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‘The Day After’: This 1980s TV movie helped change the course of the Cold War | CNN

Editor’s Note: The CNN Original Series Secrets & Spies: A Nuclear Gameexamines the tenuous global geopolitics during the Cold War through the lens of two notorious double agents: Oleg Gordievsky and Aldrich Ames. The four-part series is airing Sundays at 10 pm ET/PT on CNN.


In November 1983, the US, Soviet Union and the rest of the world were teetering closer than ever on the edge of nuclear war. A NATO military exercise had spooked the Soviets, who thought the exercise was merely a cover for a real nuclear strike on the USSR, prompting them to ready their own nuclear forces.

Who knew, then, that an ABC movie-of-the-week would play a significant role in potentially preventing nuclear war?

“The Day After,” a two-hour epic following a few weeks in the lives of small-town Midwesterners before and after a nuclear strike, was one of the most controversial and most-watched TV movies when it aired on November 20, 1983.

In its first hour, the people of Lawrence, Kansas, go about their lives as the threat of nuclear war looms. But when the nuke finally comes to Kansas, the devastation is immediate: Acres of crops are singed and poisoned, homes are leveled, a fifth-grade class is vaporized at school.

Characters we come to know in the film’s first half are obliterated in an instant or barely clinging to life as they succumb to radiation poisoning. Even those who survive the attack by the film’s end will soon die, viewers know.

It’s an uneasy watch now, but “The Day After” was even more affecting when nuclear war was on the table and top of mind. It’s still one of the most-watched TV events in US history –– more than 100 million viewers tuned into its original broadcast, more half of the country’s adult population at the time. What’s more, it’s credited with changing then-President Ronald Reagan’s mind against nuclear war.

Getting “The Day After” to air, though, was fraught. Even Reagan, who praised the film in his private writings, didn’t agree with its bleak and upsetting depiction of nuclear aftermath.

But the team who created it knew it could be important, so, after rejecting requests for edits, dodging complaints from conservative groups and acquiescing to the occasional network demand, “The Day After” finally made it to TV and changed the history of the medium –– and potentially the world.

“There were all these behind the scenes (challenges) going on, which we working on the film never really knew at the time,” said Jack Wright, an emeritus professor of theater at the University of Kansas and head of local casting on “The Day After,” in an interview with CNN. “It’s amazing that the film came out as strong as it did.”

“The Day After” ends with a written warning to the audience: “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 against the United States.”

As a made-for-TV movie airing in a primetime Sunday night slot, “The Day After” couldn’t depict true nuclear horror, though there were still shocking scenes of mass death and the aftermath of a crumbling society.

That was the goal, director Nicholas Meyer said.

“I wanted to make it like a public service announcement,” Meyer said in the 2022 documentary “Television Event,” about the tumultuous production of the film.

The script was sparse and plain. Early scenes include a meeting at an art museum between a doctor and his daughter with plans to leave Kansas and a romantic tryst between a young couple days from getting married. We meet husbands, wives, their children and friends so that when they’re ripped away from each other in the second half, their loss will feel almost as sudden as it would if a real nuclear event had separated them.

From ABC Circle Films

Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) surveils the destruction of Lawrence, Kansas, toward the end of “The Day After.”

Wright was tasked with casting thousands of extras from Lawrence. In one pivotal scene, more than 1,000 Lawrence locals were made to lie on cots in the University of Kansas’ basketball arena, wearing tattered clothes and bearing bloody facial injuries as though they’d barely survived the nuclear attack. The intensity of the scenes inspired the cast to discuss what they’d do in the event of nuclear war, he said.

“Whenever you’re dealing with that kind of subject matter, it sticks in your craw,” Wright said.

After seeing rough cuts of the film, though, the network thought it was a bit too devastating. Executives had notes: No blood, no scarring, no burning, said “The Day After” producer Bob Papazian in the documentary “Television Event.”

Many scenes were altered as a result: A long shot of a family burning to death as the nuclear bombs fell, as seen in “Television Event,” was scrapped, as were shots that focused on survivors’ melting skin or victims’ charred corpses.

“You had to walk a fine line with this movie,” Meyer told the Outline in 2017. “People have a remote control in their hands. So we had to make a movie that conveyed the awfulness of nuclear war without making it so awful that you changed the channel.”

Stephanie Austin, an associate producer on the film, conducted extensive research on the devastation in places where nuclear bombs have been dropped, like Hiroshima. After the bombing there, much of the land was leveled. The network asked that “The Day After” avoid showing the extreme destruction that was closer to reality.

“I thought we stopped short of telling the real truth,” Austin said in “Television Event.”

Lawrence locals were largely unaware of the drama brewing behind the scenes and were more excited about the prospect of making a movie, Wright said.

“Something like this had never been done before,” Wright told CNN of the film. “We were all just playing it by ear. It was amazing to all of us.”

Before “The Day After” aired, Reagan’s policy involved investing even more in US defenses, including a missile shield proposed to protect the US from a Soviet attack. But scaling up defenses only heightened tensions with the Soviets, who viewed Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as a threat to their own security.

On October 10, while at Camp David, Reagan watched “The Day After,” weeks before it would air on TV. The film, he wrote in his diary, “left (him) greatly depressed.”

“Whether it will be of help to the ‘anti nukes’ or not, I cant (sic) say,” Reagan wrote of the film’s potential impact on disarmament supporters. “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.”

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The end of World War II set the stage for the Cold War, the struggle between communism and capitalism that pitted East against West and pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Crimean resort town of Yalta was the setting for an historic meeting of British, U.S. and Soviet leaders — Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin — in February 1945. With the defeat of Nazi Germany imminent, the Big Three allies agreed to jointly govern postwar Germany, while Stalin pledged fair and open elections in Poland.

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The decision by the United States to use the atomic bomb against Japan in August 1945 was credited with ending World War II. Hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed instantly or died from radiation in the aftermath of the bombings.

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President Harry S. Truman introduces Winston Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946. In his speech, the former British prime minister declared, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.”

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In 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall proposed a massive aid program to rebuild Europe after the ravages of World War II. Nearly $13 billion in U.S. aid was sent to Europe from 1948 to 1952 under the Marshall Plan, but the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe declined U.S. aid, citing “dollar enslavement.” Here, an American worker paints the Marshall Plan logo on a machine tool ready to be exported to Europe.

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On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union made a bid for control of Berlin by blockading all land access to the city. Berlin was divided into four sectors under U.S., British, French and Soviet control, but the city itself lay entirely in Soviet-occupied eastern Germany. From June 1948 to May 1949, U.S. and British planes airlifted 1.5 million tons of supplies to the residents of West Berlin. After 200,000 flights, the Soviet Union lifted the blockade. Here, a tattered group of Berliners stand amid the ruins of a building near Tempelhof Airfield as a C-47 cargo plane brings food to the city.

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In June 1949, Chinese Communists declared victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, who later fled to Taiwan. On October 1, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Two months later, Mao (left) traveled to Moscow to meet with Josef Stalin (right) and negotiate the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance.

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In August 1949, President Truman signed the North Atlantic Treaty, which marked the beginning of NATO. Two years earlier, he requested $400 million in aid from Congress to combat communism in Greece and Turkey. The Truman Doctrine pledged to provide American economic and military assistance to any nation threatened by communism.

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On June 25, 1950, North Korean Communist forces invaded South Korea. Two days later, President Truman ordered U.S. forces to assist the South Koreans. Here, U.S. Marines land at Inchon as the battle rages. Three years later, an armistice agreement was signed, with the border between North and South roughly the same as it had been in 1950. The willingness of China and North Korea to end the fighting was in part attributed to the death of Stalin in March. There has never been a peace treaty, so the Korean War, technically, has never ended.

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On March 29, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of selling U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs were sent to the electric chair in 1953, despite outrage from liberals who portrayed them as victims of an anti-communist witch hunt.


The Rosenbergs’ conviction helped fuel the rise of McCarthyism, the anti-communist campaign led by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in 1953-54 at the peak of the Cold War. Nearly 400 Americans — including the ordinary, the famous and some who wore the uniform of the U.S. military — were interrogated in secret hearings, facing accusations from McCarthy and his staff about their alleged involvement in communist activities. While McCarthy enjoyed public attention and initially advanced his career with the start of the hearings, the tide turned. His harsh treatment of Army officers in the secret hearings precipitated his downfall.

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In 1955, the Warsaw Pact was organized, creating a military alliance of communist nations in Eastern Europe that included Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. Here, the Soviet Army marches during May Day celebrations in 1954.

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On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. In 1958, the United States created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the space race was in full gear.

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On January 1, 1959, leftist forces under Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Castro soon nationalized the sugar industry and signed trade agreements with the Soviet Union. The next year, his government seized U.S. assets on the island.

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Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev speaks at the 1960 Paris Summit, which was interrupted when an American high-altitude U-2 spy plane was shot down on a mission over the Soviet Union. After the Soviets announced the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers, the United States recanted earlier assertions that the plane was on a weather research mission.

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A hand reaches over the glass imbedded in the newly constructed Berlin Wall, which divided the eastern and western sectors of the city in August 1961. The U.S. had rejected proposals by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to make Berlin a “free city” with access controlled by East Germany, and on August 15, Communist authorities began construction on the wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin.

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In 1961, a U.S.-organized invasion of 1,400 Cuban exiles is defeated by Castro’s forces at the Bay of Pigs. U.S. President John F. Kennedy takes full responsibility for the disaster. The next year, the Soviet Union installs nuclear missiles on Cuba capable of reaching most of the U.S. Kennedy orders a naval blockade of Cuba until the Soviets removes the missiles; he announces the move on TV (pictured). Six days later, the Soviets agree to remove the missiles, defusing one of the most dangerous confrontations of the Cold War. In 1963, the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to install a hot line allowing the leaders to communicate directly during a crisis.

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An estimated 250,000 people crammed a large Berlin square to hear President Kennedy speak in 1963. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” Kennedy told the crowd. “And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.'” A few months later, the president would be assassinated in Dallas, an event that jarred the nation and the world.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964. The resolution, approved by Congress, gave Johnson power to send U.S. troops to South Vietnam after it was alleged that North Vietnamese patrol boats had fired on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin.

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Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into the tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp northwest of Saigon, near the Cambodian border, in March 1965. The Vietnam War lasted nearly a decade and left more than 58,000 Americans dead.

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On June 5, 1967, Israel launched an attack that becomes known as the Six Day War, seizing the Sinai and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Soviet Union accused the United States of encouraging Israeli aggression. Here, several Israeli soldiers stand close together in front of the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem following its recapture.


On January 5, 1968, reformer Alexander Dubcek became general secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, pledging the “widest possible democratizations” as the Prague Spring movement swept across the country. Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders sent an invasion force of 650,000 troops in August. Dubcek was arrested and hard-liners were restored to power. Here, residents carrying a Czechoslovak flag and throwing burning torches attempt to stop a Soviet tank in Prague on August 21, 1968.

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Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. salutes the U.S. flag on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. He and mission commander Neil…

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