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The Day After - a new arms race

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

Less than a month before I got married in 1983 I remember watching a made-for-television movie on ABC called “The Day After.”

Having spent most of my formative years living through the Vietnam War and the Cold War, my generation was used to a vague and ominous daily threat to humanity’s continued existence.

When I was a young child I remember a neighbor built a fallout shelter after the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Just in case,” he told my dad when asked why he built it. As a young boy it was the ominous place no one was allowed to visit in my friend’s backyard.

It had a lock on it and as late as the summer of 1966, nearly four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, I watched my neighbor’s father store food and water in his shelter and check it every day.

He was convinced “The Russkies” were going to “Blow us all to Hell.” I think he was the neighborhood milkman - or some neighborhood's milkman.

By the time I got to young adulthood the idea of dying in a nuclear inferno or of radiation sickness after all my hair and teeth fell out was something I and many others contemplated at one time or another. When Ronald Reagan became president it smacked us in the face.

Reagan saw the Soviet Union as a Hollywood bad guy and sometimes seemed Hell bent on a fight with them. He once joked about starting such a war with the Soviets prior to recording his weekly radio address. The president was talking to audio engineers during a sound check and said, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

I do not remember laughing at his joke and it didn’t go over that well.

In chilling detail “The Day After” showed us what life would be like in Middle America following a nuclear war.


The Mad Max fiction of dystopia was replaced by a graphic and frightening look at the reality of people who were unfortunate enough to survive a nuclear holocaust.

The movie concerned itself with such life in Lawrence, Kansas and mentioned areas like Sedalia and Joplin, MO, and other locales not too far from where I lived and went to college at the time - Columbia, MO.

The greatest fear I had growing up was - would I be able to grow up? Was my generation the last on the planet? Remember "War Games"? Yeah. Like that. After I saw “The Day After,” I remember worrying should my soon-to-be-wife and I decided to raise children. Would my offspring have a world to inherit that wasn’t poisoned with radiation? Would they be able to have a life as rich and full as my parents, my grandparents - or myself?

Over the ensuing three and a half decades the threat of nuclear annihilation never went away, but the tension of an arms race has subsided and stockpiles of weapons have decreased. We all breathe a little easier. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union and the 1987 INF treaty signed by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev helped in quantifiable ways to ease the old fears.

My children never asked me as they grew up if the world would blow itself up or if they would die in a war - as I asked my parents. I never saw on their faces the fear my generation shared about a nuclear Armageddon and for that I am grateful. It was as alien to their existence as living in a cave and hunting Wooly Mammoths.

Friday I asked Bill Shine, President Donald Trump’s Communication’s Director, if he’d ever seen the 1983 movie. We both laughed a bit about our age, because he and I did remember it. But not many on the White House staff knew anything about it.

Many of the young reporters in the White House said the same thing. If there was a flicker of recognition at all it was from a reporter who confused “The Day After” with “The Day After Tomorrow” with Dennis Quaid. Not even close.

A still from the television movie "The Day After."

When ABC aired “The Day After” on November 20, 1983 some 100 million people watched it. According to published reports, it still rates as the most watched television movie in U.S. history. It was a major media event - so much so that after the movie aired Robert McNamara, Elie Wiesel, Dr. Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and William F. Buckley were part of a news program hosted by Ted Koppel that discussed the reality of a nuclear war and nuclear disarmament.

That night Dr. Sagan introduced to us the concept of “Nuclear Winter,” far more frightening than the movie we just saw and he gave us this gem of a quote regarding the Arms Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger.”

Today as the president argues for declaring a national emergency on the Southern U.S. border he claims is being overrun with drugs, gangs, hooligans and “bad hombres” there are real issues unfolding with far more dire consequences.

Nuclear war and the end of our civilization are among them - as it always has been since the first atomic bombs ended World War II.

Since then the reality has been on any given day we could end ourselves with both a bang and a whimper.

I woke this morning to find President Donald Trump telling us the United States is backing out of the INF treaty. This treaty, negotiated during Reagan’s presidency and signed by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev resulted in, according to government statistics, some 2,692 missiles being eliminated by 1991 followed by 10 years of on-site verification inspections.

Gorbachev and Reagan - The hardest Cold Warrior - signed the treaty seven years to the day after John Lennon got assassinated outside of the Dakota in Manhattan.

I thought at the time the guy who sang “Give Peace a Chance,” spiritually gave us all a chance.

It seems odd to speak of these things now. The current divisive nature of our culture makes it especially hard to place those historic occasions in their proper perspective. I have never seen this issue as a liberal or conservative issue. I’ve seen it as a matter of survival. The proliferation of nuclear weapons seems suicidal at best. Increased numbers of these weapons also help to create a black market for them. Unhappy consequences from marginal actors in this drama are frighteningly easy to contemplate. We spent the last few decades trying to reduce the numbers of these weapons and the ease with which terrorists can obtain them. Why do we want to go back?

Prince nailed it. “Everybody’s got a bomb we could all die any day,” he told us. He recorded the song in 1982 and said he was going to party like it was 1999.

From 1983 when all of us who saw the “Day After” were moved in ways no television show had ever moved us, until the day Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF treaty were days most cogent people at least casually thought we could all die any day.

Of course, it was Reagan and his administration that kept many of us fearful.

Reagan’s Deputy Under Secretary of defense, T.K. Jones famously told us that we could survive a nuclear war “With enough shovels.”

The shovels were for digging holes. Jones said that dirt was the key. “ Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top . . . it’s the dirt that does it . . . if there are enough shovels to go around everybody’s going to make it,” Jones said.

Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer penned a book that was published a year and five days before “The Day After” in which he outlined Reagan’s plan to survive a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.


No one wanted to think about dying in a nuclear war, but you couldn’t help but think of it when you realized how futile, stupid and arrogant our government and our actor turned president, Ronald Reagan treated the subject - right up until the time he signed the treaty.

We had enough nuclear bombs to blow up the world multiple times and Reagan tried to convince people a shovel, a few doors and three feet of dirt would save us all.

Now we have another actor/reality star as president and what I thought we no longer had to face we are facing again.

We are not in a full blown arms race with Russia, but Trump, eager to prove he’s no Russian stooge would happily push us towards destruction to make his point. Putin, a proven violent and uncaring demagogue is as maniacal as Trump and certainly naïve to Trump’s true spirit. Even if Putin bought Trump - and I am not saying that is the case - but if he did then Putin is a fool to think Trump will stay bought. If he didn't buy Trump then our president won't pay a bill he doesn't feel has come due and those who've dealt with him in business say Trump thinks bills never come due to contractors, Russian demagogues, oligarchs or anyone else. He’s proven that over his lifetime. He cares about himself.

That’s the danger and volatility of this situation. Trump’s desire to prove himself independent of Putin may indeed push us over the edge into a new Cold War.

Putin, on the other hand has bragged more than once how Russia has developed new nuclear weapons which could overcome our nuclear force while Trump brags we can shield ourselves from nuclear war.

We can do without this. More than half of the people alive never even had to deal with this. No one builds bomb shelters, or fallout shelters or worries on a daily basis about the world getting blown to bits any more, no matter how many Mad Max movies get made.

It would be nice if it remained that way; no need for fallout shelters and fewer Mad Max movies. In Trump’s quest to Make America Great Again, it would be even greater if doing so didn’t return us to that time in the early 1980s when we all felt unsafe, big hair was in fashion and Studio 54 took the edge off with enough Columbian marching powder to make the South American drug cartels rich and infamous.

“If it weren’t so tragic it would be laughable,” Dr. Sagan told the world in 1983 when he explained how bloated and ridiculous the arms race was.

If we do not learn from what we have already experienced, if we dive back into that boiling pot, then the joke will be on us.

We have put the nuclear genie to bed once. Now we seem to be sleep walking again.

Why must we revisit this horrendous element of our existence?

Sagan said something about this which still sticks with me: “Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”


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