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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with George Anderson, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Admiral George Anderson was the Chief of Naval Operations from 1961-1963. In his interview he describes the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from the Navy’s perspective. At the time, his initial reaction to the Soviet missile emplacement was that the United States should reply with “tremendous force,” even though he acknowledges it would have been “a little presumptuous” to think the Soviets would not have launched missiles in retaliation. Even so, he contends that it was necessary to “balance” the inability to neutralize every Soviet missile with the consequences of “subsequent events,” by which he means Cuban activities in the hemisphere and in Africa. If the US had invaded and “straightened the whole mess in Cuba out,” it would have “avoided a lot of subsequent difficulties.” Nevertheless, he gives President Kennedy high marks for his handling of the crisis, saying that he “operated as a president should,” including listening to his advisers, evaluating all information, and ensuring that a military operation was absolutely necessary before giving the order to act. Admiral Anderson explains the decision-making process that led to the Cuba blockade. He also gives a sense of what Joint Chiefs of Staff meetings were like and describes the Navy’s operations in carrying out the blockade. One of the lessons he draws from the crisis is the need to keep civilian authorities informed of the action but without letting them interfere with military operations. Repeatedly expressing pride in the Navy’s performance, he notes for example its success in forcing Soviet subs to the surface during the quarantine. Denying that those actions were provocative, he adds that “if they had been nuclear subs ... it would have been more complicated.” A repeated focus of the interview is Anderson’s turbulent relationship with Secretary of Defense McNamara and his negative assessment of McNamara’s personal traits, which he says made him unsuited for the position. He briefly mentions the circumstances surrounding his own removal as CNO, which he attributes to McNamara. Reflecting on the crisis, he concludes that Khrushchev backed down solely because he knew he faced superior force. Although he reports that the Air Force was ready to deploy nuclear weapons provided the Soviets chose to use them first, he notes that “the world would be a lot better off if we ... scrapped them all.”

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
At the Brink
Program Number



Interview with George Anderson, 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.”



Asset Type

Raw video

Media Type


Soviet Union
United States
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
United States. Navy
Nitze, Paul H.
International relations
Gilpatric, Roswell L. (Roswell Leavitt), 1906-1996
Lemnitzer, Lyman L. (Lyman Louis), 1899-1988
Gates, Thomas S.
McCone, John A. (John Alex), 1902-1991
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
LeMay, Curtis E.
Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Batista y Zaldivar, Fulgencio, 1901-1973
Nuclear weapons
Castro, Fidel, 1926-
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Anderson, George Whelan, 1906-1992 (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with George Anderson, 1986,” 03/19/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with George Anderson, 1986.” 03/19/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with George Anderson, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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