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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with William Van Cleave, 1987

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


William Van Cleave was an academic specializing in strategic issues. He was involved with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and a member of “Team B” in the 1970s. In 1980-1981, he was a senior adviser to presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and directed his defense transition team. He begins with a description of the Soviet threat and the Carter administration’s approach to dealing with it, of which he is critical. He explains his belief in the window of vulnerability, describing its implications but also assessing the differing views of others on the topic, notably members of the Scowcroft Commission. He goes into depth on the MX missile and the complex issue of basing, listing his objections to President Carter’s preferences and outlining the three-pronged approach he proposed to President-elect Reagan. He also lists the problems the SALT process posed to these ideas. In subsequent months, the Reagan administration made certain policy decisions to which he objected. He singles out Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for lacking technical background and personal interest in the subject, but he also notes certain Air Force conceptions and practices in a critical light. As early as October 1981 he found himself believing that the Carter Administration approach was “far preferable” to what their successors had chosen. He explains why he came to see a crash program on a small, single-warhead missile as the best option for a land-based defense. He further argues that a Soviet surprise attack is both a credible scenario and the only planning factor that makes strategic sense. He opposes idea of giving up the land-based leg of the triad mainly because it depends on arms control agreements to which the Soviets would never agree.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
Missile Experimental
Program Number



Interview with William Van Cleave, 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.



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Raw video

Media Type


Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
Minuteman (Missile)
Nuclear weapons
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
Nuclear arms control
Weinberger, Caspar W.
Burke, Kelly H., 1929-
Nitze, Paul H.
Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles
United States. President’s Commission on Strategic Forces
Committee on the Present Danger (U.S.)
Reagan, Ronald
Brown, Harold, 1927-
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II
Multiple Protective Structures (Missile basing system)
Hecker, Guy L.
Antimissile missiles
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
United States. Dept. of Defense
United States. Air Force
Soviet Union. Treaties, etc. United States, 1972 May 26 (ABM)
MX (Weapons system)
United States. Congress
Graham, Daniel Orrin, 1925-
Laxalt, Paul
Garn, Jake
Allen, Richard V.
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Van Cleave, William R. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with William Van Cleave, 1987,” 12/09/1987, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with William Van Cleave, 1987.” 12/09/1987. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Missile Experimental; Interview with William Van Cleave, 1987. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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