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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


William Perry served as Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering from 1977-1981, and later as Deputy Secretary and Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton. The interview focuses on the strategic missile and basing debates during the Carter years. Two of the main issues were the vulnerability of ICBMs and their accuracy. He recalls that the discovery that the Soviets were making modifications to their SS-18 missile which would double its accuracy injected a sense of urgency in President Carter and Defense Secretary Harold Brown about the need to press ahead with a solution for the MX's vulnerability. He discusses at length reasons why the alternative of giving up the land leg of the nuclear triad was not seriously taken up. He then explains the role of certain elements of the U.S. arsenal, and discusses options that were considered involving adapting the Minuteman and why they were not ultimately accepted. The conversation then focuses in depth on the various basing plans that were put forward, and their pros and cons. The controversy over basing in Utah is dealt with in detail. He points out the complexity of the basing issue, and notes that the Reagan administration discovered this only upon entering office. He does not consider the MX a true first-strike weapon for various reasons, and goes on to explain what its likely targets would be. He recalls in detail his participation on the Scowcroft Commission and the differences of view among its members. He then explains the dilemma of the Midgetman, which at a minimum requires an effective arms control regime to be in place for it to be an affordable option. He closes by discussing the theory of extended deterrence and whether there is a need for more MX missiles.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Reagan's Shield
Program Number



Interview with William Perry, 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


Nuclear weapons
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
Reagan, Ronald
Strategic Defense Initiative
Midgetman Missile
Nuclear arms control
Minuteman (Missile)
Van Cleave, William R.
Brown, Harold, 1927-
Soviet Union
Schlesinger, James R.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
United States. Air Force
United States. President’s Commission on Strategic Forces
United States. Dept. of Defense
Scowcroft, Brent
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
MX (Weapons system)
Deterrence (Strategy)
Garwin, Richard L.
Smith, Larry
Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles
United States
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Perry, William James, 1927- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with William Perry, 1987,” 12/18/1987, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with William Perry, 1987.” 12/18/1987. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with William Perry, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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