How a TV Show Changed the Cold War

How a TV Show Changed the Cold War

Forty years ago, half the nation tuned in to watch the end of the world on their television sets, only the world’s most powerful man had already seen it. Against his chief of staff’s objections, President Reagan asked to screen The Day After at Camp David a month before the airdate. After viewing, Reagan wrote in his diary that the film was “very effective & left me greatly depressed.” Described by historians as “Reagan’s Reversal,” the effects and aftermath of a made for television movie made the world safer than it had been for decades, at least temporarily.

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In 1983, ABC’s The Day After produced a $7 million disaster film that imagined a nuclear attack on the U.S. and the dystopian aftermath of a crumbling society. For months leading up to the event, news outlets had featured cover stories, behind-the-scenes accounts, and deeply-partisan commentaries about the film. On the right, Reagan’s political and religious allies had aligned behind a strategy of unlimited nuclear buildup, framed by the fatalistic concept of MAD, mutually assured destruction. For those on the Left, the program aligned with the global protests of nuclear freeze activists and scientists delivering extinction event warnings of nuclear winter.

Caught in the crosshairs was Brandon Stoddard, the ABC programming wunderkind and “Father of the Mini-Series,” who had conceived the film. High concept movies coupled with powerful messages was Stoddard’s métier. Stoddard was determined to awaken American from their Cold War stupor and complete Oppenheimer’s mission to warn us of the threat of nuclear oblivion. Yet, as documented in Apocalypse Television: How the Day After Helped End the Cold War, the making of The Day After nearly didn’t happen. The path from inception to screen meant Stoddard encountered innumerable obstacles from internal dissent at the network to his brilliant, if obstreperously demanding, director, to prominent Reagan revolutionaries and right wing firebrands from arch conservative William F. Buckley to televangelist Jerry Falwell.

For Stoddard and his team at ABC, the first task was to hire a screenwriter who could deliver a powerful message on a TV movie budget without becoming “political.” Rather than depicting World War 3, Stoddard honed a vision for a character-driven drama set around the mundane lives of Midwesterners with little fear of nuclear Armageddon, aside from the Air Force bases and missile silos that dotted the landscape. Then, once the bomb dropped, the audience would bear witness as society descends into hell from the fallout, a far cry from primetime fare dotted with procedural dramas and game shows, sports and sitcoms. In Edward Hume, the ABC team found a gifted, socially-conscious storyteller. Hume had piloted the most successful television series by day, while penning TV message movies by night. Nonetheless, Hume appeared despondent when he heard his inspired script was greenlit. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up every day for the past two years and deal with the destruction of the world?”

The battles waged between the network and director Nicholas Meyer are the stuff of Hollywood legend. Fresh off the success of saving Paramount’s Star Trek franchise, Meyer had little incentive to return to television where he had first honed his craft as a screenwriter. But Meyer’s career trajectory was no match for destiny, or at least his therapist who nearly dared him to take the gig. The journey would send Meyer to the Midwest and depression once the network took him off the film after screening a lethally slow first cut. After the network’s cut inadvertently placed the blamed on the Soviets, Stoddard’s soap became a polemic and a triumphant Meyer returned to fix it. Before the film was finished, an earlier cut made its way into the hands of a rogue publicists, anti-nuclear activists who hijacked the film’s message to champion their cause. The backlash that ensued contributed to more press than any Hollywood film could ever afford. Stoddard faced threats internal and external, including death notes and powdered envelopes. Then he discovered his legal department had sent the film to the White House upon request.

For the first three years of his administration, Reagan had advanced his “peace through strength” approach to the Cold War. In effect, through rhetoric and policy, Reagan was playing a dangerous game of nuclear saber-rattling with the Soviets. He withdrew from disarmament agreements, declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and took to the nation’s airwaves to announce the launch of his space-based missile defense system, deemed “Star Wars” by the press. Even after the movie aired, he shipped Pershing missiles on to European soil. However, by the fall of 1983, the Reagan administration had been roiled by a spectacular series of crises, some of their own making. The Soviets had blown an errant Korean airline out of the sky, taking with it 269 passengers including a contingent of U.S. Congressmen. A suicide bomber blew up the U.S. barracks in Lebanon, wiping out an entire battalion of Marines. Within the same week, Reagan had ordered the invasion of Grenada under false pretenses.

Decades later, with the release of declassified documents, we now know the Soviets were seconds away from launching World War III, a consequence of either false alarms or Cold War paranoia. In September 1983, Soviet early warning systems had indicated incoming U.S. warheads. A duty officer ignored protocol and the missiles proved to be a computer glitch caused by sun flares. Two months later, the U.S. led war games in Europe named Able Archer, only the Soviets this was no game. Lying in a hospital with kidney failure, Premiere Andropov held his trembling finger on the Cheget, the term for the Soviet’s nuclear suitcase.

While members of his administration would taut the prospect of a winnable nuclear war, Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist—a fact well-hidden with the help of his staff for political expediency. Only the events over the fall of 1983, including the impact of watching The Day After, led to a stark reversal in Reagan’s rhetoric and policy. Shortly after his screening of the film, his general provided rich details of the likely aftermath of nuclear war. As Reagan described, the meeting was “the most sobering experience…in several ways the sequence of events parallels those in the ABC movie…that could to the end of civilization as we know it.” By early 1984 Reagan’s speeches had veered from warmonger to Gandhi-esque peacemaker, declaring that “we’re all God’s children.” His administration was charged with developing stronger diplomatic ties with Soviet colleagues, securing disarmament summits, even installing a fax hotline between the Oval Office and the Kremlin. Along with the rise of a new Soviet leader, these strategies set the stage for the end of the super-powered Atomic Arms Race, at least in the 20th Century.

Today, the parallels to 1983 grow more disturbing as the lessons from this narrative more vital. While writing this book, the Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant was under attack as CNN commentators warned of imminent nuclear catastrophe. China’s rise has been framed as yet a renewed Cold War. A pandemic that swept the planet into darkness has become endemic, as doctors race to thwart the next one. Whether through lack of will or capability, we are plummeting towards environmental collapse.

Much like the rise of cable and satellite television in the 1980s, Hollywood, media, the news, and the means for all forms of communication have been dismantled by more powerful and constantly evolving technologies. Digital and social media platforms have replaced the gatekeepers, placing the power once yielded by broadcast professionals literally into the hands of teenagers and terrorists, dissidents and dictators. Still, these same technologies have the capacity to reverse the course of history. Streaming technologies yield the power to convey powerful messages capable of thwarting the next extinction. Social media users can organize online communities in the millions. Games can teach empathy. AI may imagine better worlds.

As Stoddard and allies demonstrated in this tale, storytellers and media professionals have agency. First, they learn how to navigate within media systems and harness the power of the medium. Then they develop strategies to deliver affective and enlightened messages designed for popular audiences, if also capable of swaying powerful leaders. We’ll need them to again.

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