This week The Americans, the F/X television show about two KGB spies posing undercover as suburban American parents in the early 1980s, reminded us that national anxiety about a possible nuclear holocaust was at a peak in the fall of 1983. Two families are shown watching the controversial made-for-TV movie The Day After, a film that explored the gruesome after effects of a nuclear armageddon in the United States. A conventional historical narrative of Cold War anxiety often focuses on Americans’ general nervousness about the possibility of nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, this is one my favorite parts of the U.S. History survey to teach. I look forward to showing my students The Atomic Cafe with its pastiche of clips from Cold War newsreels, Army instructional films, nightly news broadcasts, advertisements, and cartoons.(click here to view)
The Atomic Cafe is very adept at using black humor to highlight the extreme paranoia Americans felt about Communism and atomic energy, as well demonstrating the preposterous claims made by the Atomic Energy Commission and the military that we could survive a nuclear attack with well-thought out preparation. Students giggle when they see children in the 1951 Federal Civil Defense film practicing Bert the Turtle’s instruction to “duck and cover” before the atomic bomb hits.They laugh in disbelief when they hear the U.S. military instructor give specious information to soldiers participating in a 1957 nuclear detonation test at Camp Desert Rock.
“You are here to participate in an atomic maneuver. This is not a haphazard maneuver,” the instructor says. “Careful planning for it started months back. Watched from a safe distance, this explosion is one of the most beautiful sights seen by man. You’re probably saying, ‘So it’s beautiful. What makes it so dangerous?’ Basically, there are only three things to think about: blast, heat, and radiation. Radiation. This is the one new effect obtained by the use of an atomic weapon. Truthfully, it’s the least important of the three effects as far as the soldier on the ground is concerned…The radiation level may be high, but if you follow orders you’ll be moved out in time to avoid sickness. Finally, if you receive enough gamma radiation to cause sterility or severe sickness, you’ll be killed by blast, flying debris, or heat anyway. Well, that’s the story. Don’t worry about yourselves. As far as the test is concerned, you’ll be fine.” Students often ask me afterward, “how could people be so ignorant?”
The notion that we could survive an atomic blast with “duck and cover,” or safely watch a nuclear detonation up close believing that radiation was the least of our concern because the force of the atomic blast would kill us first, certainly feels silly. However it is no accident that production on The Atomic Cafe began in 1977 and the film was released in 1982. During the early 1980s the Cold War escalated under President Ronald Reagan’s watch. Reagan relied heavily on bellicose rhetoric (deeming the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”) and talked endlessly about stockpiling nuclear weapons. As I explain to my students, The Atomic Cafe can also be read as an anti-war critique of Reagan’s Cold War mentality in the careful way it uses humor to point out the absurdity of the arms race. The antinuclear movement accelerated in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident at a nuclear power plant in 1979, and in the face of Reagan’s hyperbolic and aggressive language toward the Soviet Union it grew stronger still.
One year after The Atomic Cafe appeared in theaters, The Day After played to 100 million Americans sitting at home in front of their television sets. It follows the experience of several people from Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union turns hot and leads to a nuclear holocaust. The latest episode of The Americans “The Day After” taps into the wellspring of fear the film generated following its premiere on November 20, 1983. Undercover KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings watch the movie with their American-born children Paige and Henry, as well as their next door neighbor Stan Beeman, the FBI agent, and his son. 15-year old Paige struggles with profound unease and depression after seeing the movie and asks her father “Do you really think it’s all gonna end like that?” Her burden is exacerbated by the fact that she now knows her parents are Soviet spies and key players in the Cold War. Like the character Paige, I was 15 years old when I watched The Day After with my family and I distinctly remember feeling nervous too.
Frankly, this movie really scared the #$%& out of me and my siblings as well as our friends and neighbors. Moments before the nuclear explosion, the emergency broadcast system issues that familiar yet creepy two-tone screeching sound over the radio. We see scores of people pulling over their cars to wait in line at a payphone and make calls to loved ones. People practically riot in the grocery store, grabbing as much food as they can. A young boy is seen watching television and hears the newscaster report to viewers “a nuclear bomb of undetermined strength has already hit regional NATO military headquarters.” Men at the SAC Airborne Command Post over Kansas, after verifying keys and authentication papers, send out missiles loaded with nuclear bombs from nearby silos. People in the area stand silently and watch the missiles drive higher into the sky. A father instructs his two daughters to seek shelter in the basement as he heads upstairs to fetch his wife who is making the bed, as if nothing is wrong. He physically drags her down the stairs as she begins wailing. Several military men on duty debate whether to stay at their post or break orders and head to the secured underground bunker. “Can you believe it?” one airman says. “They’ve really gone and done it…They pushed all the buttons.” Another responds, “You know what this means don’t you? Either we fired first and they’re gonna try to hit what’s left or they fired first and we just got our missiles out of the ground in time. Either way we’re going to get hit.” Crowds of panicked people are shown running through the streets as the sirens go off. Drivers are honking their horns relentlessly, and automobiles are crashing. The filmmakers draw out the time preceding the blast when people are aware that the bombs are on their way in the most painful way possible; it lasts a full 17 minutes.
Suddenly the camera moves to the sky and then pans further back in brief short spurts until the bomb finally explodes in a bright cloud of light. A large orange mushroom cloud appears on the horizon. A second bomb explodes next to it. Various people in Lawrence and Kansas City, including a couple getting married in a church and clusters of school children, are instantly vaporized; groups are shown in brief flashing moments, their skeletons glowing against the orange background of the outline of their bodies before they disappear. A young child is flash-blinded after viewing the bomb burst in the sky. Walls of fire suddenly blow people away and buildings collapse. Footage from atomic testing in the 1950s is interspersed with the film’s special effects creating a seamless visual web of nuclear destruction. Once the nuclear bombs hit, the movie continues without commercial breaks. Families in the film are shown struggling with immense loss of life and property.The city’s infrastructure is destroyed, people are living in shanty towns, and large numbers of the injured are gathered in buildings with no medical care available. Many suffer from radiation poisoning. Some of the characters’ hair falls out and their skin peels off. A few succumb to their injuries and die. The day after the movie premiered, Newsweek issued a cover with a tagline asking: “Public Service or Propaganda? How Will It Affect Children?” The magazine noted that “what distinguishes ‘The Day After’ from every previous treatment of nuclear war is that it forces us to graphically experience the ground-zero agonies of ordinary people.” It is safe to say that adults wound up with nightmares too.
It’s hard for me to convey to my students the incredible level of anxiety this film induced in people, including myself. It was a searing experience, and I could not get it out of my head. In 1983 nuclear destruction was a real possibility in my mind. 43% of the American population watched The Day After live and ABC set up 1-800 hotlines to provide support for distraught viewers after it aired. The running time of the original version came to 4 hours, however the studio asked for significant cuts due to the graphic nature of planned scenes and footage as well as to make the film a one-night event. (click here if you would like to suffer through the entire movie). I have shown clips from The Day After to my students, including the 17 minute long lead up to the explosion and the 4 minute scene of total destruction, but it is difficult for them not to laugh or cringe at the poor special effects.
The expressions of atomic anxiety in the The Atomic Cafe now seem laughably quaint, and for my students today The Day After plays like a bad disaster movie. But we should remember that fear of a nuclear holocaust was a genuine concern. The anxiety was quite palpable.The episode of The Americans this week ended up unsettling me, also reminding me that the Cold War had different iterations. The next time I teach this time period, I need to incorporate greater material on the antinuclear movement in the 1970s-1980s into my lecture, situating the significance of The Day After in greater context. In the meantime, if you’re interested in listening to musicians discuss why they participated in the 1979 No Nukes Concert (The Muse Concerts for a Non Nuclear Future) at Madison Square Garden, you might head here for Part II of seven parts available on Youtube.