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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Norman Cousins, 1986 [1]

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Norman Cousins was a writer, an essayist, a citizen diplomat, and, for nearly four decades, executive editor of the Saturday Review. In his interview conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, Cousins recalls his shock upon first seeing the headlines about the bombing of Hiroshima. He challenges the Harry S. Truman administration’s official rationale for dropping the bomb, and he discusses the duty of a democratic society to “face up to everything in our history.” During the Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy administrations, Cousins became an unofficial citizen diplomat, facilitating communication among the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the White House. Both presidents, he recounts, recognized the need to reduce tensions between the superpowers as well as the value of out-of-channel dialogue to advance diplomatic talks and strengthen ties. Following a visit to the Soviet Union in 1960, Cousins initiated a series of cultural exchanges between Americans and Russians that became known as the Dartmouth Conferences. The Cuban missile crisis unfolded at the beginning of one of these sessions. In his interview, he describes how the influential group he pulled together functioned as a clearinghouse for both sides as the crisis ran its course. The confrontation, he recalls, was both a personal and a historical watershed that gave both Khrushchev and Kennedy a “blazing awareness of the implications of nuclear warfare” and the understanding that both countries share the “same lifeboat.” When test-ban treaty talks stalled in 1963, Cousins visited Khrushchev and brokered a fresh start to negotiations. Striking to viewers of this interview is Cousins’s ability, through the unusual access he had to the secretary general, to decode the Soviet leader. Through personal anecdotes, he illuminates Khrushchev’s character, leadership style, national ambitions, and reactions to events and to domestic and international pressures. Cousins describes his personal conversations with Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev about the legacy of fear that still paralyzed the Russian people a decade after Soviet premier Joseph Stalin’s death. Cousins also recounts the 1956 controversy sparked when Khrushchev used the expression commonly translated as “We will bury you” at a Moscow reception for Western ambassadors.

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



Interview with Norman Cousins, 1986 [1]

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


Soviet Union
Nuclear weapons
Catholic Church
John XXIII, Pope, 1881-1963
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Byrnes, James F. (James Francis), 1882-1972
Teller, Edward, 1908-2003
International relations
Marshall, George C. (George Catlett), 1880-1959
MacArthur, Douglas, 1880-1964
Stalin, Joseph, 1879-1953
Nuclear weapons -- Testing
Reuther, Walter, 1907-1970
Kremlin (Moscow, Russia)
Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963)
Hiroshima-shi (Japan) -- History -- Bombardment, 1945
Nuclear arms control
Nuclear warfare
Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972
Leahy, William D.
Nagasaki-shi (Japan) -- History -- Bombardment, 1945
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963)
United States
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Forrestal, James, 1892-1949
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Cousins, Norman (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Norman Cousins, 1986 [1],” 03/03/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Norman Cousins, 1986 [1].” 03/03/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Norman Cousins, 1986 [1]. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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