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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with Charles H. Townes, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Charles Townes was Vice Chairman of the President's Science Advisory Committee from 1965 -1969, Chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee for the Apollo Program from 1966-1970, and Chairman of the so-called Townes Panel on MX basing. He explains the panel's decision to look at the entire strategic force structure rather than just basing modes. No fully satisfactory safe modes were found but he notes that some were worth pursuing, such as the air mobile and MPS systems, which he describes. He says that one of the panel's main recommendations was to focus on command-and-control, which he also discusses in depth. Along the way, he describes inter-service concerns, particularly the Air Force's reservations, as well as heated debates within the Cabinet, and his own views on a range of related strategic issues. He acknowledges that a real solution to the problem has still not been found, and that it might have been better to have foregone the MX and built smaller missiles.

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



Interview with Charles H. Townes, 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.



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Raw video

Media Type


Toomay, J. C. (John C.), 1922-
Soviet Union
Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles
Multiple Protective Structures (Missile basing system)
Townes Commission
United States. Dept. of Defense
Nuclear arms control
Haig, Alexander Meigs, 1924-2010
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Weinberger, Caspar W.
Nuclear weapons
United States. Navy
Garwin, Richard L.
MX (Weapons system)
Strategic Defense Initiative
Minuteman (Missile)
United States. Congress
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
United States. President’s Commission on Strategic Forces
Antimissile missiles
United States
Reagan, Ronald
United States. Army
Midgetman Missile
United States. Air Force
Drell, Sidney D. (Sidney David), 1926-
Allen, Lew, 1925-2010
Berkeley, CA
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Townes, Charles H. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with Charles H. Townes, 1987,” 12/19/1987, GBH Archives, accessed June 22, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with Charles H. Townes, 1987.” 12/19/1987. GBH Archives. Web. June 22, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Reagan's Shield; Interview with Charles H. Townes, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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