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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Thomas Schelling, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Thomas Schelling is a scholar of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control, who served in the White House and Executive Office of the President from 1951-1953. During the Kennedy administration he was a consultant to the State Department and previously worked at the RAND Corporation. He begins with a discussion of his own early strategic interests and the state of thinking among other strategists in the latter 1950s, pointing out, among other things, that the credibility of Mutual Assured Destruction was already well on the decline by then. The more credible deterrent, he believes, is simply the widely recognized awareness that even a localized conventional conflict can go nuclear. This leads to a discussion of how to utilize a nuclear threat. In his conception, there is no reliable method to control use of nuclear weapons, there is only the hope of keeping them from being used "in a way that everybody would regret instantly." In this sense, Robert McNamara's Ann Arbor speech in 1962 reflected the objective of preventing a major escalation. It was not a war-fighting strategy, but more a reflection of McNamara's fear of nuclear weapons. He then speculates on why it is difficult for a secretary of defense to implement his preferred strategic policies -- one of the reasons being the uniformed military's sense that war-fighting is part of their sphere. He discusses concepts of command-and-control and weapons refinements as they evolved in the 1960s, then continues with a lengthy consideration of aspects of the no-cities doctrine. He speculates on the likelihood of a nuclear conflict under certain conditions; relates in depth his experiences with designing war games in the early 1960s around the Berlin crisis; and follows up with certain thoughts about the nature of the flexible response doctrine.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
At the Brink
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Interview with Thomas Schelling, 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


Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
Soviet Union
Unites States
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Nuclear warfare
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Mutual assured destruction
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
Churchill, Winston, 1874-1965
Rand Corporation
Berlin (Germany)
Nuclear weapons
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Flexible response (Nuclear strategy)
Korean War, 1950-1953
Dulles, John Foster, 1888-1959
Berlin (Germany) -- History-- Crisis, 1961
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Schelling, Thomas C., 1921- (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Thomas Schelling, 1986,” 03/04/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Thomas Schelling, 1986.” 03/04/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Thomas Schelling, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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