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War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Carl Kaysen, 1986 [2]

Part of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.


Carl Kaysen was the Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs for President Kennedy. In this interview he discusses the overall nuclear strategy of the Kennedy Administration, as well as the specific views of various members of that administration including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and himself. He discusses the ideas of deterrence, mutual assured destruction, damage limitation, and targeting issues. He also describes his proposal for the small first strike he worked on with Henry Rowen in response to the 1961 Berlin Crisis. He answers criticism of the preemptive plan by explaining that they never encouraged that it be put in place, but thought it would be a good idea to see what such a plan would look like. He also explains his civil defense study, ordered by President Kennedy. The study mainly focused on the idea of fallout shelters; however, the administration’s push for a new civil defense program fell out of favor when Kennedy realized the overreaction of the American people. Dr. Kaysen ends by describing the “new frontier” atmosphere of working with the Kennedy administration, full of bright people and facing serious new issues.

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



Interview with Carl Kaysen, 1986 [2]

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


Berlin (Germany)
Wigner, Eugene Paul, 1902-1995
Enthoven, Alain C., 1930-
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
Thomas, Albert, 1898-1966 ---
Hitch, Charles Johnston
McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
United States. Congress
Nuclear warfare
United States
United States. Air Force
Nuclear arms control
United States. Dept. of Defense
United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff
Brown, Harold, 1927-
Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Soviet Union
Yarmolinsky, Adam
Teller, Edward, 1908-2003
World War II
Sorensen, Theodore C.
Bell, David E., 1919-
Rowen, Henry S.
National Security Council (U.S.)
Schelling, Thomas C., 1921-
Nuclear weapons
Staats, Elmer B., 1914-2011
Single Integrated Operational Plan
Raskin, Marcus G.
Fallout shelters
Gates, Thomas S.
Wiesner, Jerome B. (Jerome Bert), 1915-1994
Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969
McNaughton, John T. (John Theodore), 1921-
Bundy, McGeorge
Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968
Civil defense
War and Conflict
Global Affairs
Kaysen, Carl (Interviewee)
Publication Information
WGBH Educational Foundation
Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Carl Kaysen, 1986 [2],” 03/20/1986, GBH Archives, accessed June 19, 2024,
MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Carl Kaysen, 1986 [2].” 03/20/1986. GBH Archives. Web. June 19, 2024. <>.
APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; At the Brink; Interview with Carl Kaysen, 1986 [2]. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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