Growing up in the 80s meant growing up in the shadow of a (potential) mushroom cloud. It was the pinnacle of the Cold War, and tensions were high between the Soviet Union and the United States. There were constant news reports about military maneuvers and threats of “pushing the button” that would take the Cold War to the next level…all out nuclear war.
It all reached a fever pitch when “The Day After” aired on ABC on Sunday, November 20, 1983. VCRs were only beginning to become commonplace, so most people watched the initial airing. It garnered 62% of the viewing audience in its time slot, with over 39 million households tuning in. It also set the record (that still stands today) for the highest rated television movie — all pretty amazing, considering the subject matter.
“The Day After” was set in and around Kansas City, Missouri, a location that was specifically chosen because it represented the heartland of America. It also was an area that was home to several missile silos. The location allowed the producers of the movie to emphasize the probability that similar areas were favorable targets for a nuclear strike due to the desire of the enemy to prohibit further launches from being completed, a concept known as First Strike Capability.
Divided into three distinct sections (before, during, and after a nuclear strike), the film focused on a few characters who represented a cross-section of society: a doctor, an airman, a farmer, and a college student. The story weaves their individual experiences together to paint a broader picture of the consequences of nuclear war.
The escalation of hostilities between the US and USSR are shown via television and radio reports, the characters reactions to the reports, and through military communications. Viewers are exposed to how quickly the situation could deteriorate. The speculations of the characters built the tension, as the actual blasts do not occur until roughly halfway through the movie.
The scenes involving the blasts last for roughly three minutes, and they are three of the most terrifying moments ever put on film. The film scenes are interspersed with declassified military footage of actual atomic testing, include roaring fires decimating buildings and automobiles, multiple mushroom clouds, and people and animals being literally vaporized. The images of flashes of skeletons as people disintegrate were the cause of nightmares for an entire generation.
At the heart of the title of the movie, the rest of the film details the consequences of the blasts. From the nuclear explosions to the end of the movie, there were no commercial breaks during the original airing. Here is where “fallout” takes on different meanings. The repercussions of the electromagnetic pulse, the characters trying to find their families and assess the damages, the looting and lawlessness that rise in the wake of the disaster are all explored. In hindsight, this last one was probably most telling, as such scenes following natural disasters are now commonplace on the news.
On a different level, however, the “fallout” also refers to the unseen perils directly related to the nuclear blast. Viewers see the radiation that poisons the soil and the change in the weather that nobody can explain. Most memorably, perhaps, is the radiation sickness contracted by one of the characters who simply ran into a field. The speed in which the character falls deathly ill was shocking to many. The film does not exactly end on the happiest notes either, as characters are left uncertain as to just how widespread the attacks were…and what is left of the country.
ABC had tried to prepare themselves for how the movie would be received. They had a disclaimer at the beginning warning of the graphic nature of the scenes. The end of the film featured another disclaimer that the real horrors of nuclear war had not been fully depicted in the interest of having a storyline (this was the result of infighting between the director, the network, and the industry censors).
Commercials had begun airing months prior, which was unusual at the time. Over 500,000 study guides had been sent to schools and community groups to prepare people for what they would be viewing. Discussion groups met both before and after the airing.
ABC established a hotline staffed by counselors for people to call after the movie aired. They also assembled a panel of experts with instantly recognizable names including Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara (former Secretary of Defense), Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, and William F. Buckley, Jr. It was a spirited debate, with wide-ranging opinions and it gave viewers insight to the possible realities, should the real-life Cold War ever reach the same point the fictional Cold War had reached.
It is no coincidence that ABC chose to air “The Day After” the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It was intended to bring families together to discuss the threat of nuclear proliferation and to motivate people to be more aware of world events.
It is coincidental, however, that in the weeks before the movie aired, NATO military exercises nearly brought the world to a real-life “Day After.” Even though the exercises, named Able Archer, were conducted annually, in 1983, they deviated from traditional standards. When they moved the imaginary forces to high alert, it spooked the Soviets, who then mobilized their forces.
For nine days, there were legitimate concerns that nuclear war was imminent. Soviet forces finally stood down at the end of the exercises on November 11. It was a close call, and the airing of “The Day After” a short time later just served to illustrate how close the countries were to attacking each other at any given time during the 80s.