GBH Openvault

War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Woolsey, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


James Woolsey was an advisor to the U.S. delegation to SALT from 1969-1970, General Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1970-1973, and Under Secretary of the Navy from 1977-1979. For much of the 1980s he was involved in both nuclear and conventional arms talks before becoming Director of Central Intelligence (1993-1995). The interview focuses entirely on the Reagan period. He begins by analyzing why the MX has been such a problem for so long (size and survivability), why the U.S. needs land-based missiles, and why a counterforce strategy is required. Over time he has come to believe that the U.S. should move to a small, mobile ICBM such as the Midgetman for purposes of survivability, an issue he discusses at length, adding an interesting aside about the discovery that hardening mobile launchers involved a surprisingly simple solution. He scores President Reagan for cancelling the Carter administration's MPS system. He then discusses the Towns Committee, which was set up to find a survivable basing mode for the MX, and goes on to review the Scowcroft Commission from a variety of angles. Along the way, he acknowledges that the president's SDI speech came as a shock to commission members. The main point he wishes to underscore about strategic systems is that they do not work in isolation but are part of the broader fabric of American military power. He closes by calling the Reykjavik summit "one of the worst performances in foreign policy" by a U.S. administration in the nuclear era.

License Clip
Got it
War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Reagan's Shield
Program Number



Interview with James Woolsey, 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 introduces the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, an idea he believes will make nuclear weapons”Impotent and Obsolete.”

In 1983 President Reagan envisioned a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that could intercept and destroy Soviet strategic ballistic missiles before they reached the United States. Skeptics dubbed the idea “Star Wars.” It was hard for Reagan to accept the idea of deterrence based on mutual destruction. He believed SDI offered a solution. His science advisor George Keyworth says SDI was “thoroughly created and invented in Ronald Reagan’s own mind and experience.” According to defense scientist Ashton Carter, “The concept is fine. What is not fine is implying to the public that the solution to the nuclear puzzle is at hand.” SDI became the focus of a national debate about nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy, and a stumbling block in strategic arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. The final months of the Reagan Administration brought a drastic reduction in the scope and size of SDI efforts.



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Laird, Melvin R.
Soviet Union. Treaties, etc. United States, 1972 May 26 (ABM)
Soviet Union
Ikle, Fred Charles
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Midgetman Missile
United States. Air Force
Scowcroft, Brent
Reagan, Ronald
Nuclear warfare
Multiple Protective Structures (Missile basing system)
United States. President’s Commission on Strategic Forces
Enthoven, Alain C., 1930-
MX (Weapons system)
Townes Commission
United States. Dept. of Defense
Summit meetings--Iceland--Reykjavik
Nuclear arms control
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
Aspin, Les
Nuclear weapons
United States
Minuteman (Missile)
Deterrence (Strategy)
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles
United States. Congress
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Woolsey, R. James, 1941- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Woolsey, 1987,” 10/13/1987, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Woolsey, 1987.” 10/13/1987. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Woolsey, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
If you have more information about this item, we want to know! Please contact us, including the URL.