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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Edward Palmer Thompson, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Edward Thompson was a prominent British writer, historian and later polemicist and socialist (formerly communist) activist, who became a major force in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He begins the interview by recalling the origins of the European peace movement in 1979, which he joined because of his conception of the "rising profile of a militarist and security state ... dominated by the United States." He describes the operational dynamics of the movement, then discusses his own sense of the fallacy of deterrence, and the defense community's engagement in "an amazing exercise in self-mystification." A significant development for the peace movement, he recalls, was the rise of what he terms a new German peace generation in 1981. He goes on to discuss the complicated question of why the movement ultimately failed to prevent deployment of the Euromissiles. Among other explanations, he sees a clear domestic political motivation on the part of conservative Western governments in hosting the missiles, i.e. to defeat the peace movement and increase their own power at home. He believes the Soviets had the same idea with respect to expanding their dominance over Eastern Europe. The movement, he acknowledges, had factions in several countries that were "pro-Soviet" but Moscow's attempts to turn the rest of the movement into "auxiliaries ... failed utterly." Taking the long view, he asserts that while the battle may have been lost over the missiles themselves, the larger contest of the Cold War and the question of European sovereignty vis-a-vis the United States have gone in a very different directions. He presciently predicts a time when the East European states will demand more space and he hopes for a major pullout from Europe of both superpowers. As for Western Europe he believes that the movement has already helped bring about an end to the "Atlanticist consensus," and he reminds that the movement's larger purpose has been to address the "unnatural division of the world" into two rival politico-military blocs. He closes with brief takes on the British government's efforts to keep tabs on the movement and on the anxiety produced by the actual deployment of missiles in 1983, followed by the Soviet walk-out at Geneva, which seemed to symbolize a return to the dark days of Cold War confrontation.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Zero Hour
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Interview with Edward Palmer Thompson, 1987

Series Description

The first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, changed the world forever. This series chronicles these changes and the history of a new era. It traces the development of nuclear weapons, the evolution of nuclear strategy, and the politics of a world with the power to destroy itself.

In thirteen one-hour programs that combine historic footage and recent interviews with key American, Soviet, and European participants, the nuclear age unfolds: the origin and evolution of nuclear weapons; the people of the past who have shaped the events of the present; the ideas and issues that political leaders, scientists, and the public at large must confront, and the prospects for the future. Nuclear Age highlights the profound changes in contemporary thinking imposed by the advent of nuclear weapons. Series release date: 1/1989

Program Description

President Reagan and Soviet Secretary Gorbachev sign the INF Agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons from Europe. No one had expected the European Missile Crisis to end this way.

The story begins in 1979, when the Western Allies were worried about the Soviet Union’s buildup of SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Western Europe. Under pressure from the Carter Administration, NATO issued a threat, if the SS-20s were not removed, NATO would install new American missiles in Europe. The threat revived the dormant anti-nuclear movement in Western Europe, giving them an anti-American tone. In 1981, President Reagan made a proposal that the US would cancel deployment of the missiles if the Soviet Union would dismantle all the intermediate range missiles it had pointed at Europe. This was the “zero-zero” option. The Soviet Union was entering a period of change with three leaders dying in three years. In 1986 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered to accept the “zero-zero” option and in 1987 the INF agreement was signed.



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Burt, Richard
Cruise missiles
Nuclear weapons
United States
Soviet Union
Chernenko, K. U. (Konstantin Ustinovich), 1911-1985
Boll, Heinrich, 1917-1985
Gorbachev, Mikhail
SS-20 Missile
Great Britain
Pershing (Missile)
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Organization)
Andropov, Y. V. (Yuri Vladimirovich), 1914-1984
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Nuclear disarmament
Peace movements
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Perle, Richard Norman, 1941-
Dyson, Freeman J.
Reagan, Ronald
Summit meetings--Iceland--Reykjavik
United Kingdom
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Thompson, E. P. (Edward Palmer), 1924-1993 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Edward Palmer Thompson, 1987,” 10/15/1987, WGBH Media Library & Archives, accessed October 24, 2016, http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_30B5C742B3FF4FAFB5B4A282CC0C1644.
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Edward Palmer Thompson, 1987.” 10/15/1987. WGBH Media Library & Archives. Web. October 24, 2016. <http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_30B5C742B3FF4FAFB5B4A282CC0C1644>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Edward Palmer Thompson, 1987. Boston, MA: WGBH Media Library & Archives. Retrieved from http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_30B5C742B3FF4FAFB5B4A282CC0C1644
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