World War III Pop Culture: The Day After Part I


On Sunday, 20 November, 1983 a distinctly unique television movie aired on ABC here in the United States. The subject of the movie was one considered to be taboo at the time, and to an extent it remains so today: Nuclear war. Specifically, the effects of a nuclear conflict on a group of average American citizens. To be fair, there had been a number of nuclear war movies produced and released previous to this one. However, none of them come close to matching the level of depth, realism, and despair in the one shown in November, 1983. It was watched by 100 million people and the initial broadcast set a record for the highest-rated television movie in history. The movie I’m referring to is, of course, The Day After.

Timing is everything in life and the timing of this film’s release was almost perfect. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were rising to a dangerous level in 1983. A growing number of people in the US, and around the world, regarded nuclear war is imminent. The only variable to be determined was when the war would come. Most assumed sooner rather than later. The international situation was especially tense in November, 1983 owing to the recent Soviet shoot-down of a Korean Airlines 747, NATO plans to deploy the Pershing II and GLCM in Western Europe, and the declining health of Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov. The themes of nuclear weapons, and possible nuclear war were embedded firmly in pop culture back then as well, from music, to television sitcoms, to books. With all of this serving as a backdrop, The Day After burst onto the scene and traumatized the country.

The plot and storyline of the movie will be described in detail and discussed at length in Parts II and III of this review. But for the benefit of readers who’ve yet to see it, here’s a short summary:

The Day After is set in Kansas City, Missouri and surrounding areas on both sides of the state line. The film is laid out in a before-during-after nuclear attack scenario format. The main characters are American citizens coming from different walks of life but united by their determination to prepare as nuclear war looms, and then survive through the attack, and post-attack phases. Characters are introduced in the first segment and in the background the international situation is presented through news reports on the television, and radio. Tensions between the US and Soviets are rising in Europe. The situation deteriorates through the segment and the characters take notice, recognize the danger, and start to prepare. Towards the end of the first segment war erupts between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe and rapidly escalates to an exchange of battlefield nuclear weapons. Almost immediately the tactical nuclear exchange escalates to strategic. Minuteman missiles are seen rising up from silos on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro area. The attack segment comes next, four minutes of blinding white light, airbursts, mushroom clouds, people being vaporized, and firestorms. Not for the faint of heart. For that matter, neither is the post-attack segment which is best described as horrifyingly graphic. The survivors attempt to pick up the pieces and come to terms with the new reality that has been thrust upon them. Radiation poisoning, irradiated crops, tens of thousands of people in need of medical attention with just a few operating hospitals left are only a handful of the major problems the survivors have to contend with. By the end of the film just about all of the major characters are either dead, or on the verge of dying. The world we knew and loved was gone, replaced by a shattered hulk of despair and death.

There’s no question the makers of The Day After intended for it to be a bleak anti-war film and succeeded in making it just that. But even they did not correctly estimate how it would eventually be adopted as a tool for many left-wing politicians, and groups. Disarmament supporters pointed to the film as an indictment of Deterrence, and Mutually Assured Destruction. Pacifist groups in the US, and many Green parties in Europe (some of which were knowingly, or unknowingly funded by the Soviet Union) screamed for unilateral disarmament after their members watched the movie. Conservatives, and supporters of Deterrence fired back, labeling the film as irresponsible, and accusations of traitorous behavior by the producers and director. The New York Post even asked rhetorically, “Why is Nicholas Meyer (Director of the movie) doing Yuri Andropov’s work for him?”

The film’s blowback and the effect it had on people, policymakers, and the Cold War as a whole are going to be touched on in later parts. However, given that this blog is one centered on things military, the main focus going forward is going to be on analyzing the military aspects of The Day After.  Part II will include a detailed review of the nuclear war scenario, and how the US military was portrayed in the movie. That will be posted Wednesday night or early on Thursday.


10 Replies to “World War III Pop Culture: The Day After Part I”

  1. I believe some footage from the HBO/CTV film “Countdown to Looking Glass” was used for the “Battle” scenes (shots aboard NEACP, missile launches, etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ‘Battle’ footage was actually from a late-70s documentary about nuclear forces called First Strike. Not a bad documentary and the footage is excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was shown on the TV in the UK at the same time, though it got lots of media coverage nobody that I knew actually watched it (I think most actively chose not to). Threads (which I think you’ve already covered) got vastly more attention from UK audiences. The Day After is now shown semi-regularly on one of the free-to-view UK channels – so I only got to see it for the first time about 3-4 years ago – at about the same time as I first saw Damnation Alley 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Threads was pretty much the British version of The Day After. I did cover it previously. In some ways I think its superior to The Day, but the opposite holds true too. Either way they’re both excellent films.
      Damnation Alley! LOL What a great movie that was.


  3. I remember watching this as a kid. Everybody I knew talked about the movie at the time. Haven’t seen it since; added to my queue. Thanks.

    Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a personal favorite.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I forgot he did Star Trek II. That movie is a favorite too.

      The movie is around on Youtube and Amazon so if you ever feel like checking it out, try there first.

      Liked by 1 person

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