said the same thing to him - under no circumstances should NATO ever initiate the use of nuclear weapons. I believed it then, I believe it today. Nuclear weapons have no military utility whatsoever, excepting only to deter one's opponent from their use. Which means you should never initiate their use against a nuclear-equipped opponent. If you do, it's suicide. And that conclusion I came to very early. As I say, when I came in I didn't know the difference between a nuclear weapon and a conventional weapon, but it didn't take me long to find out. A few months, and I came to that conclusion. The problem was, how to implement the conclusion. We then put forward, as a derivative of that conclusion, in April of 1962 at the NATO foreign ministers and defense ministers meeting which I think was held in Athens, we put forward what was called Flexible Response, a major change away from what NATO was then pursuing - massive retaliation. It took NATO five years to debate the issue and they never really fully agreed with it and it was limited in itself. And to this day, NATO still has had that as that policy. It's wrong.
INT: Was there pressure from within the military though, at that period, to build up the nuclear forces?
RM: No.. well there was in this sense .. I'll give you an illustration. President Kennedy and I went to the University of California for an honorary degrees, I think it was in April of 1963, and because we were in California, we decided to visit Vanderberg Air Force Base which was a missile , site at the time, and we were met by the commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Powers, and as we got into the car at the air.. (laugh) -- I'll never forget it! -- , Powers was sitting between Kennedy and me and Powers said "Now Mr. President, when we get the ten thousand minute men", and the President interrupted him and said "what'd you say, General?". He said "well, when the get the ten thousand minute men, I.." and Kennedy interrupted again. He said "Bob, we're not gonna get ten thousand minute men, are we?" I said "no, no, no" "we're gonna get a thousand, Mr. President" and what had happened was that Powers, the Strategic Air Command, had asked for ten thousand men. The Air Force had cut the Chief-of-Staff of the Air Force had cut it from ten thousand to three thousand, and I had recommended to the President that we proceed with one thousand. Now that's the way we were building our force structure. How did I arrive at one thousand? By estimating it would take let's just say 7 years to design the force and put them on procurement and actually deploy them, and therefore I had to look 7 years ahead and say how many weapons will the Soviets have 7 years from now and what do we need 7 years from now to assure a second-strike capability. Not a first-strike capability. That was never our objective. We didn't believe we could achieve it. We did't believe we'd have been morally justified in trying to achieve it. In any event, we couldn't. So therefore ours was always a second-strikforce and how many weapons did we need to assure a capability to respond with a second strike in answer to.. or response to a Soviet first strike and assure such complete destruction or such unacceptable damage to the Soviets that they would never launch the first strike. That's what a second-strike means. That's the foundation of deterrence. That's the way we arrived at the thousand. Now, we were wrong. We'd looked ahead 7 years. We didn't know what their intention was, so what we said to ourselves was 'what are they capable of doing in 7 years?' and we estimated that, and based on that, we said we've got to have a thousand in this case at the end of.. 7 years. They didn't use their full capabilities. They used less than that and the result was, at the end of 7 years, we had more than we needed for a second-strike capability and that condition existed, say, from roughly 1955 up until the mid to late 1970s. Throughout that entire period, the West had far more nuclear force than it needed to achieve a second-strike deterrent capability against the Soviets. Ultimately, they were stimulated into a massive nuclear build-up by that fact.