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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Schlesinger, 1987 [1]

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


James Schlesinger served as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1971-1973, Director of Central Intelligence for several months in 1973, Secretary of Defense from 1973-1975 and Secretary of Energy from 1977-1979. In this first of three interviews, he begins by mentioning some of his concerns about Soviet research and development activities and comments that President Nixon always believed the Soviets would behave “in a cold-blooded manner.” He moves on to discuss the nature of the Soviet threat and of the appropriate U.S. role in confronting it. In this he had differences with Robert McNamara who believed that the purpose of U.S. strategic forces was primarily to protect North America, whereas Dr. Schlesinger believed it was to protect all of America’s allies. This point leads to a discussion of U.S. thinking behind the development of the MX missile, using it both as a signal to the Soviets that the U.S. was prepared to match their counterforce capability and as a bargaining chip. He indicates his satisfaction with the evolution of thinking on the MX in the Carter administration, and is critical of President Reagan’s decision to cancel his predecessor’s proposed basing system. He discusses the Scowcroft Commission, calling it an enormously useful exercise. He touches on where events are heading in the next five years, then discusses the competing fears of the left and right in the United States, arguing that in spite of these concerns the superpower balance is very stable.

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



Interview with James Schlesinger, 1987 [1]

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


Brown, Harold, 1927-
Scowcroft, Brent
United States. Central Intelligence Agency
Nuclear weapons
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Nixon, Richard M. (Richard Milhous), 1913-1994
United States. Congress
Kissinger, Henry, 1923-
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
MX (Weapons system)
United States. President’s Commission on Strategic Forces
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
United States. Air Force
Reagan, Ronald
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
Soviet Union
Midgetman Missile
Nuclear warfare
United States
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Schlesinger, James R. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Schlesinger, 1987 [1],” 12/16/1987, GBH Archives, accessed July 16, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Schlesinger, 1987 [1].” 12/16/1987. GBH Archives. Web. July 16, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with James Schlesinger, 1987 [1]. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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