World War III Pop Culture: The Day After Part III


Even though The Day After received accolades, and rave reviews this doesn’t mean the finish product was a flawless movie. There were mistakes, just as there are in almost every movie ever made. Some were noticeable and identified by many viewers rather quickly. Others were more subtle and provincial, picked up mainly by residents of the Kansas City area. In other instances, the inaccuracy or blunder was on the military side of things, noted mostly by people familiar with nuclear war and strategic forces.

I’ve selected two of the more glaring military-related faux pas and oversights found in The Day After and will wrap up the review by going over them.


 Improbable Timeline

ABC’s original plan was to air The Day After as a four-hour movie spread out over two nights. Nicholas Meyer, the director, had a different idea. He felt the original script was lengthy and wanted to cut out an hour of material. Meyer also wanted the movie to be presented on one night. He eventually got his way and so did ABC to an extent. It was eventually shrunk to a 120 minute running time that squeezed the lead up to war into an unrealistic timeframe.

Originally, the pre-war events in the movie were supposed to be spread out over a week or so. This decision was in line with how crises play out in real world. The events leading up to the nuclear war in the movie would probably take at least a week to play out. Unfortunately, the editing process became a factor and the finished product contained a pre-war segment where seven to ten days worth of buildup and conventional war played out in a little over a day.

The movie starts late in the afternoon of 15 September, 198X. By 9PM that evening the Soviets had mobilized its forces in Eastern Europe, blockaded Berlin entirely, and the US already issued an ultimatum and were moving its forces to DEFCON 2. Early in the morning on 16 September NATO moves armored units into East Germany to relieve Berlin. Fighting takes place and around 12:00 PM (Central US time) the Soviets invade West Germany. Within an hour…or maybe ninety minutes of real world time…NATO is dropping tactical nuclear weapons on the lead Soviet tank divisions. The exchanges escalate and at 3:36 PM the first Soviet ICBMs reach Kansas City.

The leadup to the nuclear exchange was riveting to be certain. But was it realistic? Not at all. There’s just no way to cram all of those events into a 24-hour period. The invasion of West Germany is the best example to look at here. There is no conceivable way 3rd Shock Army and the other Soviet army groups are going to penetrate so deep into West Germany within an hour or so that it brings on a NATO nuclear response. Over two or three days, sure. But not a couple of hours.

If the filmmakers could’ve stretched the lead up to war out over a week it could’ve added immeasurably to the anxiety and tension the at-home audience experienced. When Threads came out a little more than a year later it spread the lead up to war events out over a month or so. This kicked up the tension,  and developed the characters and plot more so than its American counterpart did.


Why Nuke Kansas City?

In the original script of the film Kansas City was not attacked. Whiteman AFB (the base, and missile fields) was the intended target. KC felt the aftereffects of the detonations and had to contend with thousands of survivors streaming in from the affected areas. The Soviet first strike was directed at military targets, primarily strategic assets. The cities were left alone. This set up makes sense because it clearly defines the attack as counterforce. This makes sense because there’s no point in nuking American cities first and leaving the missile silos, bomber bases, and command posts untouched. I realize most apocalyptic movies and works of fiction somehow work in the destruction of big cities first but that’s not how a nuclear war will take place.

Of course, the script changed. When all was said and done KC and Whiteman were hit simultaneously. Counterforce and countervalue all wrapped up into one. While this scared the living crap out of just about everyone who watched the movie, again, its just not realistic. Whiteman would go at least a couple of hours before Kansas City, if the city is even touched. It would all depend on what happens after the first wave of missiles arrive. Is there a second strike next, a ceasefire, or surrender by the US or Soviet Union? Nitpicking, I know, but it bothers me.

And for that matter, when the first nuclear detonations occur around the missile silos, why are they airbursts instead of ground impacts? The Soviets knew (and Russians today still know) the only way to neutralize US missile fields is to dig them out of the ground. That’s the sole reason the  SS-18s were even built.



Okay, that’s enough nuclear war for a while. 😊 Time to get back to the conventional war raging around the world in July, 1987.

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

  1. “for a while” he says …..
    Great write-up. I’ll admit that question on the time sequence during the exchange always had me wondering with both Threads and The Day After.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Just a little while. 🙂
      Yeah, the sequence was off a bit for The Day. Threads outlined it better and spaced out the events a little more realistically.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great breakdown of the film.

    Does a longer edit exist of the film?

    With regards to te Counterforce/ Countervalue point I’ve got replicated in a book at home a targetting list of British targets with both listed on it. The inference I took from it was these targets would be attacked would be simultaneous. I guess until we see a Russian plan we’ll never know for sure.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pete.

      Yeah, you can find the 2.5 hour version on Youtube. Some extra scenes and all.

      I think with regards to Great Britain its a little different. They would’ve hit some cities as well as military bases in all of the Western European countries in the first wave. Not as much space over as in the US where most of our ICBMs and bomber bases were purposely set away from population centers. In Europe everything’s so close that even a near miss on a military target is going to cause a lot of civilian casualties. So the line between Counterforce and Countervalue is kind of blurred over there.
      As far as the US goes, you can target every major bomber/tanker base and missile field in the country, as well as SAC headquarters and other command posts without hitting more than one or two major cities. Omaha, Washington DC etc.


      Liked by 3 people

          1. What really opened my eyes to the size of the US was the 3 hour flight I took from Vegas to Chicago… not even coast to coast. UK to Greece is the same flying time. Would love to see more of the US.



            Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s a big land over here. 5 hours coast to coast flying time and you see everything from deserts, to mountains, to plains. New York to Boston flying wise is comparable to London-Brussels.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I think EARLY Soviet missiles would have (the actual targeting info is of course under deep lock and key) aimed for countervalue because they were just too inaccurate for anything better. By the 80s, of course, they’re a lot better.

    France, at least publicly, aimed for countervalue with its “we can kill 80 million Russians” comments. But nuclear targeting is, again, something obviously kept down.

    As for big cities being targets, I think the pop culture example, even if inaccurate in military terms, comes from the fact that the only two nuclear weapons used in anger were in fact dropped on cities (yes, there’s more to it than that but still). The absolute earliest nuclear war plans, from what I’ve seen, were basically just lists of cities in the USSR measured against bomber ranges.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. The early Soviet ICBMs were very inaccurate. That’s why they had warheads of 3+ megatons. With that kind of firepower, accuracy is a moot point 🙂

      France and even Great Britain only had a limited number of launchers and missiles. By default they had to go for countervalue because if Paris and Marseilles are evaporated, hitting some naval bases and airfields in the Soviet Union isn’t going to be a fair trade. Maybe one day we’ll find out about the targeting plans, but with the way things are nowadays, it won’t be soon.

      Big cities are popular targets for fiction and movies. It gets people’s interest more by showing New York or Kansas City being nuked rather then say Grand Forks AFB. Good point though about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were the first (and so far only) targets and both were good-sized cities. Then in the late 40s the early nuclear war plans called for countervalue attacks. When Russia gained a strategic force is when things started to change.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. One point, Mike, and it’s not a criticism, just an observation:

    “Is there a second strike next, a ceasefire, or surrender by the US or Soviet Union?”

    While there’s no mention of a second strike, when some survivors in Lawrence get a working short-wave receiver set up, they listen to a (possibly pre-recorded) statement from the President saying that a “general cease-fire” had been declared. For the original broadcast they had an actor doing a passable impression of Reagan. The bent of the screenwriters was obvious, because immediately after the listeners are incredulous that “Reagan” didn’t address whether the US or USSR had fired first. It’s one of the last scenes in the film, I think only the bit with Jason Robards going to the crater that was once Kansas City was left of the broadcast.

    Later VHS re-issues of the film/miniseries were re-dubbed at the end so the actor is just a generic male voice.

    A lot of people say that “The Day After” prompted Reagan to change his stance on defense issues, but honestly I don’t think he ever backed down from “Peace through Strength” as a policy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right Bill.
      I should’ve explained the context a little better when I wrote that statement. I was referring to a hypothetical situation, not the movie.

      Still, you’re entirely right. The President spoke and gave a little info. His message was a little encouraging. At least we had a government left and I’d take a ceasefire over surrender to Moscow any day.
      Not surprised they wanted to use a voice imitation of Reagan. You said it, their bend was pretty evident.
      I’m with you. The movie likely shocked him but I don’t think it really changed his position on defense issues and related policies.
      Back to the movie for a sec, I wonder how the survivors would’ve reacted if the Russians decided to re-target the Whiteman missile silos maybe a day or so after the initial strike. That would’ve been a major plot twist to say the least 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, I got you.

    What a horrifying thought: you survive the initial strike, maybe there’s even a little federal aid trickling in, people are struggling to go on…and then some maniac orders a follow-on strike to hit a secondary located so close to the primary as makes no difference. The very thought makes me nauseous.

    To quote the rather chilling ending of “World War 3” :

    “There is no further historical record of what happened next.”


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t even contemplate the horror a follow-on strike would bring. But from a military perspective, I can see how and why one might be necessary.

      I loved that “World War 3” docu-flick. It was done very well.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I will own up to being a military hardware fanboy. New missile? New gun? New Warship? I wanna know all the details! But Project Pluto (the SLAM, not to be confused with the later Standoff Land Attack Missile or the SLAM-ER), that’s just horrifying. That steps out of the realm of “This is cool hardware” to “this is the stuff out of a dark nightmare”. A robot bomber that can fly around for weeks or months, dropping nuclear weapons on cities and towns that it “thinks” “need” to be hit again. Good thing for us it got cancelled. Bad thing for us the Russians are trying to build one (although the prototype blew up and killed a bunch of the people working on it).

    Don’t get me wrong, in the cold equations of force v. counterforce, value v. countervalue, absolutely agree. Occasionally on Quora I see people ask “What would bomber crews do after WW3” and of course there’s a lot of glib responses like “fly to Fiji and live there” etc. but the reality is that recovery airfields and bases were designated, and if the planes survived they could very well be tasked with follow-on strikes in later hours, days, or weeks.

    Yeah, “World War 3” is particularly well done, although with an appropriately chilling ending. To be honest I’m kind of surprised an alt-history technothriller kind of “what if” film based on similar scenarios to what you’re doing here haven’t been made. Red Storm Rising (for example) would’ve made perfect fodder for, say, HBO. The closest we’ve gotten are the nuclear nightmare films. The other “World War Three” mini-series from the early 1980s, starring Rock Hudson, David Soul, and Brian Keith started out as a conventional war, but since (due to poor ratings) it was decided to make it just a mini-series and not a full TV series, the “open” ending was closed up with both sides escalating to full nuclear exchange (Keith’s “Premier Gorny” being assassinated by the KGB, the deaths of Soul’s US SFOR captain and his Russian counterpart who had agreed on a local cease-fire, and so on, being the trigger point).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point about alt-history technothriller films or TV shows. Not many out there. The ones that are seem to be centered on characters more than events. The Man in the High Castle was like that. A miniseries or long film about a WW3 in Europe like Red Storm Rising would be awesome.
      I remember the World War III miniseries. So much potential but it was presented in a ham-fisted kind of way. Great cast too.

      Project Pluto was creative to say the least. Let’s be honest, some targets are going to need to be hit again. Mostly counterforce. The problem is, if the air defenses aren’t neutralized, that bomber up there loitering around would be a sitting duck.

      Liked by 2 people

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