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The Day After: The Night My Father Scared America

December 22, 2023
Notes
Transcript
ABC’s The Day After, the 1983 drama about a nuclear strike on America, was the most-watched movie in television history. It had a profound impact on Ronald Reagan, and led to shifts in our nuclear policy. A.B. Stoddard tells the story of her father’s role in changing the course of history. The Bulwark Podcast presents: The Day After: The Night My Father Scared America.

show notes:

A.B.’s article from November

This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:00

    I’m AB Stoddard columnist at the Bulwark. Americans used to live in fear of an imminent nuclear war. Many families had bomb shelters, and the word fallout was part of our vocabulary. But in nineteen eighty three, My dad helped change the course of history with a television movie about a nuclear attack on the United States. This is the day after.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:27

    The night my father scared America presented by the Bulwark podcast. What’s going on?
  • Speaker 2
    0:00:43

    Those would’ve been a man missing
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:46

    Like a test sort of, like a warning?
  • Speaker 2
    0:00:51

    They’re on their way to Russia. They take about thirty minutes to reach their target.
  • Speaker 3
    0:01:00

    So do
  • Speaker 4
    0:01:00

    theirs? Right.
  • Speaker 5
    0:01:02

    There’s a warning. This is bail confidence as high. I repeat confidence as high. Roger, we’ve got thirty two targets track and ten impacted parts. Wanna confirm, is this an exercise?
  • Speaker 5
    0:01:18

    Roger. Copy. This is not an exercise. Roger. Yeah.
  • Speaker 5
    0:01:21

    Major Reinhardt, we have a massive attack. USN at this time, ICPM’s, numerous ICPM’s. Roger, I understand. Over three hundred missiles inbound down.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:13

    My father had a story to tell that no one wanted to hear. He was repeatedly warned not to, even by the White House. But he wouldn’t retreat until he had dragged president Reagan and the whole country through the simulation of nuclear war. Forty years ago, one hundred million viewers, out of roughly two hundred and thirty four million Americans, tuned in to the day after on ABC, making it the most watch movie in television history. The Nielsen ratings showed that sixty two percent of TVs in use on the night of Sunday, November twenty nineteen eighty three were tuned into the movie.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:55

    And nearly every American had heard about it. The day after was inescapable. There was a loud, long run up to the broadcast. With advanced screenings, bootleg copies, or what was referred to back then as pirated cassettes, as well as abundant publicity and panic. Agonizing debates preceded the film’s airing, which hung in the balance until the final hours.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:22

    As pressure accumulated from the Reagan administration, the conservative right, and multiple departments within ABC itself. Psychiatrists warned the film would produce a suicide surge. Schools across the country braced for the provocation. And while some assigned viewing, most cautioned parents and students. In promoting the movie, ABC warned of the coming horror, set up a toll free phone line for counseling, and advised children under the age of twelve should not watch the film.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:57

    The prospect of nuclear war was very real in the public mind in nineteen eighty three. A Gallup poll conducted just as the movie came out, found that forty percent of Americans believed a nuclear war was likely in the next decade. And sixty nine percent of Americans believed they had a poor chance of surviving such a war. Nearly half of the respondents, forty seven percent, felt the Reagan administration had brought the country closer to war. The idea for the day after came from my father, Brandon Stoddard, who was then president of ABC pictures.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:38

    He wanted Americans not politicians to grapple with what nuclear war would mean. And he felt quote, fear had really paralyzed people. So the movie was meant to force the issue. The intent of the day after was to bring this forward. Make them talk about it, make them think about it, and decide what they were going to do about it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:00

    He said years later in an interview. The day after ignited a political firestorm long before it saw the light of day. One week before the movie aired, My father argued in a sixty minutes interview that the movie took no political position.
  • Speaker 6
    0:06:17

    I will say again and again and again. That it’s not was never intended to be, and it isn’t. It is a movie that says nuclear war is horrible.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:30

    Moral majority leader Jerry Falwell actually agreed with that in his interview on the same sixty minutes segment.
  • Speaker 7
    0:06:37

    I sat there and I was moved. No one can watch flesh peeling off human beings, millions of people destroyed. If they’re human without being wiped out themselves, I came out drained.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:46

    But he accused ABC of broadcasting propaganda.
  • Speaker 7
    0:06:50

    ABC has Ron DeSantis, shut down the debate They’ve said they’ve said this is the way it is deterrence has failed. The US is going to cause World War three. The debate should be closed and we should disarm. I don’t like that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:03

    Senator Ed Markey, who was then a congressman and a nuclear freeze advocate, told sixty minutes he was grateful to ABC.
  • Speaker 8
    0:07:11

    This movie will help to make it more possible for us to move the political process to
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:15

    Marqui also said the day after, quote, put the lie to the whole notion of limited nuclear war and that people would never again think of fallout shelters as a way of protecting themselves in a nuclear war. The Reagan administration feared the reaction from the public as did ABC which was why pressure against the day after was building by the hour. My father recalled becoming physically sick and left largely defites the battle alone. I mean,
  • Speaker 4
    0:07:46

    just no one would talk to me. The management didn’t talk to me. That my staff didn’t talk to me. I was totally isolated. It was a very weird feeling.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:55

    When sixty minutes producer, Henry Moses asked him if he was willing to air the film no matter what, My father said yes.
  • Speaker 5
    0:08:02

    If there was not a spot sold in this, would you go ahead and there?
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:06

    Absolutely. Absolutely.
  • Speaker 6
    0:08:09

    It’s gonna go in the
  • Speaker 5
    0:08:10

    air, swallow the seven million dollars.
  • Speaker 6
    0:08:14

    It’s going to go in the air.
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:17

    Several days later, the Washington Post reported on growing tension in the White House over the day after. The post White House correspondence wrote that officials were apprehensive that the two hour broadcast could heighten fears about Reagan’s hand on the nuclear trigger. If not answered by the administration. That day, November eighteenth nineteen eighty three was quite a Friday for my dad.
  • Speaker 4
    0:08:43

    The White House said, had issued instructions to ABC to say we want the following edits. And they called me in the West Coast this Friday night before we air on Sunday, and I said, tell him to fuck off or not touching the film.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:01

    On Sunday, November twenty nineteen eighty three, the film did indeed make air. The day after portrays calm daily life in the Midwest during a buildup of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. And then one afternoon, a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile striking Kansas City, Missouri at three thirty eight PM. Central time.
  • Speaker 5
    0:09:27

    I hope so. But first, we gotta get some things into the cellar.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:32

    I think there’s a tornado coming.
  • Speaker 9
    0:09:34

    Daddy? A man on the radio said there might be a war. He’s saying how we should unplug all our radio and TV and stuff. There’s not going to be a war.
  • Speaker 5
    0:09:57

    Sir, we need access to the keys and the authentication documents at this time. You have your pin here? Yes, sir. Had a paper, though. Can I get a reading link for him?
  • Speaker 5
    0:10:06

    I’ll check the product.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:08

    Then in the days following, zombified survivors in Lawrence, Kansas, with radiation poisoning attempt to put off the inevitable.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:18

    You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. And you can’t taste it. But it’s here.
  • Speaker 10
    0:10:32

    Right now, all around us.
  • Speaker 11
    0:10:37

    It’s going through you like an x-ray.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:42

    Right into yourselves.
  • Speaker 10
    0:10:45

    What do you think killed all these animals?
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:53

    All of it was designed and produced to be as realistic as possible. The day after intentionally never makes clear which nation launched the first strike. It closes with a note that reads The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are in all likelihood less severe. Than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike on the United States. It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert the fateful day.
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:34

    Because no corporation wanted to advertise during the portrayal of bombings, and death, and painful fallout. The last forty five minutes of the movie ran without commercials. The day after I left millions of Americans completely terrified. For many, the visceral fear the film’s images inspired would visit their nightmares for years. Immediately after the end of the movie, ABC broadcast a special version of its occasional program viewpoint.
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:07

    A panel discussion, the White House and ABC had agreed would provide some necessary discussion and context. And the aftermath of the most traumatic television show in history. The live program kicked off with remarks by Secret Podcast of State George Schultz, who is dispatched to make the case that the Reagan administration’s policy of balance and deterrence was also focused on reductions in nuclear weapons. After Schultz came the panel, Carl Sagan, William F Buckley Junior, Brent Skokroft, Ellie Wizelle, Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara. It was moderated by ABC’s Ted Copel, who insisted on a discussion and not a debate and whose request was respected by his guests.
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:58

    The viewpoint special is well worth the time to see a dignified and substantive conversation devoid of partisanship. Instead of the movie being a one-sided political statement that really defames the president’s piece through strength initiative, as Jerry Falwell had said. Schultz have the day after should make Americans more supportive of Reagan’s arms reduction efforts.
  • Speaker 3
    0:13:22

    Mister secretary, let me focus for, a couple of minutes at least before we go to our panel here on the movie, which became in a sense much more than a movie. It’s become a national event, and your presence here this evening is, I think, some testimony to that. Is the movie going to be useful?
  • Speaker 12
    0:13:40

    Well, the movie certainly dramatizes the unacceptability of nuclear warfare. And from my standpoint, it says to those who have criticized the president for seeking reductions that really that’s the sensible course to take. And what we should be doing is rallying around and porting. As I think people by and large more and more are. The idea that we should be trying to reduce the numbers of these weapons.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:12

    The critics on the panel talked around the forceful impact of the film and the glaring lack of any solution. Kissinger, a former secretary of state, dismissed the movie as indulgent and warned that the challenge of the United States quote, requires that we do not scare ourselves to death because of the Soviet union gets the idea that the United States has morally disarmed itself. And psychologically disarmed itself, then the precise consequences we are describing here will happen. Kissinger thought the day after was gratuitous, basically pointless because the film didn’t weigh in on policy, he said it was essentially rehashing what had long been established. Just the grisly reality of nuclear war.
  • Speaker 3
    0:14:59

    Under any circumstance.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:00

    Listen here, as I think, He makes the movies point.
  • Speaker 13
    0:15:04

    Well, I think that this film presents a very simple minded notion of the nuclear problem and I, it deals with the most obvious question that a general nuclear war aimed at cities is a disaster and a catastrophe. I wrote a book on this subject thirty years ago when the notion of General Nuclear War first first arose. The problem of our period. The problem we have to to grapple with is how to avoid such a war? How to preserve freedom while seeking to avoid such a war?
  • Speaker 13
    0:15:45

    How do establish how to create a military establishment that reduces the dangers of such a war, what arms control policies, compatible, with this policy how we handle crises? Those are serious questions to engage in a in an orgy of of of demonstrating how terrible, the casualties of a nuclear world are and translating into pictures to statistics that have been known for three decades and then to have mister Seagan say it’s even worse than this. I would say, what are we to do about this? Is it are we supposed to make policy by scaring ourselves to death or is somebody going to make some proposals of where we are supposed to go. And if people don’t make that, then I do not believe we are making any contribution.
  • Speaker 13
    0:16:39

    That’s my objection to this film. It took this most simple minded problem that everybody will agree upon. There’s nobody in this room who disagrees with the fact that this this must not happen. It’s how to avoid it. That we should be discussing.
  • Speaker 3
    0:16:51

    Doctor Kisson.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:52

    Of course, the movie was prompting that very discussion. McNamara, a former secretary of defense, noted that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:59

    That’s what
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:00

    And disagreed with kissinger.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:01

    I totally disagree with those who say it’s it’s a a disservice to the nation to show the film, not at all. It’s stimulating discussion on exactly the issue we ought to be discussing. There is a million times the Heroshima destruction power out there. We must ensure it not be used.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:27

    Reagan was no doubt watching Viewpoint that night, but he had not watched the day after live with the rest of the nation. The president screened the day after with Nancy Reagan at Camp David on Columbus Day weekend, more than a month before it aired. He wrote in his diary how it profoundly affected him. It is powerfully done all seven million dollars worth. It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:55

    Whether it will be of help to the anti nukes or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can. To have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war. Ronald Reagan was, of course, a man of the movies himself. He took the movies seriously in terms of both politics and policy.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:19

    And in nineteen eighty three, his national security policy kept strangely intersecting with movies. First, the missile defense program he announced in a March nineteen eighty three speech was instantly mocked with the nickname Star Wars after the movie. In June nineteen eighty three, Reagan screened war games in which a nuclear war is barely averted at Camp David on the same weekend that it opened. After watching it, he asked his top national security officials how realistic the computer hacking scenario it depicted actually was. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff got back to him a few days later with a disturbing reply.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:05

    Mister president, the problem is much worse than you think. Reagan would acknowledge years later in his autobiography that the day after put him on the path to cooperation with Mackel Gorbachev that resulted in them signing the intermediate range and nuclear forces treaty several years later. The day after director, Nicholas Meyer, who is now executive producing a documentary based on the book, doomsday confessions of a nuclear war planner by the late Daniel Ellsburg summed up the accomplishment of the day after this way. I did something more than foil Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid. I changed his mind.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:53

    My father and Meyer worked in an age of television that doesn’t exist anymore. One in which TV could still unite the culture, and sometimes even enlighten it. That era feels terribly remote. In twenty twenty three, we don’t know what could unite us again. We failed to come together in a global pandemic in twenty twenty.
  • Speaker 1
    0:20:17

    And not even a year later, the United States would experience an attack on our government, an attempt to steal an election by our own president and not collectively condemn it. The willingness to whitewash January sixth to refuse to draw that line was a betrayal that nineteen eighty three America could not fathom. Nine months later, In the shadow of the insurrection, we honored the twentieth anniversary of the nine eleven attacks, aware that the unity we saw two decades ago is not something most of us will see again in our lifetimes. We will likely never again come together to watch a television show or movie in the way we did the day after. But no urgent matter creates cohesion.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:16

    Our two sides evaluate every political cultural, and even scientific occurrence through the prism of tribal existences. Everything is an occasion for division. And no matter what befalls us, one side will always declare it’s the fault of a political enemy. Or that it simply doesn’t matter. And of course, the nuclear threat remains.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:43

    Today, many more nations are armed with nuclear weapons. We face the threat of loose nukes and the Russians having failed to rapidly overtake Ukraine after invading in February twenty twenty two have threatened to use them as a result of the severe degradation of their military capacity in that ongoing ground war. Couple, who called the day after a national event, concluded the viewpoint panel by saying that in frightening the public so intensely, perhaps the movie was, quote, less than useful. But he also said this.
  • Speaker 3
    0:22:21

    But if the film has shed something of a national tendency, toward completions, then there that is good. We need to talk about the problem. We need to examine not only as a nation, but as members of an endangered species means toward a solution. We cannot succeed in that goal if we are rigid and duck in our approach to those with whom we disagree. What is at stake this time is much more than simply winning an argument.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:57

    Arguably, the biggest threat to our national security in twenty twenty three is our division, an inability to cooperate. In the United States, We don’t want to think we are already in our day after. But the assumption we can survive as a country while mired in our political wars is itself a dangerous complacency. This audio adaptation of an original article, which was published in the Bulwark, on November twenty one twenty twenty three, was written by me and edited by Adam Kiper. Audio production and sound design by Jason Brown.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:53

    It was produced by Katie Cooper, special thanks to Charlie Sykes and Catherine Low.
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