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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with William Smith, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


William Smith was a U.S. Air Force General who served as the Chief of Staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe from 1979-1981, and as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. European Command from 1981-1983. He covers a variety of conceptual and factual topics in this interview. He begins by describing how NATO nuclear planners viewed their assignment in terms of preventing wars not fighting them. He describes allied thinking on the need to bolster conventional forces and on the ways in which nuclear weapons would eventually be used, which he notes would be for both political and military purposes. The interview takes up several moments of interest in the 1970s including the Schlesinger doctrine and the neutron bomb. A number of questions deal with different aspects of the Euromissiles crisis – whether Western military leaders felt the need to match the SS-20's modernization, the importance of SALT II to the Americans in this context, and why the Pershing II was chosen. He disagrees with European perceptions about the U.S. wanting to localize a war in Europe rather than put itself at risk. He doubts that the impending INF treaty will undermine NATO strategy.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Zero Hour
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Interview with William Smith, 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 and Soviet Secretary Gorbachev sign the INF Agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons from Europe. No one had expected the European Missile Crisis to end this way.

The story begins in 1979, when the Western Allies were worried about the Soviet Union’s buildup of SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Western Europe. Under pressure from the Carter Administration, NATO issued a threat, if the SS-20s were not removed, NATO would install new American missiles in Europe. The threat revived the dormant anti-nuclear movement in Western Europe, giving them an anti-American tone. In 1981, President Reagan made a proposal that the US would cancel deployment of the missiles if the Soviet Union would dismantle all the intermediate range missiles it had pointed at Europe. This was the “zero-zero” option. The Soviet Union was entering a period of change with three leaders dying in three years. In 1986 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered to accept the “zero-zero” option and in 1987 the INF agreement was signed.



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


United States
Nuclear warfare
Cruise missiles
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Great Britain
Nuclear nonproliferation
Schlesinger, James R.
United States. Army
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Gorbachev, Mikhail
Schmidt, Helmut, 1918 Dec. 23-
Reagan, Ronald
Soviet Union
Pershing (Missile)
SS-5 Missile
Nuclear energy
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
SS-20 Missile
Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Deterrence (Strategy)
Warfare, Conventional
United States. Air Force
Nuclear weapons
SS-4 Missile
Soviet Union. Treaties, etc. United States, 1987 December 8
Nuclear arms control
Haig, Alexander Meigs, 1924-2010
Chemical weapons
Warsaw Treaty Organization
Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
Neutron bomb
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963)
Washington, DC
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Smith, William Y. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with William Smith, 1987,” 10/25/1987, GBH Archives, accessed July 13, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with William Smith, 1987.” 10/25/1987. GBH Archives. Web. July 13, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Zero Hour; Interview with William Smith, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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