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CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. And let's get another question from the audience--to my right.

Mr. CHRISTIN ARENTIFAW(ph): Thank you. My name is Christin Arentifaw of the University of Vienna in Austria. Mr. McNamara said something very interesting in the documentary film "The Fog of War." He said a very interesting sentence. `In order to do good, sometimes you must engage in evil,' which is what he maybe did during the Cold War. Do the panelists believe that the Bush administration or all nuclear weapons states nowadays find themselves in the same situation: In order to good, in order to protect themselves, they have to engage in those things we want to eliminate? Thank you.

CONAN: Well, Secretary McNamara is with us here on the panel. Maybe this question is best put you to, Secretary McNamara.

Former Secretary ROBERT McNAMARA (US Department of Defense): It was Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our greatest theologians of the last century of this country, who used--or coined that term: Sometimes it's necessary to do evil to do good. I think he's right, but today that does not justify at all what we're doing with nuclear weapons. Sometimes I'm asked to characterize US and NATO nuclear policies, weapons deployments and policies in one sentence, and this is the reply I give: Their policies--US and NATO--are immoral, illegal, military unnecessary, very, very dangerous in terms of the risk of accidental use, as somebody mentioned; it's even greater risk in Russia than it is here. And they're destructive to the non-proliferation regime. They make no sense whatsoever. And it's time to change it.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Well, with that perhaps we ought to introduce Robert McNamara...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...who was secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, later served as president of the World Bank, and he's been kind enough to join us here today.

Mr. McNAMARA: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

CONAN: Appreciate it. I did--one more question for Siegfried Hecker before we move on to talk to you. This is an e-mail question from Rob Cohen in Cleveland, Ohio. `How much of our nuclear deterrent strategy was informed by input from game theory--that seems like the two fields that grew up together.' Did they have any effects cross-currents with each other, to your knowledge?

Mr. HECKER: Actually, I think General Habiger might be better positioned to answer about the nuclear strategy. Certainly game theory did not come into play in designing the nuclear weapons themselves.

CONAN: And a good thing too. General?

Gen. HABIGER: We used a wide range of tools to ensure that we minimized the forces necessary to achieve deterrence. And game theory was one, among many others.

CONAN: (Laughs) That's a cautious statement, sir.

Gen. HABIGER: Yes.

CONAN: We appreciate it. Secretary McNamara, let me ask you, going back to some of your early days in office, one of the big issues in the 1960 election was the so-called missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. How long after you took office did you learn that there was no missile gap?

Mr. McNAMARA: About three weeks. And I had a public relations officer said, `Bob, you haven't met with the Pentagon press. They're just great. You've gotta meet with them.' I said, `Hell, I came from Detroit; I don't know anything about the press. I can't meet with 'em.' He said, `You gotta. Do it.' We did it that afternoon. The first question was, `Mr. Secretary, you've been here three weeks. What'd you learn about the missile gap?' I said, `Well, I learned there wasn't one, or if there was one it was in our favor.' They broke the door down. And that afternoon, the Evening Star said no missile gap, and the next morning, the leading Republican at the Senate urged President Kennedy to resign and fire McNamara.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McNAMARA: But there wasn't. And I don't mean that anybody lied. Don't misunderstand me. Our intelligence then regarding Soviet missiles was much less than it is today. Obviously the general would agree. And there was honest difference of opinion. But those who saw hay barrels as missiles--they, in a sense, won the day. And the mis--it wasn't games theory that led to our strategy at that time. It was fear that the Soviets would develop capabilities to attack our strike forces.

CONAN: Yet early in the Kennedy administration, the Minuteman program was authorized and this greatly expanded the US arsenal.

Mr. McNAMARA: That's correct. And I think somebody said yesterday that--they implied we had a thousand Minute Men, but that it had been recommended we get 10,000, and that was correct. It was a recommendation we get 10,000, and the recommendation was based on the urge that we develop a first-strike capability. First-strike capability means we could launch against the Soviets, destroy so much of their force they would not be able to respond with force that would put unacceptable damage on us.

Number one, I didn't believe we could ever do that--develop that capability. Number two, I didn't believe we should try. We didn't. But the Air Force did recommend that we get 10,000 Minute Men; we got a thousand.

CONAN: Remarkable reduction, but nevertheless, it was a spur to the arms race at that time.

Mr. McNAMARA: Oh, there's no question. The US spurred the arms race. I spurred the arms race. And the reason was...

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. McNAMARA: ...the reason was--and you have to remember how difficult it was then, and to some degree how difficult it is today, to deal in some of these proliferation issues. The problem then was our intelligence was poor; the lead time of our procurement process--if we wanted to substantially increase our nuclear weapons in the future, perhaps develop a new weapon, put it in production, deploy it--was somewhere on the order of five to seven years. And we had to look out and say what would the Soviets have five to seven years from now. And of course, we took a worst-case scenario, which was not unreasonable. But that's what led to the arms race, both on our part and on the Soviets' part. And it's very unfortunate, and it's time to stop it. And I want to urge you to remember what General Habiger said in part today and what he added yesterday that related to it. He said that today he thought we should reduce US and Soviet nuclear weapons. Yesterday he said--somebody asked him how far could we go. He said he thought we could get down to 600. Now that's from our current level.

We have--as we talk--15 years after the Cold War--we have 6,000 strategic warheads deployed, each one with roughly 20 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Of the 6,000, 2,000 are on alert to be launched in 15 minutes. It's insane. It needs to be changed. And if we were...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. McNAMARA: One of the sad things about the nuclear proliferation treaty review was everybody said to the US we're not going to do what we're committed to under that because you're not committing--you're not doing what you're committed to by law. In Article 6 you're committed by law to negotiate in good faith a reduction to eliminate nuclear weapons. I don't believe any US president, secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman ever intended to do that. But if we did what General Habiger said, we'd stop this talk and would greatly reduce the risk of nuclear danger to the world. Get down to 600 from our current level of perhaps 10,000.

CONAN: Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; also with us retired General Eugene Habiger; Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos since 1965; and Richard Rhodes, author and historian.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another question--this one from the audience on my right.

Mr. HIROSHIKA MURA: My name is Hiroshika Mura(ph), and this a very simple question. Why didn't the US use nuclear bomb in the Korean War and the Vietnam War?

CONAN: Well, Secretary McNamara, maybe you can take the second half of that.

Mr. McNAMARA: Well, in Vietnam the last thing in the world we wanted to do was bring the Chinese into the war. And whatever other mistakes we made--we made lots of them--we didn't bring the Chinese in. If we had used a nuclear bomb, I am sure the Chinese would have come in with great forces--ground forces and aircraft. We avoided that. There were other reasons. It wasn't necessary. Genocide was something we would not accept at the time. I'm very glad we never used them. At times there were recommendations we do so; we didn't.

CONAN: On the Korea part, Richard Rhodes, let me ask you.

Mr. RHODES: There were atomic bombs that were staged to be ready to use during the Korean War--in particular, late in the war there were nine bombs, assemblies, on Guam. The reason seems to have been in part that it wasn't clear that they would be effective in the very mountainous terrain of North Korea, and we were greatly concerned that if we used them there and they were ineffective, they would be in a sense devalued for our defense in Europe, and that more than anything else, I think, although the introduction of the weapons themselves--it seems to have led rather quickly to a resolution of that conflict.

CONAN: Secretary McNamara, let me ask you a question that came up on this panel, in fact.

Mr. McNAMARA: Yes.

CONAN: We now know there were nuclear warheads on Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and what would have been the effect if the United States had gone ahead with that--well, what some people said--we should invade?

Mr. McNAMARA: It would have been utter disaster. The critical decision--critical date, decision time with respect to the Cuban missile crisis was 4 PM on Saturday, October 27th, 1962. At that time, President Kennedy was meeting with his chiefs, his senior civilian security advisers; they'd met all day. At that point, the CIA was saying--of course, we had photographs of the missiles--but they said they didn't believe the nuclear warheads had been delivered. They thought the first batch of 20 were coming on a ship named the Potava(ph) that would land in three or four days. At 4:30 PM on Saturday, October 27, '62, the chiefs recommended we attack. We put in a--we had to get the missiles out--we could talk about that sometime--but we had to get them out. There was general agreement on that. We introduced in a sense a blockade. We called it a quarantine because blockade was...

CONAN: Act of war.

Mr. McNAMARA: ...an act of war, exactly. And we didn't want to connote that. So we called it a quarantine. We introduced it on Wednesday. By Saturday it didn't have a damn bit of effect. We had to get it out. Only way to do it, so it was said, was to attack; the chiefs recommended attack. It wasn't until 29 years later that we learned at that 4:30 PM on Saturday, the 27th of October, the Soviets had about 1,700 nuclear warheads on this isle of Cuba, roughly 900 for their missiles, and roughly 700 for their tactical warheads. It would have been total disaster for us and the world had we gone. Had we done that, almost surely the Soviets would have attacked using their weapons from Russia. How it would have ended: in utter disaster.

CONAN: I guess it goes back to the question of the role of luck in avoiding nuclear conflict.

Mr. McNAMARA: I wanted to say I totally agree with General Habiger that I don't think luck plays a great part in the actual--I'm going to call it military operations with respect to nuclear weapons. But it plays a great part in the decision making, the political decision making. The general pointed out that our nuclear operations policies today stem from the president, and I can tell you--I could give you many instances if we had time...

CONAN: Could you give me one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McNAMARA: President Kennedy lucked out. He said we won't attack, despite the recommendations of the chiefs. He was lucky--in one sense. He and I both thought the danger was greater than others, but we didn't believe the nuclear danger was anywhere close to what we learned 29 years later. We were lucky.

CONAN: Secretary McNamara, General Habiger, Siegfried Hecker and Richard Rhodes, thank you very much for being with us today.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.