BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. When it comes to nuclear war and grabbing the public’s imagination, nothing beats a big show. Take, for instance, the 1953 test blast that was nationally televised from the Nevada desert. The government had set up a mock neighborhood near Yucca Flat dubbed “Doom Town” where dummies arranged as American families waited for -- doom.
NARRATOR: To show the nation the effects of atomic blast on homes, home-type shelters and automobiles.
BOB GARFIELD: In 1981, the Doomsday Clock had been set to four minutes to midnight. In 1983, President Reagan was escalating tensions with the Soviet Union.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world.
BOB GARFIELD: That Fall, Soviet aircraft shot down a Korean passenger jet. Then a system malfunction showed US missiles were launched. A Soviet officer averted disaster by double checking before retaliating. Then, in November, believing that NATO war exercises were obscuring a real attack, the Soviet Union readied its military for an actual conflict. Then, weeks later, the made-for-TV movie, The Day After, aired on televisions around the country. An estimated 100 million people, nearly half the nation, tuned in to ABC to watch what a nuclear attack might look like.
[CLIP/SOUND OF MISSILES]:
CYNTHIA: What's going on?
HUXLEY: Those are Minuteman missiles.
CYNTHIA: Like a test, sort of, like a warning?
HUXLEY: They're on their way to Russia. They take about thirty minutes to reach their target.
ALDO: So do theirs, right?
[SOUND UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was affecting television, and ABC knew it. After the movie, the network aired an all-star panel of scientists, pundits and politicians, all talking about disarmament and deterrence. Ted Koppel hosted.
TED KOPPEL: If you can, take a quick look out the window. It’s all still there. Your neighborhood is still there, so is Kansas City and Lawrence and Chicago and Moscow and San Diego and Vladivostok. What we have all just seen is sort of a nuclear version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Day After managed to catalyze a national conversation about American nuclear policy but that didn’t make it a good movie.
NICHOLAS MEYER: And, more than that, it was not intended to be a very good movie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The director, Nicholas Meyer, was interviewed on the Outline World Dispatch podcast last year.
NICHOLAS MEYER: I just thought, no, it can’t be a good movie. It has to be, like, a public service announcement: If you have a nuclear war, this is, more or less, what it’s gonna be like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Faced with a nation of families uncertain about how to explain nuclear war to their kids, Mr. Rogers aired a five-part series on dealing with conflict.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MR. ROGERS, SINGING:
There are other ways
To solve a problem
There are other ways to solve a nasty problem
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back then, Marsha Gordon was in junior high. She well remembers the fear and the fervor. She’s now a professor of film studies at North Carolina State University, and we spoke to her earlier this year when she’d just written about The Day After for the website, The Conversation.
MARSHA GORDON: There’s basically a before and then the day after [LAUGHS] and so, you have normal Midwestern people getting married, people having babies, people going about their lives.
MRS. TOLBERT: Where have you two been?
GIRL: Come on.
MAN: Sorry, Mrs. Tolbert!
GIRL: Hi, Reverend Marcus.
MARSHA GORDON: And then, all, all of a sudden, this scenario unfurls.
MAN: They just hit one of our ships in the Persian Gulf.
MAN: Who is they?
MAN: The Russians, who do you think?
MAN: We hit ‘em back, one of their ships, you know?
MARSHA GORDON: And people are panicked as the alarm goes out that there is incoming nuclear missiles.
AIR FORCE OFFICER: Roger, copy. This is not an exercise.
AIR FORCE OFFICER: Roger, I understand.
SECOND AIR FORCE OFFICER: Major Reinhardt, we have a massive attack against the U.S. at, at this time, ICBMS.
MARSHA GORDON: And then we are deploying them as well, and so everyone located near these missile silos is watching them come out of the ground. And, to me, in some ways, it’s the most haunting images in the film, are seeing these missiles going up into the air and people looking at them.
[SOUND OF MISSILE EXPLODING/SHOUTS]
ABC decided not to run advertisement after the blast. It just played through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What we see in the aftermath is there’s no electricity but plenty of radiation and a lot of expositional scenes where the full magnitude of all of this sets in. Here’s a clip from a hospital.
MAN: Yeah, what about fuel to boil water, eat food, sterilize surgical instruments? And what about bringing in wood?
WOMAN: You can’t burn wood that’s been contaminated. It will just put radiation right back in the air. What about bottled gas?
MAN: There’s some butane but no more than about three days’ worth.
MARSHA GORDON: All of the action is on the local level. It is the farmers, the doctors. The people on the ground have the sense and have the ability to navigate this crisis in a way that the government does not.
JIM: Can you explain what you mean by scraping off the top layers of my topsoil?
JOHN: Exactly that, Jim. You just take the top four or five inches of your topsoil.
JIM: Yeah and do what with it? We’re talking 150, maybe 200 acres a man in here.
FARMERS: That’s right.
JIM: Being big is one thing, being realistic is another. Suppose you find a hole where you can drop all this dead dirt, what kind of topsoil is that gonna leave you for raisin’ anything? Where’d you get all this information, John, all this good advice, out of some government pamphlet?
MARSHA GORDON: And there is even a presidential broadcast over the shortwave radio.
ANNOUNCER: There has been no surrender, no retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy for which the free world looks to us for leadership.
ANNOUNCER: …the government, functioning under certain extraordinary emergency options, we are prepared to make every effort…
[AUDIO UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And to drive the point home, we see people stumbling through the rubble as he's talking and some who are huddled over the radio have this reaction.
WOMAN: That’s it? That’s all he’s gonna say?
MAN: Hey, maybe we’re gonna be okay.
MAN: What do you want to hear?
WOMAN: I want to know who started it, who fired first, who preempted.
MAN: You’re never gonna know that.
WOMAN: What difference does it make?
MAN: He doesn’t know how bad …
WOMAN: He sure would have -- if they were to fire first.
MAN: …to think we lost the war…
WOMAN: You believe that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After the broadcast, there was a panel, hosted by Ted Koppel. It had the great astronomer, Carl Sagan, and Elie Wiesel, known for his writings about the Holocaust and hunting Nazis, George Shultz, from Reagan’s defense team.
MARSHA GORDON: The discussion of contemporary America’s nuclear strategy and also of the Soviet Union, and some of the questions from the audience point to where we are today.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: What are we to do 20 to 25 years from now when the superpowers no longer have the decision-making power about whether nuclear war will or will not occur? What about a Khomeini or a Qaddafi having that capability?
MARSHA GORDON: And, actually, over and over again, Wiesel says things that are very powerful and very timely.
ELIE WIESEL: I’m afraid of madness. I’m afraid that madness is possible in history…. And the only way, I believe, to prevent that madness would be to remember. If we remember that things are possible, then I believe memory can become a shield.
MARSHA GORDON: We live in a world currently where I think that idea really resonates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, the New York Times ran a story before the broadcast, quoting a therapist urging families not to watch the post-show panel discussion hosted by Ted Koppel, quote, “It's extremely important for people to talk about The Day After themselves and not let television do the talking and feeling for them. If they do that, they'll lock feelings of despair and fatalism inside themselves.”
MARSHA GORDON: Well, I have read a number of articles that came out just before this airing in which psychologists expressed actual long-term concerns about young people watching this program, that ranged from bedwetting and nail biting to insomnia. A lot of people did not think that people under the age of 12, for example, should maybe watch this at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And there were viewing guides that were distributed to guide conversation. We have a link to it on our website. Here's a sample question: Of all the institutions which presently constitute American society, which ones would be best suited to handle a postwar society and its manifold problems?
MARSHA GORDON: Yeah, so ABC apparently produced around half a million of these study guides and distributed them to schools and churches and community centers. And, you know, on the one hand, clearly, they were trying to promote viewership, and it was also, I think, to forestall criticism that they were just putting this terrifying [LAUGHS] movie out in the world and letting people fend for themselves with how to deal with it.
The study guide does, though, ask some really good questions about how people thought about the likelihood of this happening, about its survivability, the political context and consequences, which was certainly on everyone's mind. It just, I don’t think, had been thought of in such a big pop cultural way that then reached so many people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you wrote in your piece, the movie was used as a rallying cry, both for the anti-nuclear groups and the pro-ones.
MARSHA GORDON: It’s interesting to see the way that Reagan’s White House responded to this film, by trying to turn it into a film that advocates for nuclear deterrence, because we don't want this to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And by nuclear deterrence, you mean deterring nuclear war by having a lot of nukes.
MARSHA GORDON: Absolutely. And so, that was their position. There were protests immediately after this viewing and, of course, there were many people who were anti-nukes and wanted to go into a period of incredible disarmament.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Interestingly, one person who seems to have gotten that message was Ronald Reagan. Not long after the film, Reagan held a series of summits with Mikhail Gorbachev about both countries’ nuclear arsenals.
MARSHA GORDON: Well, if you listen to that viewpoint discussion after the airing of The Day After, this is discussed, including by Secretary of State Shultz, that the goal not just to proliferate, that the goal was to get to a point where both countries would agree to start dialing back their nuclear storehouses. And Carl Sagan talked about this idea that you imagine two people in a room…
CARL SAGAN: A room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies. One of them has nine-thousand matches, the other has seven-thousand matches, and each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger. Well, that's the kind of situation we are actually in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, we posted your piece on our On the Media Facebook page and a listener, Wayne in Hawaii, wrote that he’s in his ‘40s and he saw the film as a child and, quote, “A few weeks ago when the false missile alert went off in Hawaii, I distinctly remembered thinking, well, it finally happened. It wasn’t panic, it wasn’t fear. It was more resignation than anything else. I think because we were the last generation that grew up during the Cold War, that nuclear annihilation was always a possibility and it permeated the culture, especially with depictions like The Day After. That anxiety was always there and it never left us.”
MARSHA GORDON: Wayne is absolutely right. I don't think that people who are in their ‘30s and younger have a sense of the fear. There's a big difference between hearing rhetoric, like we’ve heard in the first few weeks of 2018, and imagining what this would look like. I think we might be due for another dose of this. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how would you remake it today?
MARSHA GORDON: I would definitely think about a kind of global context that was not just focused on American soil but on the many places in which this attack would likely transpire.
The question of the technological meltdown is incredibly relevant and may be the most relevant, in an odd way, especially if you want it to resonate with young people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean, their iPhones [LAUGHS] won’t work anymore?
MARSHA GORDON: Yes. If you’ve never read a map, if you’ve never figured out how to do anything without consulting technology, how are you going to navigate a world in which technology is no longer functional? And so, who is going to have that wisdom? And it’s going to be older people who know how to get a short wave radio to work, know how to get from Point A to Point B by looking at a map, for example. You could also begin to imagine a scenario in which class gets turned on its head a little bit. I mean, who knows how to weld? Who knows how to hunt? I mean, is it someone in Silicon Valley who’s made their millions off of technology or is it somebody who’s been having to work in a kind of blue collar job?
Another thing I would think about is, you know, when I’ve kind of rolled this over in my mind, the fact that The Day After takes place in such an immediate time post blast, I think it would be very interesting to think a kind of longer game, like the year after.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. And then seven years after and then 75 years after?
MARSHA GORDON: Yeah, right. I mean, what are the long-term consequences? I mean, the idea of a nuclear winter is not approached at all in The Day After, but what if it was never warm enough to germinate a seed, how are you going to survive?
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
MARSHA GORDON: You are very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marsha Gordon is a professor of film studies at North Carolina State University. She recently wrote about The Day After for the website, The Conversation.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the stories we tell ourselves after the disaster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.