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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with James Watkins, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Admiral James Watkins was the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations from 1982-1985. The interview begins with a lengthy description of the policy background to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which he describes as "probably the most important step towards a peaceful world that we have known in this century." He adds background on the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Reagan administration, describing its relationship with the president as "unbelievably good" at least until the Fall of 1985 (possibly because of changes in the White House). He applauds the administration for getting the U.S. back on track militarily. Adm. Watkins notes that, in the absence of political and financial obstacles, the existing modernization strategy would have been effective even without Star Wars. He then returns to the portrayal of how the policy change embodied by SDI came about, commenting at length on its financial aspects and on ways the process could have been handled better. This is followed by his delivery of the same highly detailed briefing he gave to the JCS in February 1983, prior to meeting with the president on the subject. He then describes the president's briefing and the discussion it engendered. In his view, the entire process of getting the program underway amounted to "a unique presidential act." He defends SDI against the charge that it is just militarizing space, and argues that achieving a meaningful balance with the Soviets involves more than simple numbers. He ends with an optimistic assessment of the nuclear picture in 50 years.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Missile Experimental
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Interview with James Watkins, 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

Does the United States really plan to use nuclear weapons? Or is their only purpose to deter others from using them? These questions fuel debate over the Mobile Missile known as the MX.

The MX was designed in 1975 to counter the threat of large accurate missiles being bult in the Soviet Union. General Russell Dougherty of the Strategic Air Command recalls, “We had to have some more warheads ... with more accuracy. That was the rational for ... the MX.” It faced ten years of difficult questions in Congress, withing the military and from civilians. Was the missile meant to deter a Soviet attack or to survive one? One question led to another. There was one practical question: where to put the 200,000 pound 100 foot long missiles? In 1983 Congress approved production of 100 MX Peacekeeper missiles and based the first 50 in existing Minuteman silos.



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Strategic Defense Initiative
Antinuclear movement
Vessey, John William, 1922-
Weinberger, Caspar W.
Reagan, Ronald
Nuclear weapons
Keyworth, George A., 1939-
McFarlane, Robert C.
MX (Weapons system)
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Teller, Edward, 1908-2003
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Watkins, James D., 1927-2012 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with James Watkins, 1987,” 12/08/1987, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with James Watkins, 1987.” 12/08/1987. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with James Watkins, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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