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The Day My Father Scared America
Forty years after ‘The Day After,’ can we have cohesive national moments anymore?
MY FATHER HAD A STORY TO TELL that no one wanted to hear. He was repeatedly warned not to, even by the White House. But he wouldn’t retreat until he had dragged President Reagan, and the whole country, through the simulation of nuclear war.
Forty years ago last night, 100 million viewers (out of roughly 234 million Americans) tuned in to The Day After on ABC, making it the most-watched movie in television history. The Nielsen ratings showed that 62 percent of TVs in use on the night of Sunday, November 20, 1983 were tuned in to the movie. And nearly every American had heard about it.
The Day After was inescapable. There was a loud, long run-up to the broadcast, with advanced screenings, bootleg copies, abundant publicity and panic. Agonizing debates preceded the film’s airing—which hung in the balance until the final hours—as pressure accumulated from the Reagan administration, the conservative right, and multiple departments within ABC itself. Psychiatrists warned the film would produce a suicide surge.
Schools across the country braced for the provocation and while some assigned viewing, most cautioned parents and students. In promoting the movie ABC warned of the coming horror, and set up a toll-free phone line for counseling and advising that children under the age of 12 should not watch the film.
“Senior White House officials, who have been reviewing advance tapes of the film for more than a week, said they are apprehensive that the two-hour broadcast could heighten fears about Reagan’s hand on the nuclear trigger if not answered by the administration,” the Washington Post’s White House correspondents wrote two days before the movie aired.
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The White House and ABC agreed some discussion should immediately follow the film and worked together to create a panel discussion on ABC’s occasional program Viewpoint, which was usually dedicated to “criticism and analysis of television news.” The live episode kicked off with remarks by Secretary of State George Shultz, who was dispatched to make the case that the Reagan administration’s policy of balance and deterrence was also focused on reductions in nuclear weapons. After Shultz came the panel: Carl Sagan, William F. Buckley Jr., Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, and two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara. The discussion was moderated by ABC’s Ted Koppel.
The idea for The Day After came from my father, Brandon Stoddard, who was then the president of ABC Motion Pictures. He wanted Americans, not politicians, to grapple with what nuclear war would mean, and he felt “fear had really paralyzed people.” So the movie was meant to force the issue. “The intent of The Day After was to bring this forward, make them talk about it, make them think about it and decide what they were going to do about it,” he said years later in an interview.
In a 60 Minutes segment that aired one week before the movie came out, my father argued that the movie took no political position. “I’ll say again, and again, and again that it’s not” a political movie. “It was never intended to be and it isn’t. It is a movie that says nuclear war is horrible. That’s what it says.”
The Day After portrayed life in the Midwest, during a buildup of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile striking Kansas City, Missouri at 3:38 p.m. Central Time.
Grisly images—from the mushroom cloud and fire and rubble and vaporized bodies to the days following where zombified survivors in Lawrence, Kansas with radiation poisoning attempt to put off the inevitable—were designed and produced to be as realistic as possible.
The movie intentionally never makes clear which nation launched the first strike. It closes with a note that reads: “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 on 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 the fateful day.”
THE PROSPECT OF NUCLEAR WAR was very real in the public mind in 1983: A Gallup poll conducted just as the movie came out found that 40 percent of Americans believed a nuclear war was likely in the next decade, and 69 percent of Americans believed they had a “poor” chance of surviving such a war. Nearly half of the respondents (47 percent) felt the Reagan administration had brought the country closer to war.
Ronald Reagan was, of course, a man of the movies himself. He took the movies seriously, in terms of both politics and policy—and in 1983 his national security policy kept strangely intersecting with movies.
First, the missile-defense program he announced in March 1983 speech was instantly mocked with the nickname “Star Wars,” after the movie.
Then, in June 1983, he screened WarGames, in which a nuclear war is barely averted, at Camp David on the same weekend it opened, and a few days later he asked his top national security officials how realistic was the computer-hacking scenario it depicted. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got back to him a few days later with a disturbing reply: “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.”
The president screened The Day After with Nancy Reagan at Camp David on Columbus Day weekend, more than a month before it aired. He wrote in his diary how it profoundly affected him:
It is powerfully done—all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. . . . 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.
Then-Rep. Ed Markey said at the time that the movie “put the lie to the whole notion of ‘limited nuclear war’” and that people would “never again think of fallout shelters as a way of protecting themselves in a nuclear war.”
The ABC News Viewpoint discussion is well worth the time, to see a dignified and substantive conversation without any partisanship. Some of it was, however, simply well-spoken hot air1—the need to talk around the forceful impact of the film and the glaring lack of any solution. Kissinger dismissed the movie’s value as some indulgent “orgy” of emotionalism and warned that the challenge of the United States “requires that we do not scare ourselves to death because if the Soviet Union gets the idea that the United States has morally disarmed itself and psychologically disarmed itself, then the precise consequences were describing here will happen.”
But Reagan acknowledged in his autobiography that the film put him on the path to cooperation with Mikhail Gorbachev that resulted in them signing the Intermediate-Range and Nuclear Forces Treaty several years later.
The Day After director Nicholas Meyer, who is now executive producing a documentary based on the book Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by the late Daniel Ellsberg, summed up the film’s accomplishment this way: “I did something more than foil Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid. I changed his mind.”
MY FATHER AND MEYER worked in an age of television that doesn’t exist anymore—one in which TV could still unite the culture, and sometimes even enlighten it. That era feels terribly remote.
In 2023, we don’t know what could unite us again.
We failed to come together in a global pandemic in 2020. And not even a year later, the United States would experience an attack on our government, an attempt to steal an election—by our own president—and not collectively condemn it. The willingness to whitewash January 6th, to refuse to draw that line, was a betrayal that 1983 America could not fathom.
Nine months later, in the shadow of the insurrection, we honored the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, aware that the unity we saw two decades ago is not something most of us will see again in our lifetimes.
We will likely never again come together to watch a television show or movie in the way we did The Day After. But no urgent matter creates cohesion. Our two sides evaluate every political, cultural, and even scientific occurrence through the prism of tribal exigencies. Everything is an occasion for division, and no matter what befalls us, one side will always declare it’s the fault of a political enemy, or that it doesn’t matter.
And, of course, the nuclear threat remains. Today, many more nations are armed with nuclear weapons, we face the threat of loose nukes, and the Russians—having failed to rapidly overtake Ukraine after invading in February 2022—have threatened to use them as a result of the severe degradation of their military capacity in the ongoing ground war.
Koppel, who called The Day After a national event, concluded the Viewpoint panel by saying that in frightening the public so intensely perhaps the movie was “less than useful.” But he said if it had
shed something of a national tendency toward complacency, then that is good. We need to talk about the problem. We need to examine, not only as a nation, but as members of an endangered species, a means toward a solution. We cannot succeed in that goal if we are rigid and doctrinaire in our approach to those with whom we disagree. What is at stake this time is much more than simply winning an argument.
Arguably the biggest threat to our national security today is our division and inability to cooperate. We don’t want to think we are already in our day after, but the assumption we can survive as a country while mired in our political wars is a dangerous complacency.
Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, offers the Viewpoint episode as an example of the limitations of television for serious moral debate: “This was no discussion as we normally use the word. Even when the ‘discussion’ period began, there were no arguments or counterarguments, no scrutiny of assumptions, no explanations, no elaborations, no definitions. . . . Apparently, no one wanted to take time from his own few minutes to call attention to someone else’s.”