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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with George Rathjens, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


George Rathjens was a member of President Eisenhower's scientific staff under Science Adviser George Kistiakowsky. In the interview he discusses the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for nuclear war in the late 1950s, touching on the inter-service rivalries in the weapons arena that existed at the time. He describes the Eisenhower White House's investigation into SAC's nuclear strategy, including SAC's thinking about a first strike capability and the expected levels of destruction from a U.S. attack on Soviet targets. In one instance, using a Hiroshima-sized target city in the USSR for comparison, Dr. Rathjens discovered that the plan called for weapons wielding several hundred times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. He notes that the guidance for the level of destruction was set at around 90 percent, which SAC took as a minimum, and set its own levels at 97 percent. He adds that SAC maintained both military and urban industrial targets. He explains the inflexibility of SAC's targeting, and therefore of the SIOP as a whole, and describes the hypothetical effects of the SIOP, which could destroy at least 75 percent of the Soviet Union, and would have major fallout affecting China and Eastern Europe. He recalls reporting to the president on his findings about SAC's plans, and further remembers that Eisenhower was visibly upset and voiced specific reservations about SAC commander Powell. Yet, to Dr. Rathjens' surprise, the president apparently did nothing to address the situation. He does acknowledge that SAC's guidance came from the Joint Staff.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Bigger Bang for the Buck, A
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Interview with George Rathjens, 1986

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

For the destructive power they deliver, nuclear weapons are cheap and efficient. In the 1950’s the United States begins to rely on nuclear, rather than conventional, weapons for its defense.

As nuclear policy evolved during the Eisenhower Administration, three factors combined to produce a new American reliance on nuclear weapons: pressure to control the federal budget (the “bigger bang” argument); competition as each branch of the American military adapted nuclear weapons to its mission; and Soviet bluffs that fueled American fears about a “bomber gap” and later a “missile gap.” On October 4, 1957, Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that was the first to orbit Earth, shocked Americans and delighted the Soviets. A month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with a dog on board. Both the Soviets and the Americans knew that a booster capable of carrying a dog into space could also deliver a nuclear warhead across a continent in 30 minutes.



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Raw video

Media Type


Burke, Arleigh A., 1901-1996
Photographic reconnaissance systems
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Hiroshima-shi (Japan) -- History -- Bombardment, 1945
Power, Thomas S. (Thomas Sarsfield), 1905-1970
Nuclear weapons
Scoville, Herbert
United States. Navy
United States
United States. Central Intelligence Agency
United States. Air Force
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Nuclear warfare
Kistiakowsky, George B. (George Bogdan), 1900-1982
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Soviet Union
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Rathjens, George W. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with George Rathjens, 1986,” 05/30/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with George Rathjens, 1986.” 05/30/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with George Rathjens, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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