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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with William Fairbourn, 1986

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


William Fairbourn was a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps. In the interview he discusses his role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and his views on the threat of nuclear weapons. He describes his deployment orders, which included taking his troops through the Panama Canal and being prepared to “land on the coast of Cuba, seize Santiago, and march on to Havana.” Despite more recent speculation on whether the deployment of these troops was a decoy, he does not think that these speculations will ever be able to be proven, and describes the mood among his troops as serious and ready to defend their country. He describes the scope of the invasion force and states that their expectation was for moderate causalities – around 10% – but that he believed resistance would only last “maybe for a couple of days.” His forces did not carry nuclear weapons on this mission, he says. Looking back, General Fairbourn believes that it was not just America’s superior nuclear capability that made Khrushchev blink, but also the naval blockade and deployments of conventional forces. He concludes by saying that he did not believe the world was facing a massive war, but that in any event there was nothing he could do about the nuclear threat; he could only do his job to best of his ability and ensure the readiness of the conventional forces.

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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age
At the Brink
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Interview with William Fairbourn, 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


McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
United States. Marine Corps
Nuclear weapons
Military weapons
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Castro, Fidel, 1926-
Soviet Union
United States
Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
Weinberger, Caspar W.
Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968
Global Affairs
War and Conflict
Fairbourn, William (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with William Fairbourn, 1986,” 03/22/1986, GBH Archives, accessed December 11, 2023,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with William Fairbourn, 1986.” 03/22/1986. GBH Archives. Web. December 11, 2023. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with William Fairbourn, 1986. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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