“The Day After, ABC‘s much-discussed vision of nuclear Armageddon, is no longer only a television film, of course; it has become an event, a rally and a controversy, much of it orchestrated.”
— The New York Times, November 20, 1983
I have a somewhat morbid fascination with nuclear war. It is one of the absolute worst and unimaginably nightmarish things that could theoretically happen. When you step back and think about the bullet that the human race dodged during the Cold War, it is truly mind-blowing. If anything, it’s really the bullet that fascinates me, and my fascination really isn’t that morbid, because the more I think about it, the more grateful I am for what I have. Watch a few Protect and Survive videos and you’ll start feeling a lot better about your problems.
Most people have no idea that the world almost ended on September 26, 1983. On that day, Soviet missile detection systems glitched out, and it appeared that the United States had launched five ICBMs at Russia. Mandatory Soviet protocol for such an event was to launch a full-scale nuclear attack in response, but Stanislav Petrov, the commanding officer on duty, refused to do so. He guessed correctly that it had to be a mistake, because a real American first strike would have involved hundreds of missiles. But had someone other than Stanislav Petrov been on duty that day, who knows? I might be writing this article on a stone tablet right now.
These days, a nuclear war seems only slightly more probable than a zombie apocalypse, but I’m old enough to remember the Cold War, when nuclear war was a real possibility and constantly hung over mankind like the Sword of Damocles. A lot of people believed that nuclear war was inevitable. Why wouldn’t it be? Given that the history of mankind since ancient times had been a story of constant warfare, it seemed likelier that a nuclear war would happen sooner or later than that the human leopard would suddenly change his spots.
I previously wrote an article where I talked about how 1980s America was completely obsessed with nuclear war, and a number of people with bad memories from that time commented to tell me I was wrong and that fears of nuclear war had subsided by the 1980s. They are wrong. There is probably no bigger piece of evidence for that than the culture phenomenon that was The Day After.
The Day After was a made-for-TV movie that attempted to depict what a nuclear war would look like and what life would be like for those who were unlucky enough to survive. It’s shown from the perspective of regular people in Lawrence, Kansas. There are no politicians or generals in The Day After. It’s about average Americans who are merely going about their lives when all of a sudden, a nuclear war breaks out. For months before it aired, The Day After generated extraordinary hype and controversy as it promised to be the most brutal, realistic, and uncompromising depiction of nuclear war ever filmed. It’s on YouTube, and you can watch it here.
The Day After aired on ABC on November 20, 1983, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It was watched by 100 million people — half of all American adults — and remains the most-watched made-for-TV movie of all time. It is still the fifth-most watched non-Super Bowl American TV broadcast in history after the series finale of M*A*S*H*, the episode of Dallas where they revealed who shot J.R., the series finale of Cheers, and the 1994 Olympic Ladies’ figure skating contest (which drew interest due to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan controversy).
By all accounts, no one initially involved with the project anticipated that it would become as big as it did. Director Nick Meyer has stated that he did not believe that The Day After would ever be shown on television, as he believed someone would surely pull the plug on it before it was broadcast. That was what happened to the BBC’s 1966 nuclear war docudrama The War Game. The BBC produced the 45-minute film, but before it could air, the British government determined that it would be far too upsetting to be shown on television. It was given a limited theater run and shown at several film festivals, and later won an Academy Award for best documentary. It was eventually shown on British television nearly 20 years later, in 1985.
But The Day After did air, and as the broadcast date neared, it had become a cause célèbre. There were several controversies surrounding it.
First, conservative Cold War hawks were concerned that there was a political agenda behind it. At the time, Reagan was in the process of a nuclear build-up, and even before The Day After had aired, it was being championed by the anti-nukes movement, which believed that the West should disarm itself, unilaterally if necessary.
Second, the movie never specifies which side launched its nukes first. Conservatives were outraged at the suggestion that, if Armageddon ever came, that it might be America’s fault, and said that this implied a moral equivalence between the US and the “evil empire.” While they may have struggled to put their finger on how or why, conservatives felt in their guts that this had to be commie propaganda.
Lastly, there was concern that The Day After would be emotionally and psychologically damaging to children. Nuclear war is something that scared the living shit out of grownups, so surely the kiddies wouldn’t stand a chance.
In a November 7 New York Times article entitled “The Impact on Children of The Day After,” a psychologist named Dorothy Singer is quoted:
The sense of loss suffered by the families on the screen may provoke profound fears about children’s separation from parents. I fear children will have nightmares about the show and worry about it for weeks or even months. Older children and adults may have a sense of hopelessness.
The same article quotes Tom Roderick of Educators for Social Responsibility:
The threat of nuclear war is real, millions of children are aware of the danger and parents can’t reassure children that this is a fictional situation.
Educators for Social Responsibility put out a pamphlet for parents on how to talk to their kids about the movie. “Rather than informing young viewers and inspiring them to seek solutions, the film may leave them numb and resigned to the inevitability of nuclear catastrophe,” it informed them.
The week before The Day After aired, the children’s show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, a program where host Fred Rogers would talk to children in his famously calm and reassuring voice about their fears and concerns, ran five half-hour episodes on nuclear war.
Americans had been talking about nuclear war for decades and had imagined what it might be like, but now for the first time they were going to actually be shown it. Expectations were that minds were going to be blown on a massive scale. ABC distributed 500,000 viewing guide pamphlets to libraries, churches, and community centers with the aim of mentally and emotionally preparing people for the film. Some ABC affiliates set up toll-free counsellor hotlines for anyone who was disturbed after watching it.
There was some wrangling between the network and the director over how long The Day After should be. The network initially wanted the film to be four hours and broadcast over two nights for maximum advertising revenue. Director Nick Meyer wanted a three-hour film, and was adamant that it be shown in its entirety on one night for maximum effect.
In the end, The Day After was two-and-a-quarter hours long and shown on one night. This was mostly due to the fact that many advertisers wanted nothing to do with the film and had no interest in associating their brand with the worst thing imaginable. As Meyer recalled:
General Mills, General Motors, General Foods — all the Generals had headed for the hills. So suddenly the advertising revenues that were anticipated became completely moot. That’s how it became a two-hour movie as it always should have been.
There were some commercial breaks early in the film, during the peacetime segments, but after the first missiles are fired, the movie broadcast the remainder commercial-free. A three-hour workprint version has also surfaced on the internet.
Nick Meyer decided that the film would be more effective and believable with unknown actors. It would have distracted people from the subject matter and break immersion to have recognizable actors on the screen, causing the viewer to constantly think, “Hey, I know that guy! Oh, and there’s the cop from that one show! Look! It’s Janet from Three’s Company!” The only established star in The Day After was Jason Robards, who had previously won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. However, the movie does feature then-unknown actors John Lithgow and Steve Guttenberg, who would later become stars in their own right.
Nicholas Meyer explained:
As a movie, I was well aware even at the time of its shortcomings. There is a paradox about nuclear war in that it is the most urgent problem that has ever confronted the human race . . . but at the same time it’s such a terrible dilemma that none of us can really bear to think about it. So if you make a movie about it, the audience will go anywhere their minds can rationalize to avoid confronting the movie. They’d rather talk about the music or talk about how Jason Robards was brilliant — anything, other than the subject. So as a director I found myself engaged in a counterintuitive exercise of trying not to make a good movie. . . . I didn’t want people talking about Jason Robards. I didn’t want people talking about the music — which is why after the opening credits there is no music. I viewed myself as not wanting to make a movie but a public service announcement: If you have a nuclear war, this is what it’s going to be like — only probably not this good.
Meyer wanted The Day After to have an authentically Midwestern feel. It was filmed on location in Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas and close to where a lot of America’s Minuteman missile silos were stationed at the time. Fifteen of the speaking cast came from Los Angeles, while the rest were local theater actors from the Kansas City area. The extras were all local volunteers.
The Day After can be broken into two halves: before and after the attack. The film centers on two families. The first is the Oakes family, of whom cardiologist Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) is the patriarch. As the film opens, Russell learns that his daughter intends on moving to Boston because she wants to be closer to some guy she likes. This makes him sad, but she’s a grown woman now, so what can he do? The Oakes live in Kansas City, which takes a direct hit in the war, killing all of the Oakes family except for Russell, who is on the highway driving back from Lawrence, where he teaches a class, when the missiles strike.
The other family is the Dahlbergs, a farming family who live in Harrisonville, 40 miles away from Kansas City. As the film opens, the big news in the Dahlberg family is that their daughter, Denise, is to be married soon. Alas, the wedding becomes indefinitely postponed after her fiancée is vaporized in the war.
The first half of The Day After follows these characters as they go through their ordinary — and sometimes humdrum — lives. All the while, there are radio and TV news reports playing in the background which become progressively more alarming. The Soviets have blocked off West Berlin, leading to a huge crisis. Then the Soviets invade West Germany. Then NATO responds with tactical nuclear weapons. The extra footage in the workprint version mostly comes from this pre-attack part of the film and includes more of these news reports, filling in the backstory leading up to the war.
We meet some other characters in the first half. There is a black soldier who tries to reassure his wife that the crisis is nothing to worry about before going off to his assignment, guarding a missile silo. There is John Lithgow’s character, who is the science director at the University of Kansas. There is Steve Guttenberg as University of Kansas pre-med student Stephen Klein. We also have Dr. Sam Hachiya, a wise-cracking Asian doctor who works at the campus hospital.
Interestingly, the workprint version of The Day After includes a scene which suggests that Dr. Hachiya is an anti-Semite. There is a scene where he is giving Steve Guttenberg a physical examination Sam asks Stephen for his name. After he gives it, Sam lowers his glasses, looks at Klein, and sarcastically says “Japanese?” — a sort of sly way of saying, “Oh, so you are a Jew.”
Shortly afterwards, Sam asks, “What’s your major, Stephen?” “Pre-med,” Stephen replies. In the broadcast version, the scene ends here, but in the workprint version, Sam replies, “Are you kidding me? What, you think doctors make a lot of money or something, huh?”
The situation in Europe escalates quickly, and people become increasingly nervous, but there are still people who doubt there is any danger. There is a scene where some college students are listening to a radio news broadcast and hanging on every word when a bespectacled girl scoffs at the reports.
Student #2: Fantasyland!
Aldo: You think they’re making it all up, like War of the Worlds or something?
Student #2: Look. Did we save the Czechs or the Hungarians or the Afghans or the Poles? Well, we’re not going to nuke the Russians to save the Germans. I mean, if you were talking oil in Saudi Arabia, then I’d be real worried.
Panic starts to take over as the news coming out of Europe gets ever grimmer. People start evacuating the city. There is a scene in a supermarket where the place is a madhouse. The shelves are rapidly emptying as people buy carts full of food. We learn that the conflict has spread to the Persian Gulf, where the Soviets and Americans have started sinking each other’s ships.
The question of whether there will be a war or not is finally settled when everyone sees the Minuteman missiles being launched, with everyone knowing that a Soviet return strike is now inevitable. At the Dahlberg house, mother Eve Dahlberg refuses to confront reality and continues making preparations for Denise’s wedding. As the Soviet missiles are minutes away from impact, Eve is still busily making the beds as if nothing is wrong. Father Jim Dahlberg finally has to drag a hysterical Eve down to their basement.
A Soviet bomb detonates in space over the US, generating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which fries everything electronic across the country. Shortly after, the Soviet missiles strike their targets, and the death and destruction is incalculable. Nevertheless, the attack itself is just the beginning of everyone’s problems. After the attack, deadly radioactive fallout rains down across the state. The survivors have to stay in whatever shelter they have for several weeks afterwards until the radiation levels drop. This isn’t a problem for the Dahlbergs, who piled dirt around and stockpiled food and water in their basement. Nevertheless, their son, Danny, is blinded when he looks directly at a nuclear blast, as he is caught outside when the missiles hit.
Some of the characters like Dr. Oakes, Stephen Klein, and the black soldier were all on the highway when the attack came and have no choice but to walk through the fallout to safety. As a result, they all later develop radiation sickness.
Denise Dahlberg eventually snaps from the mental strain of spending so long in the basement bunker and runs out into the still dangerously-radioactive outdoors. There are dead farm animals strew all over the fields, and as Denise runs, white fallout dust kicks up with each step. Stephen Klein, who had taken up residence with the Dahlbergs, sacrifices himself to run out and talk Denise into coming back inside. Denise is heartbroken about the death of her fiancée, but over time starts to develop feelings for Stephen. Their romance is cut short when both of them come down with radiation sickness after their brief jaunt in the outdoors, however.
Dr. Oakes takes up residency at the University of Kansas campus hospital. The doctors struggle to treat the enormous crowds of ill and injured people who come to them with their limited resources. The EMP has deprived them of most of their sophisticated equipment. All they have for electricity is car batteries. Water is also a big problem, as doctors need a lot of it for cleaning.
ABC strenuously denied that there was any political message in The Day After, but there are some moments of sermonizing. At one point, a pregnant woman tells Dr. Oakes:
We knew the score. We knew all about bombs. We knew all about fallout. We knew this could happen for 40 years. Nobody was interested.
Several weeks after the nuclear exchange, the President makes a nationwide radio broadcast. When the film was first aired, the voice of the President was a Reagan soundalike, but in subsequent broadcasts it was changed to the voice of a generic stock character. He speaks over a montage of images of post-nuclear suffering and survivors with thousand-yard stares, which makes the speech sound like a sort of sick joke:
In this hour of sorrow, I wish to assure you that America has survived this tribulation. There has been no surrender, no retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy for which the free world looks to us for leadership. We remain undaunted before all but almighty God.
The struggle to rebuild begins, and it is not easy. The topsoil in the fields is now radioactive. The government advises the farmers to simply remove the first few inches of soil, but they balk at such a monumental undertaking.
Tent cities pop up all over the land. The government struggles to feed the survivors. We are shown a gymnasium full of people dying from radiation poisoning. Jim Dahlberg is killed by some squatters he tries to evict from his property.
Near the end of the film, Dr. Oakes, who has been working heroically and tirelessly at the campus hospital since the attack, starts to develop radiation sickness himself, and it is clear that he does not have much time left. He decides that before he dies, he would like to see his home in Kansas City one last time. Martial law is now in effect, and as Dr. Oakes makes his way to Kansas City, he witnesses many scenes of horror, including an Army firing squad executing looters.
When Dr. Oakes at least reaches his home, it is nothing but a pile of rubble which has been occupied by a group of squatters. For the first time in the movie, Dr. Oakes loses his cool. He yells at the squatters to get off his property. None of the squatters move, but one of them offers Dr. Oakes a fruit. Dr. Oakes falls to the ground and begins to weep inconsolably. The squatter comes over and put his arm around Dr. Oakes to console him.
The last voice you hear before the end credits is that of John Lithgow speaking into his CB radio, trying to contact the outside world. “Hello? Is anybody there? Anybody at all?”
After this, we see this message scroll by on the screen:
The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States. It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples, and leaders to find the means to avert that fateful day.
The initial broadcast was followed by a roundtable discussion hosted by Ted Koppel and featuring former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft, scientist Carl Sagan, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, Jr., and “Holocaust survivor” Elie Wiesel. You can watch it here.
The Day After was not the first movie of its kind, nor is it the best movie of its kind. A year later, the BBC released Threads which, despite having only a fraction of The Day After’s budget (£400,000 to The Day After’s $7,000,000), manages to be exponentially more intense. Watching The Day After will bum you out, but Threads will rape your mind and give you nightmares. You can watch Threads here.
Even director Nick Meyer has acknowledged that The War Game and Threads are more powerful movies than The Day After. He claims that he held back because there were concerns that people would just turn their sets off if it were too gruesome.
While The Day After is far from the best movie about nuclear war, it in terms of societal impact, it was the most explosive. The film started a national conversation about nuclear war and even rattled the most powerful man in the country. Ronald Reagan wrote about The Day After in his diary twice. After screening an advance copy of the film, he wrote the following in his diary on October 10, 1983:
Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called The Day After. It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done — all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the “anti-nukes” or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war. Back to W. H.
Reagan mentioned the film again in his diary on November 18, 1983, two day before The Day After was broadcast. By this point, conservatives had strategized how they were going to spin the film: that a nuclear buildup is the best way to avoid nuclear war:
George [Shultz] is going on ABC right after its big nuclear bomb film Sunday night. We know it’s “anti-nuke” propaganda but we’re going to take it over & say it shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.
After Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, his administration sent a letter to director Nicholas Meyer which read, “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
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