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

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Gen. James Gavin was the Army's chief of research and development in the 1950s. In this interview, he discusses in depth the often parochial thinking and motivations that underlay decisions by the uniformed services and the Pentagon regarding the development of nuclear weapons. Beginning with the Korean War, he recounts discussions with several nuclear scientists being escorted around the theater over the need to build tactical nuclear weapons to aid on the battlefield. (The plans went nowhere, he says.) He relates a second-hand anecdote, which he is unable to substantiate, about Robert Oppenheimer discussing such options, and later getting into serious political trouble for them. He also recalls personally memorable meetings with Gen. MacArthur. In the mid-1950s Gen. Gavin publicly informed a congressional committee that the use of nuclear arms in a major conflict in Europe would result in several hundred million casualties, a remark that he notes created enormous concern in Western Europe and "exposed the fallacy of what a great nuclear war would do for us. It wouldn't do anything for us but kill us all." Despite this, he says, orders came down from the Pentagon leadership to continue to nuclearize for what he assesses were essentially bureaucratic reasons. From the point of view of the armed services, "If you didn't have a nuclear capability around this city in 1957, you might as well fold up your show." Around the same time, Gen. Gavin recalls, he discovered the shocking consequences of the nuclear tests that were held in the Pacific, including the realization that the fallout cloud had traveled around the world, introducing strontium 90, cesium and other chemicals into the systems of people as far away as Washington. "And that began to really get to us then, because we knew what we were doing was something that -- something that possibly would lead to mass genocide of unprecedented millions. We had to find out the solution."

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

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Von Braun, Wernher, 1912-1977
Norstad, Lauris, 1907-1988
Oppenheimer, J. Robert, 1904-1967
MacArthur, Douglas, 1880-1964
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Thor (Missile)
Nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons -- Testing
Chiang, Kai-shek, 1887-1975
Korean War, 1950-1953
United States
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
United States. Department of Defense. Weapons Systems Evaluation Group
Jupiter missile
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Gavin, James M. (James Maurice), 1907-1990 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with James Gavin, 1986,” 02/25/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with James Gavin, 1986.” 02/25/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Bigger Bang for the Buck, A; Interview with James Gavin, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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