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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Helmut Schmidt, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Helmut Schmidt became the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party in 1967 and deputy chairman of the party in 1968. Between 1969 and 1972, he served as defense minister, minister for economics and finance, and minister of finance. From 1974 to 1982, he was the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the interview he conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, Schmidt recalls his anger and the political damage he suffered in 1978 when President Carter suddenly delayed his decision to produce the neutron bomb. He analyzes why the Soviet-U.S. relations deteriorated as the 1970s wore on, goes over Carter successor Ronald Reagan’s initial receptivity to a “zero-zero” option, relays the subsequent internal dissension and ascendancy of hardliners within the Reagan administration, and sheds light on the shift within the administration toward arms reductions. Schmidt describes what he terms “Euro-strategic” SS-20 missiles, which the Soviet Union began deploying along its western and southeastern borders in 1977. He viewed this deployment as destabilizing the nuclear balance in Europe, and he vigorously—but unsuccessfully—pressed President Jimmy Carter to include these missiles in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II negotiations. He recounts his conviction that the threat of deploying U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in response to the threat of the Soviet SS-20s brought the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. The Guadeloupe meeting that Schmidt helped organize produced the “double-track decision” that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) council adopted at the end of 1979: to deploy the U.S. intermediate-range missiles while simultaneously bargaining them away in Geneva. Unlike some of his counterparts, Schmidt never feared the “de-coupling” of the U.S. strategic deterrent from the defense of NATO Europe. He remained, though, keenly sensitive to the concentration of nuclear weapons deployed by other countries in the Federal Republic. In his interview, Schmidt explains the need for European collaboration in building up conventional forces to achieve both nuclear and non-nuclear parity between the Warsaw and NATO blocs.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Zero Hour
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Interview with Helmut Schmidt, 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


Soviet Union
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Nitze, Paul H.
Weinberger, Caspar W.
World War II
Nuclear arms control
Middle East
Brezhnev, Leonid Il'ich, 1906-1982
Nuclear warfare
Ford, Gerald R., 1913-2006
Intermediate-range ballistic missiles
United States
International relations
Pershing (Missile)
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
Neutron bomb
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II
Warfare, Conventional
Reagan, Ronald
Nuclear warfare
SS-20 Missile
Warsaw Treaty Organization
Shultz, George Pratt, 1920-
Nuclear weapons
Cruise missiles
Callaghan, James, 1912-2005
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Schmidt, Helmut, 1918 Dec. 23- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Helmut Schmidt, 1987,” 11/12/1987, GBH Archives, accessed June 16, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Helmut Schmidt, 1987.” 11/12/1987. GBH Archives. Web. June 16, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with Helmut Schmidt, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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