Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War

March 2024

The Power of Movies, Then and Now

Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War
By David Craig
Applause Books

Reviewed by Vincent Intondi

“It was a movie like no other movie.” “Most of you who watched are probably still feeling just a little numb right now.” The film “leaves you wondering about life, about the world, about what you would do if in fact nuclear missiles were on their way here.”

These are not descriptions of Christopher Nolan’s 2023 blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer.” Forty years before Nolan’s masterpiece, another film made millions think about the nuclear issue and the future of the world; that is the focus of David Craig’s new book, Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War.

In his book, Craig takes the reader on a journey from the inception of “The Day After” to the U.S. reaction following its release in 1983. From the politics of the television industry to the world stage, the author leaves no stone unturned in examining how the movie made it on to millions of television screens around the nation and its influence on ending the nuclear arms race.

From examining “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Brian’s Song” to describe the state of television to reflecting on the constant fear of nuclear war, the book is a trip down memory lane for anyone who lived through the 1980s. Craig begins the story introducing readers to all the players involved in making “The Day After” a reality. Brandon Stoddard, head of ABC’s movie division and Circle Films, who was perhaps best known for creating “Roots,” conceived “The Day After” after watching the 1979 fictional nuclear disaster film “The China Syndrome” and reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. One thing that Stoddard kept returning to was not creating a film that would simply scare the public and make them “catatonic.” He wanted to “make people decide for themselves what they were going to do about it.”

During this time, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 was still fresh in people’s minds. Coupled with more than 130 books focused on nuclear disarmament that were published between 1979 and 1983, President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about a winnable nuclear war, and the emergence of MTV, which featured nuclear weapons imagery on the hour, the nuclear issue seemed to be everywhere. Indeed, a year before “The Day After” premiered, one million people flooded the streets of New York City demanding an end to the arms race, and Randy Forsberg’s nuclear freeze initiative was sweeping the nation. Much of this history has been examined in other works.1 Craig provides a valuable service by adding to this scholarship with an entire book dedicated to a television film that became a nationwide event and indeed played a role in ending the Cold War.

One benefit is that Craig takes the reader behind the curtain of network television. From producing to funding, distribution, and promotion, he puts the reader in the room when decisions were made, disagreements occurred, and consensus was reached. Why did those involved choose Lawrence, Kansas, as the location for the film? Why did they not use well-known actors? Would and should race play a role in casting decisions? How would they actually make the nuclear explosion for television? Craig examines the careful consideration that went into answering these questions and the meaning behind each decision.

Throughout the book, the author returns repeatedly to the politics of the nuclear issue. Was the film meant to be political in any way? Was it pro-Russia, anti-Reagan? Those involved with the film’s production offered differing opinions on these questions. It also raises the age-old question, “Is not all art political?”

Although anti-nuclear organizations sought to capitalize on the film, “pro-nuclear” advocates and the religious right vehemently opposed the movie, arguing that it would weaken the West and lead to compromises with the Soviet Union. As did the nuclear freeze initiative and the June 12, 1982, rally that was the largest anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in history, the Reagan administration attempted to co-opt the film to push the president’s agenda and make it look as if he was on the right side of the issue. Yet, as Craig notes, Reagan wrote in his diary that he was “deeply affected” after watching the film.

In many ways, what viewers watched after the film was even more important in terms of educating the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Immediately following “The Day After,” ABC aired “Viewpoint,” a panel discussion led by Ted Koppel. Koppel’s job was to moderate a “civil debate with some of the most notable public intellectuals of the time” discussing nuclear war and what viewers could do about it. This obviously was a difficult task for Koppel, and one wonders if it could be repeated in today’s world of punditry, divisiveness, and social media.

An image of a scene from “The Day After” when the movie was released on  November 20, 1983. (Photo by Adrian Greer Michael Short/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)Was “The Day After” a success? That depends on the definition of success. When millions of people are watching the same television movie about nuclear war and it is still being discussed 40 years later, would that not constitute success? Combined with the June 1982 rally and the nuclear freeze movement, Reagan clearly was aware of and affected by these developments, which in part motivated him to change course, sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, and argue that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Moreover, there are no clearer examples of the success and legacy of “The Day After” than the fact that we are all alive right now and that the second meeting of the states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons recently concluded.

Even so, the nuclear threat remains; there is a new nuclear arms race; and the world is closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Similar to the 1980s, there also has been an increase in films about nuclear war and the end of the world, from “Oppenheimer” to “Don’t Look Up.” With the release of these films, it is reasonable to ask if the pro-disarmament community has missed opportunities to educate and organize the public around these films in the way that it was done in the 1980s.

If “The Day After” was released today, would we have panel discussions, organize 1-800 hotlines about the issue, and have celebrity public service announcements as they did in 1983? Would we clamor to write think-pieces criticizing the film in any way possible, all in an effort to simply gain followers and clicks? Examining the reaction to “Oppenheimer,” the answer is undoubtedly the latter. Perhaps this was on Craig’s mind when writing the book. “Swap out Reagan with [U.S.] presidents before or after, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin with any Soviet leader. Swap out TV with YouTube and many of the basic contours of the stories in today’s world are the same,” he concludes.

It seems that things have come full circle. Nick Meyer, director of “The Day After,” first learned about nuclear weapons as a child when he found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Meyer made clear his disgust of Reagan’s initial claims that nuclear war is winnable, and he hoped the film would help unseat Reagan. Recently, Academy Award-nominated actress Kristen Stewart voiced alarm over the threat of nuclear war. “We’ve grown so accustomed to the looming threat of nuclear annihilation that it barely registers in our daily lives. … But when some new crisis or close call startles us out of our slumber for just a brief moment, we truly grasp the insanity of living on a hair trigger to what could be a real-life Armageddon,” she said.2 Stewart’s fiancé is Dylan Meyer, Nick’s daughter.

Whether readers are curious about media or nuclear studies, popular culture or Cold War history, this book belongs on every shelf. It offers an education about an important time in history, sheds light on a film that continues to inspire audiences today, and is a reminder of the power that art has in changing the world.



1. Vincent J. Intondi, Saving the World From Nuclear War: The June 12, 1982, Disarmament Rally and Beyond (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023); Henry Richard Maar III, Freeze! The Grassroots Movement to Halt the Arms Race and End the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022); William M. Knoblauch, Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018).

2. Etan Vlessing, “Kristen Stewart Warns the World Is ‘Dangerously Close’ to Nuclear Catastrophe,” The Hollywood Reporter, December 15, 2023, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/kristen-stewart-nuclear-catastrophe-warning-1235758067/.

Vincent Intondi, a professor and historian, is the author of African Americans Against the Bomb and Saving the World From Nuclear War.