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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Jack Ruina, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Jack Ruina served in a number of positions at the Defense Department, rising to become Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense from 1961-1963. From 1969-1977 he was a member of the General Advisory Committee and consulted for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Carter administration. He begins by considering the relevance of World War II to modern questions of the reliability of defenses against air attack. Attempts to build a viable anti-aircraft system in the 1950s, he recalls, were undermined by the development of ICBMs. The latter in turn, he relates, became the focus of subsequent defense-oriented development and he cites the Nike Zeus as one of the systems that was being considered. President Kennedy turned out not to be supportive of Zeus, but as Dr. Ruina explains, the prevailing view among the military was that even a system that seemed ineffective should be kept on the drawing board "in case we were wrong." The Nike X system proved to be very satisfactory according to its specifications, but advances in missile technology, especially MIRVs, left the new system "wanting." In the end, it became clear that in the missile age defending the population was impossible. This leads to the question of what constitutes a reasonable defense, and further, to discussion of the realization that there no war fighting options ensure that escalation will stop. Dr. Ruina explains another "strange" dynamic of the missile age, which involves one side feeling obliged for political reasons to follow the lead of the other – in building a ballistic missile defense system, for example – even if that system clearly does not work. He describes at length his unsuccessful efforts to persuade American and Russian officials alike that ABM systems were dangerous and should not be pursued. He offers a lengthy example of how technical issues can be used in political arguments over military systems, and recalls one or two personalities he encountered along the way. Finally, he provides a character sketch of Robert McNamara whom he saw as a great secretary of defense.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
At the Brink
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Interview with Jack Ruina, 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

In October 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States are at the brink of nuclear war, the 13 most harrowing days in the nuclear age.

“I remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday and thinking that might well be the last sunset I ever saw,” recalls former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara of Black Saturday, the day the Cuban missile crisis pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. Aleksandr Alexseev, Soviet ambassador to Cuba at the time, recalled, “We and the Cubans decided that, in order to avoid a United States invasion, we should supply Cuba with missiles.” The US effort to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was an expression of President Kennedy’s disbelief about the missiles in Cuba while it surprised Soviet leader Khrushchev according to his speechwriter,Feodor Burlatsky. Major General William Fairborne, speaks about how “We loaded whole blood and a hundred coffins onto the carrier Iwo Jima.” Looking back on those 13 days, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk reflects, “...we’ve got to find some way to inhabit this speck of dust in the universe at the same time.”



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Raw video

Media Type


Wiesner, Jerome B. (Jerome Bert), 1915-1994
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Deterrence (Strategy)
Thor (Missile)
Gilpatric, Roswell L. (Roswell Leavitt), 1906-1996
Wohlstetter, Albert J.
Jupiter missile
Antimissile missiles
Nuclear arms control
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Gell-Mann, Murray
United States
Brown, Harold, 1927-
United States. Air Force
Trudeau, Arthur G., 1902-1991
Nuclear weapons
Great Britain
World War II
Taylor, Maxwell D. (Maxwell Davenport), 1901-1987
Doty, Paul M., 1920-2011
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Ruina, J. P. (Jack P.) (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Jack Ruina, 1986,” 03/04/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Jack Ruina, 1986.” 03/04/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Jack Ruina, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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