Note on “The Day After”

In November, 1983, the ABC network aired the television movie The Day After, depicting the effects of a nuclear war on the Midwestern United States. Viewed by an estimated 100 million people, the film was considered deeply affecting, not to mention horrifying, and may have inspired President Reagan to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Reykjavik three years later. Prior to the broadcast, ABC distributed half a million viewer’s guides and classrooms around the country worked to help traumatized children deal with their feelings of terror afterwards. (Here is the attack sequence.)

I was a nine-year-old boy, however. So my views on nuclear war were probably not as somber as they should have been. Me and my friends had been raised on a steady diet of post-apocalyptic action movies in the Mad Max mold, and our understanding of the Russians was that, after they bombed and invaded the country, we would be forced to fight them to the death using our cunning, preadolescent physical prowess, and lawn darts. Like all little boys, we believed in the Peter Pan myth: being removed from civilization would set the stage for untold adventures. The nuclear bomb would be the world’s loudest school bell.

Looking back, I’m not remotely ashamed that we manipulated other people’s apocalyptic nightmares. There’s something egotistical about all apocalypse scenarios, appealing as they do to our resentment towards the existing reality and our deeply subconscious feeling that it’s a bit unfair and unimaginable that the world should outlast us, carrying on after our death. The existentialists understood the truth- every death is the end of a created world. The apocalypse is a fantasy that our death will be epic and transfiguring and deeply meaningful; all of us will die alone and the apocalypse is a fantasy of dying together. Nine-year-old boys have no interest in such things, busy as they are with being alive.

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64 thoughts on “Note on “The Day After”

  1. What a difference three years makes.

    The 12-year-olds weren’t as somber as they probably should have been, either, but they were a lot more fatalistic than the 9-year-olds, apparently.

    We were under no illusions that we’d likely survive any bit of it.  Maybe if I lived in BFE.  San Jose was too close to high value targets.

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  2. After the attack, though, it got a good deal less interesting. It convinced me that life after the attacks would actually be pretty dull — everything good that I liked about my hometown would have been gone, reduced to a cinder, if I lived at all. Life would consist of waiting around in long lines for ineffective medical care and inadequate amounts of food and shelter. There was no opportunity for a Mad Max style adventure — cockroaches and bureaucracy survived the very brief World War III nuclear exchange.

    But I give Reagan, and indeed nearly every national leader since LBJ and his crew, credit for having appreciated the fact that nuclear war would indeed be utterly horrific and to be avoided at all costs. And I don’t start after LBJ to demean Johnson, but rather because until then it seemed that the doctrines prevailing until the late 1960’s included an option that most “special” armaments would have been tactical rather than strategic, and used on military targets rather than civilian population centers.

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    • Reagan? you mean the guy who nearly caused a war with a SOUND TEST?

      (apparently once word got back to him that a soviet spy had taken his words seriously, he turned kinda pale and said, “I’m just an actor.”)

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    • I was 33 when the movie was shown, but did not watch it, knowing from earlier readings and the like that the best place to be during a nuclear exchange was at ground zero for one of the explosions (at least to die there would be quick).

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      • I graduated from high school in 1972 from a school that sat seven miles off the end of the main runway of SAC headquarters.  A bunch of my graduating class were Air Force brats.  The subject of a nuclear exchange simply never came up, and no one that I knew worried about it.  Perhaps it was because, given Soviet targeting practice and accuracy, we were almost certainly inside the area where everyone would die quickly.  Perhaps it was because of exposure to kids of officers who were in the business and really believed that MAD would work indefinitely.

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  3. The point of the apocalypse, it seems to me, is the point of being part of something *SIGNIFICANT*.

    How awesome would it be to be a part of TEOTW? How awesome would it be to save someone and have them be part of your coterie after TEOTW? How much more awesome would it be to try to impose your morality on all of the morans shuffling about after TEOTW? And, on top of that, how spectacularly awesome would it be to be able to stifle most of the voices who disagreed… after TEOTW?

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  4. I stayed up and watched it.  I was 13.  Couldn’t sleep afterwards.  Asked my parents to stay home from school the next day.  My father explained that existential angst was not a valid basis for absence, particularly when he was paying for a private school.

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    • A friend of mine lived in downright quaking-in-fear because our countrymen had dared to elect Reagan (who, in his opinion, wasn’t the person for nuclear weapons). He must have been six when Reagan got elected,

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  5. I was 8 when this came out. I also had a pediatrician who was VERY involved in the anti-nuclear movement and was often on TV and wore anti-nuke buttons on his lab coat. Needless to say I was terrified of nuclear war pretty much until the USSR collapsed.

    On the other hand, my friends and I all thought a conventional war would be awesome. I blame Chuck Norris, Rambo and Red Dawn for that one.

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      • That’s the one!

        I had an odd acceptance up to that point that I might die in a nuclear holocaust (two different teachers said as much, that our city would be targeted and we’d all be killed – I didn’t get the Rature explanation that Jaybird did). The book brought up the notion that… I might live.

        I think the idea of “no TV” scared me the most.

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        • Yeah Alas, Babylon was, as the genre goes, one of the more uplifting ones!  Real downers were Children of the Dust and Brother in the Land.   I think I might have said this here before, but the amount of media aimed at kids in the late 70’s / early 80’s*  that implied a TEOTWAWKI scenario by the year 2000** was rather staggering in hindsight.

          *just to take two examples, Buck Rogers and Thundar the Barbarian)

          **a year that a precocious kid would realize he’d be not quite 30.

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    • I read that too.

      Afterward my dad explained to me that Alas, Babylon was written in the 1950s, and that Soviet nuclear capacity had grown a lot since then.  “Every last dot on the map has a missile pointed at it nowadays.  Even the tiny little towns aren’t going to survive.  And us?  We won’t even know there was a war.  We’ll just be vaporized.”

      I never found anything remotely cool about the prospect of being vaporized unawares.  Though it did give me the most remarkable appreciation for the passage of time.

       

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  6. I was 10 when it came out and my mother wouldn’t let me watch it.  I rented it around 2002 or so, and was terrified after watching the nuclear attack.

    I do agree with Burt that the post-attack was a bit disappointing, although perhaps I agree for different reasons.  It was a bit too networktelevision-y.

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  7. War. War never changes.

    This movie came out when Mrs. Butler was teaching us. She explained to us that this movie couldn’t happen because the rapture had not happened yet.

    As such, this movie did not cause any trauma to me whatsoever.

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  8. i honestly never got that era of nuke heebie-jeebies, despite being about the right age for it. i figured people didn’t want to commit suicide, and commies were/are people, therefore commies don’t want to commit suicide.

    i was also raised in one of those household where “ronald reagan” was used in the same terms a modern one might use, say, “child rapist” or “elvis costello”, so i also assumed everything he said was a lie anyway.

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    • Being twelve at the time this movie came out, I distinctly remember the prevailing wisdom being that the Soviet leaders ran the show, unlike here in the US where the people ran the show (of course) and that the Brezhnevs would not hesitate to annihilate the US if and when it could, even if it meant certain retaliation and death for a majority of her citizens.  Which fit nicely into the whole good versus evil thing we had going back then.  And I am reminded of Sting’s lyric, “I hope the russians love their children, too.”

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    • I don’t know that I ever bought into it either. I was at the age, where if we weren’t pretending to be Indiana Jones fighting Nazis, we’d be pretending to fight Russians, but otherwise it was not much cause for concern. Now my parents loved Ronald Reagan, although my only opinion about him was that he looked like my grandfather, who was of the same era roughly and also loved Reagan.

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  9. I was 7. It scared the shit out of me. Of course, this was the 80s, a time of a renewed “Red Scare” (thanks, Reagan), and my teachers were telling us a.) that this would happen, and would happen any minute now, and b.) after it happened, if our bodies hadn’t been vaporized instantly, the Russians would take over and tell us all what job we would have, who we would marry, where we would live, and so on. Damn commies!

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  10. Ash on and old man’s sleeve
    Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
    Dust in the air suspended
    Marks the place where a story ended.
    Dust inbreathed was a house—
    The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
        The death of hope and despair,
        This is the death of air.

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  11. I was eleven.  I remember being absolutely terrified of nuclear war even before seeing this movie (which my parents, of course, let me watch).

    I suspect I remained terrified of nuclear war until I enlisted in the Air Force right after high school.  I guess it’s different when you’re part of the Triad!  :-)

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  12. I missed the fun of the Day After. Fortunately, my father took me to see Terminator 2 when I was 9, and I still have Linda Hamilton’s dream of the nuclear attack on Los Angeles seared in my head.

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  13. I never really got the nuclear thing, partially because I was too young (born in 1982), and partially because chances are that New Zealand wasn’t going to get nuked anyway.  I mean, why would you bother?

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  14. Since the movie came out when I was 2. I  missed it. I think my generation doesn’t get the cold war paranoia and fear thing.like even slightly older people. To me it is too far removed to be real.

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    • I get it. I’ve been on buses with men carrying uzis, I’ve walked through the Old City, I’ve had a relative point out all the places around me where bombs have exploded.

      … maybe it’s not the same?

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      • Oh, that’s a strange feeling.  I was in Sarajevo in ’98.  One of the things the survivors of the siege did was fill in some of the star-shaped craters in the concrete left behind by mortar attacks with red wax.  The wax was meant to signify that someone had been killed on that spot by that attack.

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        • in Israel, you had the very real feeling that “it could/would happen again.” (It’s one of the reasons I’m very very glad the Palestinians are finally getting a PR team).

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    • I think my generation doesn’t get the cold war paranoia and fear thing.like even slightly older people.

      In my early 20s I had an exceptionally realistic dream where I was standing on the beach in San Francisco watching Soviet bombers flying overhead and dropping bombs on the city.

      I’d bet that many people my age have had similar types of dreams, and probably very few people your age have.

      I vividly remember passing the Lutheran Church in our town almost every day and noticing the fallout shelter sign by the door; a constant reminder that we really could all die tomorrow.  I’m not sad that my daughters don’t get to experience that.

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      • I’m probably a little younger than you (I was born in the early 1970s), and I had similar dreams, not necessarily of Soviet bombers, but of missile attack and cowering in fallout shelters.  When I was young–maybe around the time of the “Day After,” or maybe a year or two later–I read one of Hal Lindsey’s books (Late Great Planet Earth) that purported to show that the end of the world was nigh, and that, if I recall correctly (although perhaps I’m imposing my own thoughts on the book), posited nuclear annihilation as part of what St. John in Revelations said was a third of the stars falling from the sky.  Such fears helped inform my quasi conversion to evangelicalism in the late 1980s.

        I too remember going to public libraries and taking note of the fallout shelter signs.  Also, I remember reading and re-reading the World Book Encyclopedia entry (1973 edition, which is what my parents had) on fallout shelters and the different types, and I wanted my parents to build one.  (They didn’t.)

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  15. What is really strange is that this stuff is well within a lot of peoples memory and yet the idea that the war on terror is the worst threat ever and can be used to justify almost anything is still taken seriously.

    It’s as if politicians have said

    Mutually Assured Destruction – “We will stand firm”

    Far less deadly weapons used by a handful of fanatics – “Mummmy!”

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  16. I vaguely remember this coming out, but I don’t think I watched it. Nonetheless, Cold War paranoia still stirs some nostalgic feelings in me.

    As do lawn darts. Dear lord, how I loved lawn darts.

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  17. I was 23 when The Day After came out, in my full bloom of Reagan worship, I coul donly sneer at the movie through my polilticized lens.

    Until I saw Testament, which shook even me to my bones.

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