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When Hollywood Put World War III on Television

When Hollywood Put World War III on Television

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The ABC made-for-television movie The Day After premiered on November 20, 1983. It changed the way many Americans thought about nuclear war—but the fear now seems forgotten.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Preview of Hell

We live in an anxious time. Some days, it can feel like the wheels are coming off and the planet is careening out of control. But at least it’s not 1983, the year that the Cold War seemed to be in its final trajectory toward disaster.

Forty years ago today, it was the morning after The Day After, the ABC TV movie about a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Roughly 100 million people tuned in on Sunday night, November 20, 1983, and The Day After holds the record as the most-watched made-for-television movie in history.

I remember the movie, and the year, vividly. I was 22 and in graduate school at Columbia University, studying the Soviet Union. It’s hard to explain to people who worry about, say, climate change—a perfectly legitimate concern—what it was like to live with the fear not that many people could die over the course of 20 or 50 or 100 years but that the decision to end life on most of the planet in flames and agony could happen in less time than it would take you to finish reading this article.

I will not recount the movie for you; there isn’t much of a plot beyond the stories of people who survive the fictional destruction of Kansas City. There is no detailed scenario, no explanation of what started the war. (This was by design; the filmmakers wanted to avoid making any political points.) But in scenes as graphic as U.S. television would allow, Americans finally got a look at what the last moments of peace, and the first moments of hell, might look like.

Understanding the impact of The Day After is difficult without a sense of the tense Cold War situation during the previous few years. There was an unease (or “a growing feeling of hysteria,” as Sting would sing a few years later in “Russians”) in both East and West that the gears of war were turning and locking, a doomsday ratchet tightening click by click.

The Soviet-American détente of the 1970s was brief and ended quickly. By 1980, President Jimmy Carter was facing severe criticism about national defense even within his own party. He responded by approving a number of new nuclear programs, and unveiling a new and highly aggressive nuclear strategy. The Soviets thought Carter had lost his mind, and they were actually more hopeful about working with the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. Soviet fears intensified when Reagan, once in office, took Carter’s decisions and put them on steroids, and in May 1981 the KGB went on alert looking for signs of impending nuclear attack from the United States. In November 1982, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died and was replaced by the KGB boss, Yuri Andropov. The chill in relations between Washington and Moscow became a hard frost.

And then came 1983.

In early March, Reagan gave his famous speech in which he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and accused it of being “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Only a few weeks after that, he gave a major televised address to the nation in which he announced plans for space-based missile defenses, soon mocked as “Star Wars.” Two months later, I graduated from college and headed over to the Soviet Union to study Russian for the summer. Everywhere I went, the question was the same: “Why does your president want a nuclear war?” Soviet citizens, bombarded by propaganda, were certain the end was near. So was I, but I blamed their leaders, not mine.

When I returned, I packed my car in Massachusetts and began a road trip to begin graduate school in New York City on September 1, 1983. As I drove, news reports on the radio kept alluding to a missing Korean airliner.

The jet was Korean Air Lines Flight 007. It was downed by Soviet fighter jets for trespassing in Soviet airspace, killing all 269 souls aboard. The shoot down produced an immense outpouring of rage at the Soviet Union that shocked Kremlin leaders. Soviet sources later claimed that this was the moment when Andropov gave up—forever—on any hope of better relations with the West, and as the fall weather of 1983 got colder, the Cold War got hotter.

We didn’t know it at the time, but in late September, Soviet air defenses falsely reported a U.S. nuclear attack against the Soviet Union: We’re all still alive thanks to a Soviet officer on duty that day who refused to believe the erroneous alert. On October 10, Reagan watched The Day After in a private screening and noted in his diary that it “greatly depressed” him.

On October 23, a truck bomber killed 241 U.S. military personnel in the Marine barracks in Beirut.

Two days after that, the United States invaded Grenada and deposed its Marxist-Leninist regime, an act the Soviets thought could be the prelude to overthrowing other pro-Soviet regimes—even in Europe. On November 7, the U.S. and NATO began a military communications exercise code-named Able Archer, exactly the sort of traffic and activity the Soviets were looking for. Moscow definitely noticed, but fortunately, the exercise wound down in time to prevent any further confusion.

This was the global situation when, on November 20, The Day After aired.

Three days later, on November 23, Soviet negotiators walked out of nuclear-arms talks in Geneva. War began to feel—at least to me—inevitable.

In today’s Bulwark newsletter, the writer A. B. Stoddard remembers how her father, ABC’s motion-picture president Brandon Stoddard, came up with the idea for The Day After. “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.”

And so it did, perhaps not always productively. Some of the immediate commentary bordered on panic. (In New York, I recall listening to the antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott on talk radio after the broadcast, and she said nuclear war was a mathematical certainty if Reagan was reelected.) Henry Kissinger, for his part, asked if we should make policy by “scaring ourselves to death.”

Reagan, according to the scholar Beth Fischer, was in “shock and disbelief” that the Soviets really thought he was headed for war, and in late 1983 “took the reins” and began to redirect policy. He found no takers in the Kremlin for his new line until the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, and both men soon affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought—a principle that in theory still guides U.S. and Russian policy.

In the end, we got through 1983 mostly by dumb luck. If you’d asked me back then as a young student whether I’d be around to talk about any of this 40 years later, I would have called the chances a coin toss.

But although we might feel safer, I wonder if Americans really understand that thousands of those weapons remain on station in the United States, Russia, and other nations, ready to launch in a matter of minutes. The Day After wasn’t the scariest nuclear-war film—that honor goes to the BBC’s Threads—but perhaps more Americans should take the time to watch it. It’s not exactly a holiday movie, but it’s a good reminder at Thanksgiving that we are fortunate for the changes over the past 40 years that allow us to give thanks in our homes instead of in shelters made from the remnants of our cities and towns—and to recommit to making sure that future generations don’t have to live with that same fear.


Today’s News

  1. The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a legal challenge to one of the most severely gerrymandered legislative district maps in the country.
  2. A gunman opened fire in an Ohio Walmart last night, injuring four people before killing himself.
  3. Various storms are expected to cause Thanksgiving travel delays across the United States this week.

Evening Read

Illustration by Ricardo Rey

Does Sam Altman Know What He’s Creating?

By Ross Andersen

(From July)

On a Monday morning in April, Sam Altman sat inside OpenAI’s San Francisco headquarters, telling me about a dangerous artificial intelligence that his company had built but would never release. His employees, he later said, often lose sleep worrying about the AIs they might one day release without fully appreciating their dangers. With his heel perched on the edge of his swivel chair, he looked relaxed. The powerful AI that his company had released in November had captured the world’s imagination like nothing in tech’s recent history. There was grousing in some quarters about the things ChatGPT could not yet do well, and in others about the future it may portend, but Altman wasn’t sweating it; this was, for him, a moment of triumph.

In small doses, Altman’s large blue eyes emit a beam of earnest intellectual attention, and he seems to understand that, in large doses, their intensity might unsettle. In this case, he was willing to chance it: He wanted me to know that whatever AI’s ultimate risks turn out to be, he has zero regrets about letting ChatGPT loose into the world. To the contrary, he believes it was a great public service.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

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If you want to engage in nostalgia for a better time when serious people could discuss serious issues, I encourage you to watch not only The Day After but the roundtable held on ABC right after the broadcast. Following a short interview with then–Secretary of State George Shultz, Ted Koppel moderated a discussion among Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, the professor Elie Wiesel, the scientist Carl Sagan, and the conservative writer William F. Buckley. The discussion ranged across questions of politics, nuclear strategy, ethics, and science. It was pointed, complex, passionate, and respectful—and it went on for an hour and a half, including audience questions.

Try to imagine something similar today, with any network, cable or broadcast, blocking out 90 precious minutes for prominent and informed people to discuss disturbing matters of life and death. No chyrons, no smirky hosts, no music, no high-tech sets. Just six experienced and intelligent people in an unadorned studio talking to one another like adults. (One optimistic note: Both McNamara and Kissinger that night thought it was almost unimaginable that the superpowers could cut their nuclear arsenals in half in 10 or even 15 years. And yet, by 1998, the U.S. arsenal had been reduced by more than half, and Kissinger in 2007 joined Shultz and others to argue for going to zero.)

I do not miss the Cold War, but I miss that kind of seriousness.


Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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