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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Henry Rowen, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Henry Rowen was the president of RAND Corporation from 1967-1972, and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 1981-1983. He begins by recalling the main focuses of interest at RAND in the 1950s, including the development of ideas on nuclear strategy such as first and second strikes, early warning systems, and the concept of vulnerability. He discusses the U.S. policy for defending Europe, developed during the Eisenhower administration, and the latter’s reliance on nuclear weapons (later rejected due to the growth of the Soviets’ own nuclear capability). He recalls Kennedy administration concerns including the Berlin crisis and the approach the U.S. adopted of mounting displays of military force in hopes of inducing the Soviets to back down. If that approach were to fail, he acknowledges, “our options weren’t too good.” He describes the evolution of the principle of creating choices for deploying nuclear weapons in order to preserve their effectiveness as a deterrent. The Europeans, he recalls, did not react positively to Robert McNamara’s Ann Arbor and Athens speeches on this topic, prompting attempts to allay their concerns. He notes that while the rhetoric from McNamara changed in the 1960s, basic instructions to the military did not. He regrets the change in McNamara’s thinking toward assured destruction, and discusses other aspects of McNamara’s revised conceptions of nuclear strategy. He asserts that the total destructive power of the U.S. arsenal reached its peak in the 1950s and has been declining steadily, in part due to the increased accuracy of weapons systems. He goes on to discuss topics such as the idea that if one side boosts its arsenal the other will inevitably follow, and describes how his thinking about deterrence, first-use and other issues evolved over the years.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
At the Brink
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Interview with Henry Rowen, 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


Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Antimissile missiles
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Civil defense
United States. Air Force
Kahn, Herman, 1922-1983
United States
Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970
First strike (Nuclear strategy)
Kent, Glenn A., 1915-
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Warsaw Treaty Organization
Deterrence (Strategy)
Nuclear warfare
Rostow, Eugene V. (Eugene Victor), 1913-2002
Nuclear weapons
Soviet Union
Rand Corporation
Great Britain
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Rowen, Henry S. (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Henry Rowen, 1986,” 02/26/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Henry Rowen, 1986.” 02/26/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Henry Rowen, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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