Monday, August 16, 2010


The Day After is not about politics or politicians or military decision-makers. It is simply about you and me—doctors, farmers, teachers, students, brothers and kid sisters engaged in the usual love and labor of life in the month of September.”
--Edward Hume, screenwriter of The Day After, 1983 [i]


On February 14, 1955 the semi-anthology NBC television program Medic tried something rather novel. Instead of the then-usual medical show plots concerning heart and brain operations or amnesia cases, the series that evening presented an episode entitled “Flash of Darkness.” This installment, which drew notice from Daily Variety (the trade complained of the episode’s limited “scope”), depicted how the medical profession might deal with an atomic attack on the United States. Specifically, how star Richard Boone’s recurring character of Dr. Konrad Styner would carry on after such a disaster.

What remains fascinating about “Flash of Darkness” is the sense of bleakness it leaves the viewer with. The episode closes as Dr. Styner comforts a young boy whose brother has just died of radiation sickness. As the doctor hugs the lad and keeps affirming that tomorrow will be “better” one gets the distinct impression that Styner is less than convinced of this. It is remarkable that a show from this era would not offer a larger dose of hope to its civil defense indoctrinated audience (No matter that in following weeks Dr. Styner reappeared in storylines that presumably made no mention of the earlier atomic unpleasantness).

Twenty-eight years later another TV doctor would bear the burden of World War III’s wounded and dead in the mega-promoted “event” The Day After. The budget, in this case, allowed for greater “scope,” but the impact is, incredibly, comparable to the Medic episode. However, doubting the desirability of surviving an atomic war was a lot more daring in the 1950s.

“PADDED BY AN HOUR”: The Production History

The Day After, arguably the most controversial TV-movie ever made, began life shortly after Brandon Stoddard, the then-president of ABC Motion Pictures saw the 1979 film The China Syndrome. Stoddard, according to Day After director Nicholas Meyer, was inspired by the nuclear accident hit to produce a film of his own that depicted how Americans might cope with the aftermath of an intentional nuclear catastrophe—nuclear war. After convincing his network colleagues that he was serious, Stoddard, no stranger to hot button subject matter (he also oversaw Roots and Friendly Fire), enlisted veteran television writer Edward Hume (21 Hours to Munich, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, Sweet Hostage) to write the screenplay. Hume interviewed scientists and researched Defense Department studies and FEMA-issued pamphlets to buttress his end-of-the-world drama with scientific data that was issued by the government itself.

What Hume produced was a script for a four-hour film that ABC intended to air as a two-night “event” in May of 1983. Mr. Meyer (Time After Time and StarTtrek II: The Wrath of Khan) agreed to helm the controversial project after several other directors declined. “I cannot live with myself if I don’t make this movie,” the director wrote in a production diary published in the November 19, 1983 edition of TV Guide. Meyer later told the New York Times his reasons why television was the right venue for The Day After: “I would not have wanted to make this as a feature film. I did not want to preach to the converted. I wanted to reach the guy who’s waiting for The Flying Nun to come on.”

Meyer immediately began laying out his vision of the project and how it should be made: “No TV stars,” was the first requirement. “What we don’t want is another Hollywood disaster film with viewers waiting to see Shelley Winters succumb to radiation poisoning.” ABC concurred to a point, but insisted that the film have one star in order to enhance the TV-movie’s salability as a feature film overseas. Jason Robards was signed for the lead role in a handshake deal brokered by Meyer himself on a New York-bound flight that the two men happened to share in the summer of 1982. Robards found the social conscience of the film irresistible: “It beats signing petitions,” remarked the actor to his director.

Meyer also disagreed with the concept of a two-part, four-hour film. His first impression of Hume’s script was that it was “sensational,” but “padded by an hour.” He tried unsuccessfully to lobby ABC to reduce the length and two-night scheduling. “No one is going to tune it to two nights of Armageddon,” reasoned the director. ABC contended that it needed the extra hour of advertising to help recoup the seven million dollar budget outlay. Meyer ultimately conceded and shot the four-hour version of the script.[ii] In the end, ABC—perhaps due to the lack of advertisers[iii] who were under threat of boycotts by the Rev. Jerry Falwell—decided to air a two hour (+) cut of the movie on a single night: Sunday, November 20, 1983 from 8:00PM to 10:15PM Eastern Time. [iv] The post-production period for the film was an unheard of nine months which included the time necessary to trim the hour or so of no longer needed footage.

The Day After began filming in Lawrence, Kansas on August 16, 1982 and the producers used hundreds of local residents as extras[v]. For the post-attack sequences, the “refugees” were told not to bathe for several days to add realism to their performances. Extras were paid $75.00 if the make-up crew could cut off tufts of their hair and apply latex “burn scars” to simulate the effects of radiation exposure. Make-up designer Michael Westmore, who had worked on Rocky and Raging Bull, performed his own research by viewing recently declassified government films of Hiroshima survivors. However, there was a limit to what Westmore could do in terms of authenticity without alienating viewers. As he told the New York Times on November 13, 1983: “Some of the survivors of Hiroshima had their eyeballs literally melted out of their heads. Even if we were doing a feature film, that would have been too strong to show. We wanted to create reality, but not horror. My purpose was not to make viewers sick.”

Indeed, the balancing act of depicting the horrific reality of a full-scale nuclear attack without driving the audience away was broadly handled with an on-screen disclaimer that appeared at the end of the film. It read in part: “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 against the United States…” After The Day After was broadcast, Carl Sagan and others in the scientific community were quoted in the media regarding the true planetary consequences of World War III that were only hinted at in the movie (“Nuclear Winter”).

The approximately four-minute segment that illustrates the actual attack was accomplished with a combination of special effects and stock footage from old nuclear tests. According to the book Hiroshima in America, Herbert Sussan’s declassified color film of the rubble of Hiroshima was utilized, too. The authors point out that the shot near the end of the movie that reflects Jason Robards’ vision of a devastated Kansas City is actually a doctored photo of Hiroshima shortly after the bombing.

The still impressive mushroom cloud images were created by injecting oil-based paints into a water tank with a piston and filmed at high speeds by a camera mounted upside down.


Along the way to the historic broadcast, there were major battles to be fought and controversy to be weathered. Internally, director Meyer argued with the network’s Standards and Practices department over such issues as a pre-attack scene in which a woman retrieves a diaphragm and the question of how many human beings could be shown being vaporized during the attack sequence (the censors mandated the following formula for dramatized apocalypse: For every three persons killed, seven inanimate objects would have to be destroyed). There was also enormous pressure on the producers from both the network and the military (whose assistance was sought, but not granted during production) to depict the Soviet Union as the super power that launches the first strike in the fictional World War III. When Meyer saw the edited version that the network intended to air, he was so outraged that he composed a forty-four point memo that addressed, among other issues, the creative team’s fervent desire to keep the instigator of the attack ambiguous. With Stoddard’s support, Meyer won thirty-seven of his points.

On November 13, 1983 Meyer revealed to the New York Times a couple of the last minute trims the network made prior to the broadcast: “The answer print has been tampered with twice. One scene of a child having a nuclear nightmare was set. A psychologist who saw the film said this would be too upsetting for children. Considering what children see on television every week, I found this ludicrous and hypocritical. Also, Ed Hume had written a line about the Pershing II missiles in Germany having set off the confrontation, and the network decided that might be politically inflammatory[vi], so it was cut.” [vii]

Externally, the network had to contend with the political controversy over whether The Day After phenomenon was lending aid and comfort to the nuclear freeze movement. Leaked copies of the film were being used by freeze activists to rally support to their cause. Conservative organizations and newspaper columnists were predictably incensed by the perception that the movie was a liberal teaching tool. [viii] Members of various groups like the Young Americans for Freedom picketed ABC affiliates and vowed boycotts of Day After sponsors. The debate escalated to the point that the Reagan administration was forced to comment on what was, after all, just a made-for-TV film. The administration also sent a representative (Secretary of State George Schultz) to discuss the movie on a special news program that aired immediately after its broadcast (Viewpoint hosted by Ted Koppel).

Both Ben Stein and William F. Buckley wrote semi-satiric columns suggesting that the allegedly left-leaning ABC network follow-up The Day After with a film showing the impact of a Soviet occupation of the United States. The network would eventually take these suggestions (very) seriously and create the epic 1987 miniseries Amerika which almost eclipsed The Day After controversy-wise. Appropriately, the two works are now inextricably linked in the canon of Cold War entertainment.

BUT WAS IT GOOD? A Critical Assessment

The lofty ambition of The Day After is telegraphed early on when Jason Robards’ character, Dr. Russell Oakes, discusses art with his grown daughter, Marilyn, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Marilyn comments on one painting by saying “sometimes it’s hard to know how to experience a Chinese landscape because the artist doesn’t tell you where you’re watching from…” She goes on to explain to her father that this is because the artist “wants you to be in the landscape, a part of it…” To which Oakes smiles and says knowingly, “You mean a God’s eye point of view.” The movie that unfolds following this exchange of dialogue seeks to place the viewer’s heart and mind in the midst of “the landscape” of a nuclear war.

Did the film warrant such monumental fuss in the first place? The simple answer is probably not. Viewed in a post-Cold War atmosphere, stripped of all the surrounding political sturm und drang, the movie now resembles—in parts—a rather pedestrian 1970s TV disaster film—the polar opposite of Nicholas Meyer’s declared intention.[ix] Indeed, the film can now be found in regular rotation on the Syfy Channel! This assessment is not intended to diminish several extremely powerful scenes and the movie’s undeniable political impact, but the underpinnings of the film are riddled with TV-movie clichés. However, perhaps this is to be expected given the fact that The Day After was written by Mr. Hume, a career practitioner of the form. Even at the time the film was originally broadcast, there were comments from viewers about the inherent kitschiness of ABC’s apocalyptic spectacular. John McGean of Salt Lake City told Newsweek in December of 1983: “We took it seriously, but when Jason Robards walked through the ruins of his home, I kept imagining him to be Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes.”

The movie’s framework should be very familiar to the habitual television viewer because the archetypes are presented with the clockwork precision of an episode of The Love Boat. The character development is so cursory that it leads the viewer to wonder whether the first draft of Hume’s script was as “padded” as Meyer contended.
  • There is, first and foremost, Lawrence, Kansas, the dramatic “ground zero” of the story. The setting serves as a reminder that, as a character later states outright, “there is no nowhere anymore.” In an interconnected world, there is nowhere to hide and no one left unaffected by such a catastrophe. According to Hume, he decided to set the story in Kansas because it represented Middle America and the Lawrence location was in close proximity to missile silos. It was this geography that lent logic to why the area was targeted. Director Meyer explained in his TV Guide “diary” that he wanted a film that depicted what happened to the average person: “We don’t deal with generals or politicians or global strategies. We just want to show what things are going to look and feel like when it happens.” The hub of all the action of the story is the University of Kansas at Lawrence. This is the setting for where nearly all the characters wind up…eventually. Was it coincidence or symbolism that a place of learning is used as the primary shelter?
  • Physician/teacher Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) is the humanist “eye” through which we see the initial catastrophe occur (from the seat of his Volvo). He is also our main tour guide through the aftermath. The viewer identifies with Oakes and shares his grief over the loss of his family. The cruel randomness of his survival is later hammered home to the viewer in the movie’s final, overwrought scenes.
  • The Dahlbergs, a farm family in the middle of wedding preparations for their eldest daughter, Denise, represent middle-America’s reaction to impending nuclear war and its ultimate consequences. The family provides the viewer with a microcosmic view of how World War III would decimate lives and tear families apart despite following FEMA instructions to remain in a basement shelter for as long as necessary. In one of the movie’s most wrenching scenes, the patriarch, Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum), must forcibly carry his in-denial wife (Bibi Besch) from the couple’s bedroom into the basement storm shelter before the missiles hit.

  • The Hendrys, another farm family, with children younger than the Dahlbergs’. The Hendrys live, literally, next door to a missile silo in Sweetsage, Missouri. In one of the more subtle scenes in the film, Mrs. Hendry eyes the facility with a palpable unease as she tends to her backyard clothesline.
  • University science professor Joe Huxley (John Lithgow[x]) is used as a conduit of scientific fact about nuclear war as well as war strategy to the viewer. Throughout the film he instructs his students (including Animal House star Stephen Furst as Aldo) on what is going on during the escalation. He also provides advice on radiation levels to the doctors during the aftermath. His character is transformed during the course of the story from know-it-all cynic to a pathetic figure with cracked glasses helplessly repeating into a CB radio: “This is Lawrence, Kansas, is anybody there…” The message is clear: the hope of science is no longer valid in this new world.
  • The character of hospital resident Dr. Sam Hachiya (Calvin Jung) is a rather hokey Hiroshima reflection or “mirror”—a reference reinforced when he treats a flash-blinded Caucasian child (Danny, the son of Jim Dahlberg).
  • Airman 2nd Class Billy McCoy (William Allen Young) personifies the potential breakdown in military discipline should a real nuclear war ever erupt. He deserts his unit in favor of trying to find his family only to wind up “adopting” a nuke-crazed transient following the attack. Because McCoy’s family lived on a military base, it is assumed that they perished.
  • Alison Ransom (Amy Madigan) is a pregnant woman at Lawrence Memorial Hospital who questions whether her prolonged labor is due to her dread at having to deliver an innocent child into the post-attack world. Alison provides a counterbalance to the character of Denise Dahlberg (Lori Lethin), who fearing her fiancé’s death, laments her use of contraception as she believes she has forfeited the chance to help carry on the legacy of the man she loved.
  • University pre-med student Stephen Klein (Steve Guttenberg) is a kind of secondary “tour guide” to Dr. Oakes who winds up being welcomed into the Dahlberg shelter (after surrendering his canned goods). His character is used to link the Dalhbergs to the other characters in the film. He is a “wanderer”—detached from everything who finds a surrogate family in the Dahlbergs and a fleeting love interest in their daughter. Klein is also used as a conduit of information when he explains the “flash blindness” that afflicts Danny Dahlberg. In the pre-attack segment of the film, Klein warily eyes a gun rack in the truck he has hitched a ride onto. In the post-attack segment, he readily accepts a rifle from Jim Dahlberg.
  • The shaken and pleading minister who delivers a futile sermon in the ruins of his pulpit to a dazed collection of surviving parishioners. Just as the hope of science has been proven to be worthless, so has faith in a merciful higher being.

All of the above characters intersect in a manner that reinforces the all-too-neat predictability of the average TV-movie. This comforting predictability and the fact that many of the actors became better known in subsequent years may help explain why the movie is still frequently re-run. Unlike typical television fare, the fates of some of the characters are left unclear. This untidiness is almost certainly the collateral damage of the editing process.[xi] The other end-of-the-world motion pictures from this era—specifically, Testament and Threads—present a far bleaker nuclear aftermath than The Day After. Testament, in particular, may be the most depressing movie ever made. These films, incidentally, are seldom seen on any broadcast or cable channel.

Jane Alexander tries to carry on in Testament
What remains disturbing about The Day After is how rapidly the vaguely described conflict that precipitates World War III escalates without the public becoming too concerned. Throughout the first part of the film there is a white noise of television and radio chatter that reflects the mounting crisis in Berlin (the only government representative shown in these scenes is the Soviet Ambassador character, Anatoly Kuragin—named for the scheming Tolstoy character from War and Peace). Dr. Oakes conveys the incredulity over the tensions erupting into a nuclear exchange when he remarks to his wife: “People are crazy, but they’re not that crazy.” When a Jessica Savitch-like news anchor frantically announces that low-yield nuclear weapons have been detonated over advancing Soviet troops, her only audience is a perplexed young child wondering what happened to his cartoons.

When, as the script describes it, the “pleasant but firm” female voice of the Emergency Broadcast System “unhurriedly” announces that “all persons in transit in the Kansas City metropolitan area are advised to proceed immediately to the municipal shelter facility closest to your current location” the panic is formally unleashed. It is ironic that in a film rife with patriarchal dominance, it is a female who, in effect, makes the crisis “real.” The ensuing scenes of the anxious masses at the supermarket, the confused faces waiting to use a public telephone and the people crowding into a city fallout shelter retain a visceral punch.

Another startling scene is Klein’s “rescue” of the stir-crazed Denise Dalhberg when she bolts from the basement out into the post-attack atmosphere. Meyer appears to have bleached out the film to provide the otherworldly look of the decimated landscape. The “ash” under the characters’ feet and the insects buzzing around the dead farm animals reinforce the hell that earth has become. Unfortunately, it is the radiation exposure that Klein and Denise subject themselves to in this masterful scene that sets the stage for one of the movie’s more laughable shots later in the film.

Some weeks after the attack (the time frame isn’t entirely clear), the inevitable occurs: The President takes to the static-filled airwaves from an undisclosed location and regurgitates a speech that seeks to comfort his surviving constituency. Meyer juxtaposes the bunker-issued platitudes and meaningless data with a devastating montage of Kansan misery (including one haunting shot of a lone Asian child that immediately calls to mind the aftermath of Hiroshima):
My fellow Americans… While the extent of damage to our country is still uncertain, and shall probably remain so for sometime. Preliminary reports indicate that principal weapons impact points included military and industrial targets in most sectors of the United States. There is at the present time a ceasefire with the Soviet Union, which sustained damage equally catastrophic. Many of you listening to me today have suffered personal injury, sudden separation from loved ones, and the tragic loss of your families. I share your grief for I too have suffered personal loss. During this hour of sorrow, I wish to assure you that America has survived this terrible tribulation. There has been no surrender, no retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy for which the free world looks to us for leadership. We remain undaunted before all but Almighty God… (sound of transistor radio adjustment)…offer our prayers…(static)…government functioning under certain extraordinary emergency options. We are prepared to make every effort to coordinate relief and recovery programs at the state and local level. During the next two weeks, my staff and Cabinet will relocate to the National Emergency Re-Construction Headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. At the present time, and until radiation pattern reports are made available over the Emergency Broadcast band or through your local authorities, I urge you to remain in areas offering maximum shelter protection from radioactive fallout and obey all local curfews. We are counting on you, you see—on your strength, your patience, your will and your courage to help rebuild this great nation of ours. God bless you all.[xii]
When the President has completed his address, Aldo angrily expresses his (and our) disappointment over what was not stated in the speech: “I want to hear what happened, who started it, who pre-empted, who fired first!” To which Huxley says with a tired finality: “You’re never going to know that.”

It should be noted that after complaints were received regarding the allegedly Reaganesque voice of the Commander-in-Chief, the soundtrack was updated for future airings and home video releases.[xiii] The voice was replaced by a more generic-sounding “president.” Hume’s script direction actually specifies that the voice should be more Bush than Reagan: “He sounds like a solemn, ‘heartfelt’ George Bush…”[xiv]

The President’s speech and his references to “National Emergency Reconstruction” set the table for the scenes that follow in which “government” starts to “function” again. These depictions involve a civil defense agronomist trying to convince angry farmers that all they need to do to begin farming again is clear off their top soil. Another scene involves a food distribution riot that is straight out of Soylent Green (minus the “people mover” vehicles). And when a radiation-weary Oakes hitches a National Guard Jeep ride to Kansas City, he impassively views looters being executed on the roadside by a squad of MPs.

The film’s weakest points come at the end as Oakes stumbles through his old neighborhood and Klein searches for Denise in a stadium full of wounded refugees. With his cap, rifle and sooty beard, Guttenberg looks like an extra in Gone with the Wind. When he improbably finds a weakened and balding Denise on a stretcher, he attempts to comfort her by displaying his own hair-loss by doffing his hat.
Jason Robards’ (never the healthiest-looking actor to begin with) final, ghastly appearance is more convincing than Mr. Guttenberg’s, but the actor seems to overplay the desperation of his character as he rummages through the wreckage of his former abode (just what was he expecting?). The final straw is when he finds his wife’s charred wrist watch and is then startled by a ghostly echo (father, wife, son and daughter) of his former family sitting around a fire on what remains of the living room floor.

This is actually a family of squatters who are unmoved as Oakes barks with Hestonian authority: “Get out of my house!” But the squatter patriarch (named Jude in the script) moves towards Oakes and offers him an onion. As Oakes breaks down sobbing, Jude comforts the beaten doctor by placing an arm around his shoulder. Oakes returns the gesture. This scene serves as both a peaceful counterpoint to Jim Dahlberg’s violent murder by the squatters at his character’s home and a visual homily that man must love his fellow man to survive.

In a poetic nod to the “God’s eye view” remark uttered by Oakes to his daughter in the art gallery at the beginning of movie, the camera cranes up and pans out on the image of Jude and Oakes’ embrace in the ruins. The screen fades to black and the last voice we hear is Huxley’s plaintive Citizens’ Band radio inquiry: “This is Lawrence, Kansas. Is there anybody there? Anybody at all?” Lawrence, Kansas is now a dying island, no longer connected to anything.


Immediately after The Day After’s premiere, ABC ran a live Viewpoint news special hosted by Ted Koppel and featuring a panel of wise men: Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, Jr., Carl Sagan, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel and Robert McNamara. The Reagan administration was represented by special lead guest Secretary of State George Schultz who touted the government's deterrence policy. Schultz, who appeared via television link from his home (next to a comforting fire place[xv]) was a second choice after Vice President George Bush declined White House Communication Director David Gergen’s request that he be the one to appear.

The discussion, with the exception of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Carl Sagan, was a mostly boring, partisan rhetorical duel over deterrence. The colorful extremes that Buckley and Sagan brought to the debate livened things up if only intermittently.

Buckley assessed The Day After with his trademark cutting wit and unflagging belief that “Soviet America” was a real possibility: “We saw tonight a hypothetical catastrophe. There is an ongoing catastrophe that is not hypothetical—that’s life in the Soviet Union under gulag. I very much regret the kind of junk thought that is encouraged by ventures of reductionism of the kind that that movie suggested… We have only to remember this: we have to fear the Soviet Union because they have an appetite to govern us and do to us what they have done to their wretched people.”

And Sagan illustrated beautifully the insanity of the arms race by likening it to two men in a room filled with gasoline each holding thousands of matches. During the entire Viewpoint episode the restrained scientist and author used the word “billions” only once.

While the TV commentators blathered, 500 people in Lawrence, Kansas held a candlelight vigil where the young mayor, David Longhurst, offered these words: “I do not want this film to be a preview of coming attractions. We must not wait until the day after.”

The ABC network and its affiliates, concerned about the psychological effects of the film, offered hotlines manned by crisis specialists. As it turned out, the specialists mainly took notes on positive or negative critical reaction to the movie. There was also a Day After Viewer’s Guide published by an educational non-profit organization that CONELRAD has posted. As it turned out, there was no lingering national trauma resulting from the fictional demise of planet earth. This is not to say that people weren’t deeply affected by the experience of watching the film when it originally aired. Indeed, author Steven Church wrote an entire book devoted to the influence of the movie on his life: The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst.

The Day After was seen by approximately 100 million Americans on November 20, 1983 and many millions more when it was distributed in Europe (and elsewhere) theatrically and on television. It was screened for Kremlin officials, but there is no evidence that it was ever broadcast in Russia during the Cold War. The film spurred a world-wide political debate in a way that the aforementioned smaller, superior movies could not. For all its artistic faults, The Day After painted a picture of what a small corner of the world might look like if the unthinkable happened. Prior to Nicholas Meyer’s film, modern treatments of the subject matter were of the fantastical—apes on horseback battling mutants—variety. It had been twenty years since Stanley Kramer’s motion picture, On the Beach. The Day After was groundbreaking in that it reintroduced the consequences of nuclear war to a new and vast audience. But its true legacy may be even more significant.

When President Reagan began negotiating arms limitation treaties with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in his second term, it couldn’t be known that The Day After had had an impact on his attitude. But when Reagan’s memoir was published in 1990, a small quotation from his presidential diary from October 10, 1983 told the story:
“Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running Nov. 20. It’s called THE DAY AFTER in which Lawrence, Kansas is wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done, all $7 million worth. It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed…” 
The Gipper cheers up with the Redskins...
The President goes on to write of the importance of deterrence in ensuring that nuclear war never happens, but it is clear from his own words that the film had a profound impact on his psyche. Edmond Morris, who had access to most of President Reagan’s diaries states in his book Dutch that this was the “first and only admission” that he was able to find where the indefatigably optimistic leader stated he was depressed.

It is well documented by his biographers and other writers that Reagan was deeply influenced by the visual mediums of film and television. Some historians believe he may have borrowed the concept for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) from one of his own films, Murder In The Air (1940). So is it that far-fetched that The Day After influenced his decision to pursue arms reduction?[xvi]

In the final analysis, the right wing’s argument against The Day After seems to have been a disingenuous one. Their major talking point to discredit the film was that deterrence was the only shield against nuclear war and that any other policy—such as a freeze—was unacceptable. However, at the time of The Day After many on the right also believed in the concept of a winnable nuclear war and advocated for civil defense in accomplishing such a victory.[xvii] The Day After depicts what might happen if deterrence fails and nuclear war takes place—rickety fallout shelters and all. If a nuclear war is truly winnable then what is the harm in dramatizing one? Is it because any credible depiction of such a war puts the lie to the concept of a “winnable” conflict? Oddly, the right never complained about the Planet Of The Apes series.

The mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes practice deterrence
We now live in a world of escalating proliferation in which nuclear weapons are more likely to be used than ever before—albeit on a smaller scale than during the Cold War. Indeed, if the media and the academics are to be trusted, the use of nuclear weapons in our lifetime is practically inevitable. The once unthinkable is today almost an afterthought. It is this new climate of “inevitability” that has allowed for the production of pop culture entertainments that explore such scenarios. The Sum of All Fears, The Peacemaker and an entire television series devoted to the subject, Jericho, are just a few examples. Jericho pays slight homage to its infinitely more pessimistic TV forefather by setting the series in Kansas. In one episode of the show, however, Lawrence is reported to have been one of the unfortunate cities to have been nuked—its second fictional bombing in less than twenty-five years.[xviii]

In the town of Jericho nary a radiation burn is to be found and all that is on the minds of the town’s teenagers is whether Lindsay Lohan survived the attack.[xix] It is enough to make one nostalgic for The Day After.

 Lindsay Lohan did not survive...


The Day After was a genuine media event and it has the voluminous paper trail to prove it. In an effort to present a well-rounded retrospective, CONELRAD has spent the last several years tracking down the many documents that underpin the foregoing article.

This feature would not have been nearly as thorough without the assistance of Clarke Ingram (and his industrial strength VCR). Mr. Ingram provided a tape of the original 1983 broadcast of the film from which we were able to rescue the original voiceover of the President.

It should also be noted that the researcher and author of this piece, Bill Geerhart, lived, breathed, ate and drank The Day After experience when the film was originally broadcast. Indeed, on November 20, 1983, at some point following the Bomb sequence in the film, Bill and some of the more adventurous residents of his college dormitory partook of survival biscuits and emergency drinking water. These food and water rations had been freshly purloined from the dorm’s sorry excuse for a fallout shelter. The Cuban Missile Crisis-era snacks produced the fearful nausea in our stomachs that Nicholas Meyer’s scare film couldn’t quite inspire.

The following are the audio, print, video and online resources CONELRAD relied upon in looking back at The Day After:


“The Day After:’ 20 Years Later”
NPR Retrospective from November 20, 2003


“Broadcast Preparations for and Consequences of The Day After”
Author: Guy E. Lometti 1992


With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush & Nuclear War
Random House; 1982; pp. 18-26
Author: Robert Scheer

Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology
University of California Press; 1987; pp.1-3
Author: Michael Rogin

An American Life
Simon and Schuster; 1990; pg. 585
Author: Ronald Reagan

Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial
G.P Putnam’s Sons; 1995; pp. 374-375
Authors: Robert James Lifton and Greg Mitchell

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
Random House; 1999; pg. 498
Author: Edmund Morris

Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future
Simon & Schuster; 2009; pg. 75
Author: William Bunch

The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood
Viking; 2009
Author: Nicholas Meyer

The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst
Soft Skull Press; 2010
Author: Steven Church


Nicholas Meyer to Bill Geerhart, November 20, 2008.

Nicholas Meyer to Bill Geerhart, February 23, 2010.


“Medic” Review
DAILY VARIETY; February 16, 1955

“The Day After” Review
DAILY VARIETY; November 23, 1983

“Fallout Over ‘The Day After’
NEWSWEEK; October 24, 1983

“TV’s Nuclear Nightmare”
NEWSWEEK (Cover Story); November 21, 1983

“The Nightmare Comes Home”
TIME; October 24, 1983

“Fallout from a TV Attack”
TIME; December 5, 1983

“The Day After: Bringing the Unwatchable to TV”
TV GUIDE; November 19, 1983 [Note: This issue includes Nicholas Meyer's "diary" about making The Day After].

“The Day After: Representations of the Nuclear Holocaust”
SCREEN (UK); July-October, 1984
Author: Susan Boyd-Bowman

“The Day After: Caring about Children: The Role of Audience Research”


“Sponsors Unafraid of Call for Boycott”
The Associated Press; November 22, 1983

“Will Hollywood Buy a Movie About Freedom?”
Ben Stein Column

“Two Views of the Political Fallout after ‘The Day After’”

“White House Eases Stand on Nuke Film”

“Scoop! – Nuclear War is Bad for You – Shocking Details Tonight at 8”
William F. Buckley Column

“U.S. Denies it will ‘rebut’ ‘Day After’”

“U.S. Sees ‘The Day After’ for Itself”

“When the Button was Pushed”
LOS ANGELES TIMES; October 10, 1983

“ABC Still Tinkering with ‘Day’”
LOS ANGELES TIMES; October 19, 1983

“On the Day of ‘The Day After’”
LOS ANGELES TIMES; November 20, 1983

“How a Nuclear Holocaust was Staged for TV’
NEW YORK TIMES; November 13, 1983

“Administration Mounts Drive to Counter Atom War Film”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 18, 1983

“City in Kansas Talks of Depiction of its Death”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 20, 1983

“‘The Day After’: TV as a Rallying Cry”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 20, 1983

“Abroad at Home: The Question After”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 21, 1983

“Millions of Americans Gather to View Nuclear War on TV”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 21, 1983

“Scientists Say TV Film Understates Possible Devastation of Nuclear Attack”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 21, 1983

“Advertising: Who Bought Time on ‘The Day After’”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 22, 1983

“Atomic War Film Spurs Nationwide Discussion
NEW YORK TIMES; November 22, 1983

“Students Voice Fear and Hopelessness in Talks the Day After ‘The Day After’”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 22, 1983

“Home of the Missiles Unshaken by Nuclear Film”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 24, 1983

“Among the Staff, the Mood is Testy”
NEW YORK TIMES; November 28, 1983

“Germans Fill City Theaters for War Film”
NEW YORK TIMES; December 11, 1983

“Nightmare For a Small Planet”
WASHINGTON POST; November 18, 1983

“‘The Day After’: What if We Survive”
WASHINGTON POST TV Guide; November 20, 1983

“The Night of ‘The Day After”
WASHINGTON POST; November 21, 1983


“Fallout from ‘The Day After’”


Screenwriter: Edward Hume
Second Draft; Revised: May 7, 1982


ABC News Nightline The Day After: Perils of Nuclear War (MPI Home Video, CAT# MP8037V; Originally broadcast as “Viewpoint;” airdate November 20, 1983; Out of Print). To view this special and the original commercial breaks from The Day After broadcast, visit the Museum of Classic Chicago Television’s Day After page.

Day After, The (Home VHS tape of original ABC broadcast: November 20, 1983)

Day After, The (Widescreen Laser Disk Director’s Cut edition with Nicholas Meyer commentary; Summa Video Image Entertainment, ID3156CC; 1995; Out of Print).

Day After, The (DVD release, Full Screen, MGM Home Entertainment, 1006987; 2004)


Viewer’s Guide to The Day After
Prepared by Cultural Information Service (CIStems, Inc.), 1983
Per the end notes of the Viewer’s Guide: “The development and distribution of this Viewer’s Guide were made possible through ABC Community Relations.”

[i] In a Yorkshire, UK TV press release as quoted in “THE DAY AFTER: Representations of the Nuclear Holocaust,” SCREEN, July-October, 1984

[ii] Nicholas Meyer confirms that a four-hour version of the film was shot in his sidebar diary for the TV Guide cover story, “The Day After: Bringing the Unwatchable to TV,” November 19, 1983. On page 8 of the magazine he writes: “I urge ABC to make The Day After three hours instead of four, one night instead of two. No one is going to tune in for two nights of Armageddon, we’ll be lucky if they last through one. ABC acknowledges my logic but can’t do it. I am introduced to the Byzantine world of TV: while they don’t expect to make money on the film, there is a limit to how much they can afford to lose. They need an hour’s worth of advertising to cover themselves financially, hence four hours over two nights. Oh, I’ll right, I shoot the padded version.”

[iii] There were a total of 12 ½ minutes of advertising during The Day After. The dominant advertiser was Commodore Business Machines which promoted its computer products in five different 30-second spots. Dollar Rent-a-Car and Minolta Camera each had two commercials and the remaining spots were for Certs breath mints, Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popping Corn, K-tel International, and Schering-Plough Corp. According to ABC, the average cost of a 30-second spot during film was $100,000. No commercials ran during the final 80 minutes of the broadcast.

[iv] Falwell subsequently announced that the Moral Majority would not pursue the threatened boycotts.

[v] Among the extras is instructional film legend Herk Harvey (who is perhaps best known for his horror masterpiece Carnival Of Souls). Harvey is one of the skeptical farmers in attendance at the agronomist lecture during the post-attack portion of the film.

[vi] The deployment of Pershing II missiles in Western Europe was a controversial topic during the post-production period of The Day After.

[vii] A review in the November 23, 1983 edition of Daily Variety notes that references to the Pershing II missiles were contained in the broadcast version of the film.

[viii] Director Nicholas Meyer readily admitted in a 2006 BBC 2 radio special on the Cold War that one of his goals with The Day After was to deny Ronald Reagan a second term in office.

[ix] To be fair to Meyer, he stated in contemporaneous interviews that great art was not his primary mission. For example: “…I never deluded myself that I was making a work of art. I look on the movie as a giant public-service announcement.” (Meyer to the NYT, 11/13/83).

[x] Lithgow’s hammy Kansan twang presumably helped earn the actor an Emmy nomination for his work in THE DAY AFTER.

[xi] The full, four-hour cut of The Day After has never been released. Based on various accounts, this would be a fascinating version to see if only to find out what became of all of the characters. There is also rumored to be a post-attack scene where the science nerds compete against the jocks for food rations. This alone would be worth the price of a special edition DVD.

[xii] The second draft of Edward Hume’s script was used for this transcription. With the exception of the President’s revelation that the headquarters for the National Emergency Re-Construction effort is in Des Moines, the text is what was heard in the original broadcast.

[xiii] Deroy Murdock, the then-chairman of Georgetown University’s Young Americans for Freedom was one of the people who first voiced the complaint about the president’s vocal similarities to Reagan’s. Murdock’s quote is found in “The Night of ‘The Day After,” Washington Post, November 21, 1983. After CONELRAD provided director Nicholas Meyer with links to the “before” and “after” presidential clips, he told us in a November 20, 2008 e-mail: “This is extraordinary. I had no idea until just now that the president had been revoiced…”

[xiv] Judge for yourself who the original Day After President sounds like by visiting CONELRAD’s YouTube page and watching the videos.

[xv] Was this Michael Deaver’s stagecraft?

[xvi] In some accounts, President Reagan’s inspirational debt to The Day After has crossed over to the territory of fictional legend. For example, on page of 75 William Bunch’s book, “Tear Down This Myth,” it is reported that the president sent Nicholas Meyer a telegram after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The text of the telegram supposedly read: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.” CONELRAD tried to find a copy of this extraordinary missive at the Reagan Library, but we were unable to. In a February 23, 2010 e-mail response to our inquiry about the telegram, Nicholas Meyer told us “unfortunately, there is no such telegram.”

[xvii] Thomas K. Jones, President Reagan’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces told author Robert Scheer that recovery from an all-out nuclear war was possible in a 1981 interview. The official revealed his “D.I.Y.” civil defense strategy thusly: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top… It’s the dirt that does it… if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” In 1980, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush answered Robert Scheer’s question about how a super-power can win in a nuclear exchange: “You have survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict on you. That’s the way you have a winner…” Bush later denied he was endorsing the concept of “winnable” nuclear war.

[xviii] The episode of Jericho in which the fate of Lawrence is revealed is “Long Live the Mayor,” originally aired on November 1, 2006. Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Josh Schaer and directed by Sanford Bookstaver.

[xix] The episode of Jericho in which Lindsay Lohan is mentioned is “Federal Response,” originally aired on October 18, 2006. Written by Mike Ostrowski and directed by Duane Clark.


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You comment that Billy McCoy's family is presumed killed but not verifiably so.

However, if you watch the sequence depicting people being vaporized (but not before being x-rayed), you may notice a woman holding a child among those so destroyed. That certainly looks like Airman McCoy's family.

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I lived in the USSR during the cold war and the movie WAS shown on national TV around 1984 or 1985. I don't know why you would claim there is no evidence for that.

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Does anyone know if the entire original, unedited attack sequence can be found anywhere?

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