Atomic Angst: Remembering the Last Year in Which Nuclear War Shook Us

Steven Church and I have a few things in common.  We were both shaped by the flat, small-town environments that provided the backdrop for our respective childhoods: Lawrence, Kansas for Church, the Central Valley's Modesto, California for me.  We both identify as children of the 1980s.  And we were both freaked out by nuclear war in 1983.

Church had greater reason to freak than I did, since the area of the Midwest that he called home got nuked on television that year.  An English professor at Cal State Fresno, Church recounts watching the production in Lawrence of the made-for-TV drama The Day After for his 2010 memoir, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst.  Other events in Lawrence around that time made him a particularly anxious adolescent, not the least of which was the divorce of his parents.  Yet The Day After is the dramatic center of Church's recollection, and his book is an engaging reminder of just how terrifying growing up during the last years of the Cold War could be.

In sync with the burgeoning antinuclear movement of the late 1970s and early '80s, Brandon Stoddard, then-president of ABC Motion Pictures, reportedly conceived The Day After in response to 1979's The China Syndrome, a nuclear plant-gone-wrong film coincidentally released two week prior to the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.  The network drama was directed by Nicholas Meyer, most well-known today for having directed successful entries in the Star Trek franchise.  The Day After attempts to depict how the build-up to and aftermath of a full-blown nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union would be experienced by average Americans, something few prior productions, big-screen or small, had attempted to do.

While perhaps jokingly remembered by many for its special effects -- the Mid West victims of nuclear blasts simply zap off the screen in an obviously low-tech yet still disturbing "x-ray" montage -- its broadcast on November 20, 1983 was a major national controversy.  It was the same year as Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, the announcement of SDI, and the Soviet shoot-down of South Korean flight 007 that killed 269 passengers.  Stoddard, Meyer, and company were tapping a deep vein of public atomic anxiety.  Even Matthew Broderick was busy in 1983 reminding cinema audiences that tic-tac-toe and nuclear war weren't that dissimilar.     

Its creators attempted to skirt certain political controversies or hints of bias as media coverage prior to the broadcast intensified; nevertheless, The Day After resonated with antinuclear and nuclear "freeze" groups.  As Newsweek quoted one activist, "[a]ll our meetings are just a teardrop in the bucket compared to the number of people who will see this film."  In recent years, Meyer has been a bit more candid about the political context of The Day After.  In his 2009 Hollywood memoir The View From the Bridge, which contains an entire chapter devoted to the film, he reflects on The Day After as something slightly more than the non-ideological discussion-provoking device that he and others had claimed it was:

Since Americans (and, for all I knew, everyone else as well) were constitutionally incapable of reading the "antinuclear" books and articles or watching the alarmist TV documentaries, and were equally unwilling to watch such nuclear-themed movies as On the Beach, I had the idea that maybe the comforting familiarity of our script might work for us, would enable the film to sneak in the back door of everyone's consciousness, so to speak, in the guise of the good old reliable movie of the week.  I knew, however, that whatever its soap opera camouflage, The Day After was no movie of the week.

Whatever Meyer's antinuclear views at the time, they may not have been that far removed from those of the president -- even granting, as noted on the nuclear culture website Conelrad, that Meyer has since revealed in a radio interview that one of his original goals in making the film was to deny Reagan a second term.  As noted by biographers, The Day After played upon Reagan's own distaste for atomic weapons and his desire to end the Cold War.  While he was critical of the film publicly (some two weeks after the broadcast in People Magazine, Reagan labeled it a "horror film ... which has not had a lasting impact") and his administration called into account The Day After's "simple-minded" approach to nuclear issues, he was privately moved by ABC's version of World War III.  Published in 2007, Reagan's diary entry for October 10, 1983 reports in part: "It's very effective & left me greatly depressed."

That's comforting information for Church, who in his creative nonfiction quest to relieve the childhood trauma represented by the movie writes: "I wish I'd known as a kid that Reagan was so moved by The Day After.  It might have made me feel a little more secure, slightly less afraid and closer to him."  Meyer is even more bully on Reagan, something made clear in an interview Church conducted with the director for his book.  He credits the commander in chief for having changed his mind about nuclear weaponry after watching The Day After.  In a separate interview from 2003, Meyer is quoted as claiming: "When he signed the Intermediate Range Weapons Agreement with Gorbachev, I got a telegram from his administration that said, 'Don't think your movie didn't have any part of this, because it did.'"

My own scholarly juices started flowing when I first read that tidbit: does Meyer still have the telegram?  As a historian and as someone also deeply affected by his film, I had to contact him myself and ask, and Meyer kindly responded to an e-mail query I sent a couple of years ago.  (He is apparently rather accessible when it comes to psychological victims of The Day After.)  He either was misquoted or misspoke in 2003 -- Meyer told me that he received many telegrams after Reagan's summit with Gorbachev in 1986, one of which gave credit to the film, but it did not come from the White House.  Alas, he nuked the telegram legend, yet I find it easy to forgive Meyer, even if he did exaggerate The Day After's historical influence.  After all, the man directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But how much boosting of the legacy of The Day After is valid?  It is commonly noted in literature on the film that it had little or no political or cultural affect.  Millions more Americans did not begin marching for a nuclear freeze, and polls conducted after the broadcast showed that public approval for the Reagan administration, tough stance toward the Russians and all, increased.  Yet there is also evidence that The Day After made Americans think more deeply about atomic weapons and the devastation they entail.  This may seem self-evident for a film that generated such wide attention and was focused on revealing for audiences how a "real" nuclear war would play out.  Nevertheless, as one film scholar has suggested, on-screen depictions of World War III were too horrifying for the average viewer to consciously consider during the Cold War and were thus psychologically repressed.

Evidence arguing against that interpretation includes anecdotes like those in Church's book.  The terrifying prospect of a worldwide nuclear exchange stayed with Church, and me, for years.  It was a subject of my nightly horrors and prayers past my teens, beyond the fall of the Soviet Union.

As individuals who were profoundly affected by The Day After, Church and I no doubt represent a minority of our generation.  Still, I am happy that Millennials have grown up in a post-1983 world.  Fears of a zombie apocalypse are a comforting substitute for the real thing.

Richard Ravalli is assistant professor of history at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.  He no longer eschews Facebook.