November 6, 2024: The Day After

How the 1983 nuclear war movie, The Day After can prepare us for Trump and 2024.

Dennis Sanders

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In November of 1983, I was a nervous 14-year-old. Like many teens of that era, I thought a lot about nuclear war. Looking back at the fall of ’83, it was a rather tense time. Two months earlier, the Soviets had shot down Korean Airlines 007 as it made its way to Seoul.

That November, there was talk a lot of chatter about an upcoming movie, The Day After. For those who weren’t born yet, this television movie aired on November 20 and it depicted a full-scale nuclear attack on the United States from the view of Lawrence, Kansas, a college town 40 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri. I didn’t watch the movie. I couldn’t. A week or so earlier, I happened to watch a segment about the movie on 60 Minutes where you saw a five to seven-minute teaser. There is pandemonium in the streets as the civil defense sirens wail. A middle-aged doctor played by Jason Robards sits in his car in traffic presumably as people try to get out of town and the sky turns red as we look ahead down the freeway to see a mushroom cloud form over Kansas City.

That was all it took for me. I had a number of sleepless nights scared witless that this could happen. In some way, the movie did its job: the goal was to make the movie as realistic as possible and it did its job. Nicholas Meyer, the director (who also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) didn’t want to create a “disaster movie.” This was too important an issue to make it just another movie of the week.

The movie was considered so real it had an effect even in the halls of power in Washington. Ronald Reagan watched a special viewing a month before the public broadcast on October 10 at Camp David. He wrote in his diary that the movie left him depressed and changed his views on nuclear war policy. “My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war,” he said.

We humans are really crappy when it comes to assessing risk. It’s why we can be concerned about plane crashes and yet get into a car with no concern, even though car crashes kill more than plane crashes. Our biases lead us to make judgments based on past information, ignoring that the current…

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Dennis Sanders

Middle-aged Midwesterner. I write about religion, politics and culture. Podcast: churchandmain.org newsletter: https://churchandmain.substack.com/