We study the effect of electron beam irradiation on the bending modulus of multiwall carbon nanotubes grown by chemical vapor deposition. Atomic force microscopy observations of the nanotube deflection in the suspended-beam geometry suggest an internal, reversible stick-slip motion prior to irradiation, indicating presence of extended defects. Upon electron beam irradiation, nanotubes with an initial bending modulus exceeding 10 GPa initially get stiffer, before softening at high doses. Highly defective nanotubes with smaller initial bending moduli do not exhibit the initial reinforcement. These data are explained by ab initio molecular dynamics calculations suggesting a spontaneous cross-linking of neighboring nanotube walls at extended vacancy defects created by the electron beam, in agreement with electron microscopy observations. At low defect concentration, depending on the edge morphology, the covalent bonds between neighboring nanotube walls cause reinforcement by resisting relative motion of neighboring walls. At high concentration of defects that are present initially or induced by high electron beam dose, the structural integrity of the entire system suffers from increasing electron beam damage. (C) 2010 American Institute of Physics. [doi:10.1063/1.3493049]