Imagining nuclear holocaust: Remembering "The Day After"





The motion picture The Day After (not to be confused with the Gorean fantasy The Day After Tomorrow) aired the other day on one of the cable channels and, as usual, I watched most of it. I’m not an especial fan of nuclear warfare fiction, though I do think that A Canticle for Liebowitz is one of the great science-fiction novels and Dr. Strangelove (shown right) is one of the great movie satires. But I always watch The Day After when I run across it, for three reasons.

First, as I find some others agree, it’s probably the best such movie ever made. The realism of the depiction of the course and aftereffects of nuclear war is remarkable and still disturbing these many years since the last time the phrase “Mutual Assured Destruction” appeared on the front page of your newspaper. It shook me as I watched the original airing of the film, which was made for television, in 1983 and it has done so several times since.

Second, it’s a vivid reminder of the fears that so many of us grew up with. I recall air raid drills in first grade. That was during the Korean War and in California, where less than a decade earlier a Japanese submarine had shelled a coastal oil refinery, so the heightened sense of vulnerability was understandable. The classic era for nuclear-war fears began soon after, with the first successful test of a fusion weapon by the U.S.S.R. in 1953. Then the strategic bomber, which you could at least see, gave way to the ICBM, which you couldn’t, and the Pinetree line and the DEW line were replaced by BMEWS. The acronyms alone were enough to give a fellow the fantods. Our margin of warning had shrunk from an hour or so to fifteen minutes, and the backyard shelter became an object of homeowner’s pride. Herman Kahn, the reputed inspiration for the character Dr. Strangelove (née Merkwürdigliebe), began thinking about how we, or some of us, might survive the unthinkable. The Cuban Missile Crisis seemed to many, including me, the final days. Of course, at that point I was 17 and away from home for the first time, so I may have been emotionally primed for existential anxiety.

It may seem odd for the thought of such things to evoke anything but horror, even in memory, but we do nostalgia with the memories we have, as Don Rumsfeld might have said. And anyway, we lived through all that. No one would wish for a return to the Cold War, but to be fair it did have a certain simplifying virtue. Us vs. Them, with just enough Them’s scattered among Us to keep Us on Our toes.

And then there’s the third thing. One of the minor threads of the film involves a young airman who, unable to complete an assignment at a Minuteman missile silo, deserts and tries to make his way to his family in Sedalia, Missouri. (Construction of that particular arc of missile sites was begun while I was in high school.) There is a scene in which he encounters an old man and a boy, both clearly shattered by what they have seen. The airman asks about Sedalia. The old man doesn’t speak for a moment and then says

“Ain’t no Sedalia. No Sedalia, no Green Ridge, no Windsor.”

That last one – that’s my town. Talk about concentrating the mind; talk about bringing it all back home.



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