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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


James Killian was the President's Special Assistant for Science and Technology from 1957-1959. He oversaw the creation of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), and also served as President of MIT from 1948-1959. In the interview he discusses President Eisenhower's decision to seek scientific means of preventing a surprise attack on the United States, which led to the creation of the position of science adviser to the president. He describes the various recommendations of the PSAC, including upgrading the missile program, researching nuclear submarine technology, building the U-2, developing solid fuel missiles, and improving science education in high schools. He notes the public's reaction to Sputnik, which he considered overwrought. Dr. Killian points out that he and his colleagues had the unusual privilege of reporting directly to Eisenhower who took a genuine interest in scientific and technological models and eagerly participated in numerous "delightful sessions" on the subject. Eisenhower was also intent on achieving a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union (despite deep American distrust of the Soviets), an effort Dr. Killian unexpectedly contributed to through an impromptu address to the National Security Council on the subject. Also discussed in the interview is the "continental divide" that existed in the scientific community over nuclear issues in the late 1950s, a time when American arsenals were expanding dramatically. Dr. Killian also comments on Eisenhower's relationships with scientists who held very different views, notably Edward Teller, Lewis Strauss and George Kistiakowsky.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Bigger Bang for the Buck, A
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Interview with James Killian, 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.



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Fisk, James B.
Photographic reconnaissance systems
Kistiakowsky, George B. (George Bogdan), 1900-1982
LeMay, Curtis E.
York, Herbert F. (Herbert Frank)
Strategic Defense Initiative
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972
Adams, Sherman, 1899-1986
Land, Edwin Herbert, 1909-1991
Nuclear weapons
United States. Navy
Teller, Edward, 1908-2003
United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command
Gaither Report (1957)
Civil defense
United States. Air Force
Schlesinger, James R.
Polaris (Missile)
Fallout shelters
Sprague, Robert C. (Robert Chapman), 1900-
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Aerial photography
DuBridge, Lee A. (Lee Alvin), 1901-1994
Macmillan, Harold, 1894-1986
Soviet Union
Oppenheimer, J. Robert, 1904-1967
Nuclear weapons -- Testing
United Nations
Nixon, Richard M. (Richard Milhous), 1913-1994
Goodpaster, Andrew Jackson, 1915-2005
Strauss, Lewis
Cutler, Robert, 1895-1974
United States. President’s Science Advisory Committee
Wiesner, Jerome B. (Jerome Bert), 1915-1994
Hydrogen bomb
United States. Dept. of Defense
Edicia Sputnik
United States
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Reagan, Ronald
Boston, MA
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Killian, James Rhyne, 1904-1988 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with James Killian, 1986,” 04/18/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with James Killian, 1986.” 04/18/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with James Killian, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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