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‘The Day After’ 1983: real and imagined nuclear attack in the Cold War

On the evening of November 20 1983, 100 million Americans settled down to watch Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV film The Day After. The film’s focus was a familiarly normal community in rural Eastern Kansas in the lead up to, and aftermath of, nuclear war. It is shocking and arrestingly bleak viewing; moreover it was, and remained for years afterwards, the most highly rated TV film in US broadcast history. Its importance however, lies less in its status as a landmark media event than in what it demonstrates about the cultural imagination in the 1980s. The deterioration in relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact raised for a new generation the meaningful prospect of nuclear apocalypse. The Day After is only one example of a notable manifestation of a contemporaneous burgeoning – and now largely forgotten – paranoia in the popular culture of the time. It’s my conviction – and the focus for my PhD research – that such fictional responses don’t just reflect the paranoia that was a product of the period, but that that they ultimately made a necessary and significant contribution to the eventual outcome.

In the same month that the film was broadcast NATO ran a large covert escalation-to-war exercise entitled Able Archer 83. The purpose of the exercise was to rehearse the series of procedures that would be followed in the lead up to a nuclear exchange. It featured military personnel and related Government departments and individuals. Command post exercises were not uncommon throughout the Cold War, but coming as it did at a time of particularly heightened tension, this one nearly led to a catastrophic misunderstanding. The Soviets, who closely monitored any such events, were concerned that Able Archer was in fact the cover for a real-world ‘bolt from the blue’ first strike attack. They became so convinced of this that they ultimately assumed their highest state of readiness, anticipating nuclear war as imminent. This was not life imitating art; it was art unknowingly – and terrifyingly – imitating life. The incident, that has latterly become known as 1983 ‘War Scare’, was only diffused when KGB double agent Oleg Gordievsky alerted his handlers that NATO were unknowingly ushering the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Audiences at the time had no idea as they were watching it, that the fictional nuclear war of The Day After was so closely threatening to envelope them in the real world. The real world did however use its fiction to try to imagine what was so dreadfully and presently possible. An ABC Viewpoint discussion after the broadcast featured panel members including Cuban Missile Crisis Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, eminent scientist and nuclear winter theorist, Carl Sagan and Secretary of State George Schultz. On the same night David Longhurst, Mayor of Lawrence, Kansas, offered the words: ‘I do not want this film to be a preview of coming attractions. We must not wait until the day after’. It was clear that in the nuclear world, where there can be only hypotheticals, fiction was assuming the responsibility of fact – at least on some level.

It transpired that it was not just in assisting the population of America to imagine nuclear war that The Day After’s fiction was affecting attitudes. When President Reagan began negotiating arms limitation treaties with Soviet Premier Gorbachev it wasn’t widely known at the time, but the film had also had a sizable impact on him and his attitude towards his Cold War adversaries. His presidential diary from October 10, 1983 (published in his memoir in 1990), records:

‘I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running Nov. 20. It’s called The Day After in which Lawrence, Kansas is wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done…It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed…’

Thus film, and the accompanying information about the War Scare, eventually precipitated a change in direction from Reagan behind closed doors. Ultimately, the unquantifiable scope and potential of the bomb meant that fiction became the only way to imagine the real.

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