By Dawn Stover
In 1982, a 40-year-old insurance salesman who sold policies to professional athletes traveled from his home in Lawrence, Kansas, to New York City on a business trip. Shortly before he left, Bob Swan, Jr.—the father of two young daughters, and a man increasingly concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union—mentioned to his then-wife Jane that he had had a dream about a film that portrayed an American family and a Russian family in the aftermath of nuclear war and “showed the total absurdity” of such a war. While he was in New York, Swan attended a huge march for nuclear disarmament that was life-changing for him. “When I got back from this amazing experience,” Swan told me when I visited him at his home a few months ago, one of the first things his wife said was: “They announced while you were gone, they’re going to make that film you dreamed about. They’re going to film it in Lawrence.”
The television movie The Day After depicted a full-scale nuclear war and its impacts on people living in and around Kansas City. It became something of a community project in picturesque Lawrence, 40 miles west of Kansas City, where much of the movie was filmed. Thousands of local residents—including students and faculty from the University of Kansas—were recruited as extras for the movie; about 65 of the 80 speaking parts were cast locally. The use of locals was intentional, because the moviemakers wanted to show the grim consequences of a nuclear war for real middle Americans, living in the real middle of the country. By the time the movie ends, almost all of the main characters are dead or dying.
ABC broadcast The Day After on November 20, 1983, with no commercial breaks during the final hour. More than 100 million people saw it—nearly two-thirds of the total viewing audience. It remains one of the most-watched television programs of all time. Brandon Stoddard, then-president of ABC’s motion picture division, called it “the most important movie we’ve ever done.” The Washington Post later described it as “a profound TV moment.” It was arguably the most effective public service announcement in history.
It was also a turning point for foreign policy. Thirty-five years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a nuclear arms race that had taken them to the brink of war. The Day Afterwas a piercing wakeup shriek, not just for the general public but also for then-President Ronald Reagan. Shortly after he saw the film, Reagan gave a speech saying that he, too, had a dream: that nuclear weapons would be “banished from the face of the Earth.” A few years later, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first agreement that provided for the elimination of an entire category of nuclear weapons. By the late 1990s, American and Russian leaders had created a stable, treaty-based arms-control infrastructure and expected it to continue improving over time.
Now, however, a long era of nuclear restraint appears to be nearing an end. Tensions between the United States and Russia have risen to levels not seen in decades. Alleging treaty violations by Russia, the White House has announced plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Both countries are moving forward with the enormously expensive refurbishment of old and development of new nuclear weapons—a process euphemized as “nuclear modernization.” Leaders on both sides have made inflammatory statements, and no serious negotiations have taken place in recent years.