World War III Pop Culture: The Day After Part II


The lead up to nuclear war presented in The Day After is a textbook example of a late Cold War era escalatory scenario. It is practically an exact copy of the ones used in Title X wargames at the time, and very similar to what could be found in military publications of the ‘80s. Realism was indispensable to the plot of the movie, as well as its presentation to the general populace. With the main purpose of the film meant to awaken people to the dangers of the arms race, and the horror of a nuclear war, it was necessary to create a lead up that was authentic, and mirrored contemporary (at the time) news and events taking place around the world.

As The Day After begins on 15 September, 198X, the first snippets of problems in Europe are revealed through news reports. A major Soviet military buildup is underway in Eastern Europe, running under the guise of Warsaw Pact exercises. NATO is suspicious of the timing given there are reports of unrest coming out of East Germany. West Berlin becomes a focal point as the Soviets attempt to intimidate the US, Great Britain, and France into withdrawing from the city. When the Western powers refuse to budge, the Soviets initiate a blockade of West Berlin, cutting it off from the outside world. The US issues an ultimatum to the Soviets, stating that if the blockade is not lifted by 6 AM the next day (6AM Eastern Time it’s assumed) it will be interpreted as an act of war. The President orders US forces to ‘worldwide stage two alert’ (DEFCON 2 in reality).

The next morning (16 September, 198X) opens with no Soviet response to the ultimatum. NATO begins an operation to break the blockade of West Berlin. Armored units (most likely from the BAOR) break through the Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint on the Inner-German Border after a major battle and are advancing towards Berlin. There’s also a confirmed report that Soviet MiG-25s attacked a NATO munitions depot outside of Wurzburg, also inconveniently striking a school and hospital. Tensions are fast approaching the critical level now. It is soon learned that Moscow is being evacuated.

Soviet forces invade West Germany soon after, a three-pronged ground attack aimed at the Rhine. The advances continue and in the early afternoon NATO uses tactical nuclear weapons against the Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops. The Soviets respond with nuclear strikes against NATO targets and the exchanges threaten to escalate. There is contact between US and Soviet naval forces in the Persian Gulf. SAC scrambles its alert force tankers and bombers.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and escalation comes swiftly. The details thin out at this point in the movie. It’s unclear what happens next but either the US or Soviet Union initiate a first strike. US Minuteman II missiles are seen leaving their silos east of Kansas City. In a brief scene at a missile control facility it is learned that the Soviets have knocked out radar warning stations at Beale AFB and Fylingdales, England. In all likelihood they’ve also taken out the BMEWS site in Greenland but this isn’t mentioned. In the final scene before the attack segment of the movie an officer on board Looking Glass confirms a massive Soviet attack is underway with over 300 missiles inbound. But it remains unclear who fired first, or whether the strikes are counterforce or countervalue. The only certainty is that US ICBMs are on the way to Russia, and Soviet missiles are racing towards targets in the United States.

An EMP detonation occurs at high altitude over Kansas City and less than a minute later the first nuclear detonations occur.

The scenario and the movie script worked well in tandem. Unfortunately, when the editing process began, issues cropped up that severely affected the final product. I’ll discuss this more in Part III and touch on how the film editing adversely affected the scenario, and overall movie continuity.

As for the military aspects of The Day After, for a movie with such an evident antiwar slant, the director certainly didn’t hesitate to introduce a USAF main character, and utilize sound and video clips of SAC aircrews, missileers, and Looking Glass battle staff. To be fair, having a US Air Force airman as a main character, and the video clips of SAC in action significantly enhanced the realism of the movie immensely.

The Pentagon let ABC know it would only cooperate in the making of the film if it was made clear in the script that the Soviet Union launched its missiles first. ABC refused the caveat and the production staff was forced to use stock footage from a late 1970s documentary on American strategic forces titled First Strike for most of the big picture military scenes. Luckily for ABC, they chose a very good documentary filled with video of real SAC missile crews, B-52 crews, and Looking Glass personnel operating as they would under wartime conditions. The footage infused The Day After with a shot of accuracy which certainly helped to sell the film to the audience and helped assure its spot as one of the most realistic nuclear war films of all time.

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