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In November 1983 ABC aired The Day After – a one-off TV movie depicting a nuclear war between NATO and the Soviet Union. It became the most-watched TV movie of all time, and even helped provoke a change in US nuclear weapons policy. In this episode I take a deep dive into the film’s production history, how it was rejected by the DOD due to political concerns about who started the war, and how it was heavily censored by ABC in post-production.

A few weeks ago a listener got in touch asking if I knew anything about the Pentagon’s role in the making of The Day After, for a fiction project she is working on. I have a file from the Suid archive on the film, and it is also mentioned in the DOD’s database, which says:

After almost approving the film, the department finally disapproved the film due to a misleading scene dealing with NATO, implying that the military establishment itself might be a threat to world peace.

So I sent these along to her, but it got me thinking – you don’t normally get references to NATO in movies, I hadn’t seen The Day After in a long time, and it is a significant cultural moment that demands reflection and analysis. At the time it was the most popular, most-watched TV movie ever, with an audience of around 100 million people on its first airing. It may still be the most-watched TV movie ever, and frankly if you could get 100 million people to watch a theatrical movie you’re doing very well.

It also had a big impact on the viewers, including Ronald Reagan, who was given an advance screening about a month before it was screened on TV. He wrote in his diary that the film ‘was very effective and left me greatly depressed’ and that it had changed his mind on the prevailing policy on nuclear war. A few years later he signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and partly attributed the agreement to the effect the film had on him.

There is even a story that after signing the treaty he sent Nicholas Meyer a telegram saying his film had a lot to do with the treaty, but Meyer himself denies this, saying it’s a myth. Meyer attributes the rumour to editing notes he received from the White House after the preview screening, notes he didn’t take very seriously.

Likewise, there was a screening for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were apparently very struck by the film. One government advisor who attended the screening later told Meyer, ‘If you wanted to draw blood, you did it. Those guys sat there like they were turned to stone.’

This all has parallels with the similar 1960s BBC docudrama The War Game, which was actually removed from circulation (despite winning an Oscar) and became a kind of military training film. They were so affected by the film that they decided the public shouldn’t be allowed to see it, but held private screenings for military officials.

Thematically, nuclear war is a very important thing to make people aware of, but also a very difficult and controversial thing to depict, so this was a very brave decision by the film-makers, and the first time mass American audiences had seen something like this. The War Game had been shown on a tiny little alternative US TV station in the early 80s, but The Day After reached something like 38 million households on its first showing.

It should go without saying that I am a unilateralist, I think nuclear weapons should be abolished. Exactly how you do that isn’t clear, but as a matter of principle I think they’re only useful as mass casualty weapons to be used against civilians and therefore an abomination. The damn things have been nothing but trouble for everyone involved – whether we’re talking the citizens of Nagasaki, the islanders driven from their homes so the French and the Americans could spend a couple of decades ruining some of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific, or the general citizens of the world who are all subject to greater radiation because of all those bomb tests. Let alone all the Broken Arrow situations where nukes have gone missing or accidentally got dropped but thankfully didn’t go off. Or things like Able Archer, when a training exercise nearly turned into an all-out nuclear war.

Therefore, any film that draws attention to just how fucking stupid nuclear weapons are is a good film, even if it is massively compromised, as The Day After was. The story is that Meyer wanted to make a 3-hour two-parter, to be shown over two nights. The first half would end with the US firing off its missiles, and the first Soviet nukes landing in the US, while the second half would open with all the destruction and horror of the explosions.

For fairly obvious reasons, such as traumatising the fuck out of the audience for 24 hours, ABC were not happy with this format. They also had issues with other things that Meyer had included, so there was a big fight during the editing process. Meyer was fired, they brought in other editors who made a botch of it, so Meyer was brought back and they managed to reach a series of compromises and he finished the film.

I wanted to know more about exactly what was in the script, and what was shot but not included in the broadcast version, and just how radical this movie could have been, so I went on a deep dive. I looked through the Suid file which includes his own interview with Meyer, along with media clippings and government documents, then I found a 3-hour rough cut of the film from the middle of the editing process, and then found a draft script for the full 3-hour version. Ultimately the film was cut down by nearly an hour so a lot was lost in this process and we won’t be able to get into all of it, but it’s a fascinating case study in cultural deradicalisation, on a massively important topic.

Thus, even if you haven’t seen The Day After and have no intention of doing so, that doesn’t matter, because you’ll be able to follow along anyway. This is more a story of how a film got made than a review of the film itself, though I will say I think even the compromised version is a powerful movie that more than achieves its aim of challenging attitudes and policies around nuclear war. It isn’t as emotionally affective as the British equivalent, Threads, which came out a year later, but once you put aside the problems of it being a made-for-TV movie from the 1980s, I think they did a very good job.

The Pentagon and The Day After

In late 1981 researchers working on The Day After – then titled Silence in Heaven – reached out to the Pentagon for help expanding the script from 3 hours to 4 hours. They also wanted stock footage of missile launches and bomb tests, and inquired about filming at Whiteman Air Force Base. An initial script review took place in December, and the response was that they could only provide courtesy support ‘due to the subject matter of the script (nuclear exchange and destruction).’ In January, Don Baruch’s office authorised the sale of some stock footage but said there was to be no further cooperation on the project.

In May 1982 the producers came back, using long time government-Hollywood liaison John Horton as a proxy. Horton worked in Baruch’s office in the 1950s and later became the go-to guy if you wanted government help making your film. Horton’s letter to the DOD included copies of the script, and said it had also been submitted to FEMA for comment and review.

This is the version of the script that I have, and the only mention it makes of FEMA themselves is in a radio broadcast about the procedures to follow during an imminent nuclear attack. But the post-nuclear strike America does descend into ruin and chaos, and the emergency response is simply ineffective, so I’m guessing that’s why FEMA were consulted.

Baruch forwarded a copy to the Pentagon’s Office of the Director for Emergency Planning, and this is where things get interesting, because FEMA and the DOD had very different responses to the depiction of post-strike America. FEMA’s director of public affairs wrote back to say:

I do not hesitate to offer, on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as much of an endorsement of this venture on the basis of its conceptual accuracy as would be appropriate in such circumstances. The story development certainly follows the kind of scenario that FEMA uses in its postulations of what an all-out nuclear war would be like. While there is no real evidence in the script of a very active civil defense organization, that is pretty much what the country would be faced with in these circumstances unless the proposed request in Congress now for an enhanced civil defense program is approved. Thus, the overall effect the film will produce is precisely what we are attempting to address.

So FEMA loved the depiction of a broken America in the wake of a massive nuclear strike, because it might encourage Congress to fund FEMA’s planned expansion into full on civil defence. The letter concludes:

Because you indicated to me some reluctance on the part of some elements of our Department of Defense brethren to support production of the film, I am taking the liberty of sending a copy of this letter to Don Baruch, at DoD Public Affairs.

That’s how much FEMA loved this project – that they tried to sway the DOD to support the movie. However, the DOD hated this aspect of the script. The Director of Emergency Planning got back to Baruch saying the script was unacceptable, highlighting:

Portrayal of Government: (Principally, the behavior of governmental functionaries during the post-attack period.) This is more troublesome. The script depicts a Hobbesian view of recovery. Human behavior is nasty and b r u t i s h . Dog eat dog. Reconstruction government is inept, adversarial, unable to govern, unsympathetic, insensitive to human needs, harsh in its repressive methods. Couldn’t protect people from attack; hinders rather than helps recovery. Difficulty here is the uniformity of such characterization which, given current continuity of government planning, simply isn’t credible. In some areas, anarchy will not reign supreme. Script fails to acknowledge this. A possible solution is to change the ratio of scenes depicting effective (versus noneffective) governmental assistance to recovery. I have no problem with a depiction showing redominant chaos. I just have a hard time swallowing total anarchy. In a real world situation, some target zones will Be totally dependent on outside help, and federal, state, or local government will be the only instrument for providing it. By telling people that government hinders rather than helps, the scenario misleads.

You see – the very aspects of the story that fitted in with FEMA’s agenda, and led to them offering full support, were extremely problematic for the DOD.

The negotiations went on for months, and each time it looked like they’d reached a satisfactory compromise the DOD would come up with some new objection. They didn’t like a scene where a US Air Force officer refuses to follow orders in the face of an imminent attack and runs off to take cover, things like that. These were always in the script, but it wasn’t until several rounds of negotiations that the military brought them up.

As Meyer put it in an interview with Suid:

Well, we didn’t realize at first what they were getting at. They kept coming back with certain script suggestions. And some of them were very ludicrous.

I remember in one case we had a meeting of bombed out farmers and there was a man from some government agency who was trying to put this thing back together. And the point of the meeting was that it was complete chaos and you can’t put it back together. And they said, “Why can’t he make a speech about–” and they submitted this speech, you know, 15 lines long, of the most ludicrous, pie-in-the-sky bullshit optimism you ever heard!

My producer went crazy and he said, “We are not sticking this in! This is the most–.” And I said, “wait a minute. Let’s put it in there. Let’s do it. Let him say it. And then we will just photograph it.” So we would agree to do things. And we said, “Okay, fine, the speech is in.”

Now we’d get the cooperation. Then they would come back with another thing. And it kept on and we kept on sort of twisting ourselves into a pretzel and finally we realized what it was about. It was about (A) you had to show that the Russians started the war; and (B) that there was going to be survival. And then we said no. Those were two things we just weren’t going to do.

So, credit to Meyer and his producer for standing up to the DOD and refusing to make these compromises, because otherwise it would have wrecked the movie. Who wants to see some jingoistic piece of crap about the Ruskies nuking America but America’s so tough it isn’t really affected by it? I mean, sure, the people who watched Transformers films, but they’re mostly idiots.

This whole episode illustrates several things – just how bad the DOD are at film-making, just how petty and one-sided they are, just how blinkered they are, believing their own very one-sided view is somehow balanced, and how different government agencies have different agendas in Hollywood. The DOD doesn’t give a fuck about civil defence, they seem to think it’ll just happen by magic because America, or something. But FEMA had a different approach, and so they saw this script in a very different light.

In any event, The Day After was made without any DOD support beyond a bit of stock footage and was, at least commercially, a huge success. Critical responses were mixed, with a lot of people saying it was shock value and exploitative, while others said it downplayed the consequences of a large nuclear exchange, but we’ll get to that.

One last thing from the Suid file that I found quite entertaining is that not long after it first aired, Jack Anderson wrote a column about how and why The Day After was rejected by the Pentagon. Now, Anderson is a legendary columnist who broke many important stories, but much like Bob Woodward, he seems to have also been something of an intelligence asset. This is one of the problems of access journalism – you can get too close to your subject, and end up with them influencing you more than you’re getting information from them. I would politely suggest that this is what has happened to Jason Leopold, who these days is much friendlier with these institutions and happily writes pieces based on tips from anonymous intelligence sources.

In a memo Don Baruch recorded how he was interviewed by Anderson’s staff, and showed them the paperwork from his file on the film (which then became Suid’s file on the film, and is now my file on the film). He made out that it was a scene where US forces effectively invade East Germany, and hence started the fight that led to the nuclear exchange, which was a major sticking point.

This is a great example of the blinkered view I’m talking about – in the plot the Soviets blockade the East German border with the West, putting up military roadblocks, seizing control of airports and so on. This leads to a tense stand off, and effectively NATO forces break through the blockade, and this somehow leads to a tactical nuclear exchange on the ground in Germany, which then escalates into a full intercontinental nuclear war. It’s not clear exactly who is to blame in this scenario, but by removing the part about NATO forces breaking through the blockade the implication is that this is almost solely a problem of Russian hostility.

So while the DOD thought this censorship would somehow make the film more balanced, it would have actually skewed it quite considerably into a pro-America, anti-Russian propaganda piece. Indeed, Baruch said in a phonecall with an ABC executive, ‘we obviously would have no objection to the Soviets starting the war’, so this was never about balance or an even-handed approach.

Post-Production Blues on The Day After

Where this story gets quite bizarre is after filming was completed, and Meyer and his editors set about pulling together a cut to show executives. There had already been a lot of disputes in pre-production over various elements of the script, with Baruch putting pressure on ABC executives to make Meyer and the writer, Edward Hume, butcher their script.

This continued throughout post-production, and many of the deviations from the earlier script echoed the DOD’s concerns, and resulted in changes that meant the DOD largely got what they wanted anyway. I should say, the finished film that I have seen appears to be a VHS version but I can’t tell if it was the VHS release, which is a bit more what Meyer wanted it to be, or recorded off the TV, in which case it’s the most censored version. So when I refer here to the final cut I am not actually 100% sure which final cut I’m talking about.

However, some of the cuts and changes had nothing to do with the DOD’s concerns, so let’s look at those first. One of the main sets of characters is a family living on a farm in rural Missouri, not far from Whiteman Air Force Base, Kansas City and the string of missile silos that stretch down across the Missouri countryside. This is why the producers chose a rural rather than an urban setting – that part of Missouri is a prime target.

The daughter of this family is supposed to be getting married in a couple of days to an in-bred probable sex pest, and early on in the film they’re hanging out outside the family home talking about sex.

In the earlier script when Denise says ‘it’s not like we haven’t ever made love’ Bruce responds, ‘Not without… you getting sick on the pill… or rolling off the haystack… or worrying whether my damn balloon’s gonna break…’. But the line about the condom was never filmed, it isn’t even in the rough cut. Likewise, Denise goes inside to fetch her diaphragm and finds her younger sister has stolen it and they chase each other round the house while the dad sits watching the news of rising tensions in Germany.

In the original script it’s clear that it’s a diaphragm – she goes upstairs to her room and look in the drawer, and finds the diaphragm case empty. For anyone who doesn’t know, diaphragms come in little plastic cases not unlike those things on the shopping channel that let you make bad omelettes in microwaves.

Anyhow, in the final film there is no diaphragm case and it isn’t clear what the thing is that the younger sister has stolen. It’s obvious that it’s something to do with sex, and likely contraceptives, but it’s all left to the imagination. This is one of the problems of cultural conservatism – rather than teach teenagers about contraception, the preferred response for so long was to pretend that these things don’t really exist so there’s no need to talk about them. Totally bizarre and counter-productive, unless your aim is to maximise teenage pregnancies and STD transmission.

Most of the other changes, aside from the political ones which we’ll get to in the next section, have to do with the depiction of the effects of the nuclear bombs and the aftermath of the attack. The draft that I read had maybe 7 pages of destruction and suffering at the start of part two, when the Soviet strike hits. Bearing in mind it takes longer to shoot action than dialogue, that’s a very lengthy sequence. It includes widescale urban destruction, people being vaporised, people on fire, animals on fire, one character ‘hoots and screeches like a mad Indian!’ before he is killed by the shockwave, a family with a young child are blown apart, on and on.

In the rough cut this was mostly just bits of stock footage and early iterations of visual effects shots, and in the final version this was completed, but toned down even further. While this is the climax of the film, it was diluted down from the script, which itself only somewhat captures what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off. I understand that they didn’t want to go too far, and at the end the film does include a caption saying this is a mild account and that the reality would be even worse. There is a limit to what you can show on a screen, and should show.

Some other things that went missing were the long-term visual impacts on people’s health. One of the main characters, Dr Oakes, is driving down the road when the bomb hits Kansas City and in the script half of his face is burned, and it darkens as the following weeks and months unfold. They didn’t do this, and other serious injuries also disappear from the film. Again, there’s a limit to how much you can horrify people, but the effect of nuclear blasts are horrible, and none of this is beyond what had been shown in a hundred horror movies by this point in time.

There are also references in the script to eerie radiation music, reminding us of the presence of fallout and the radioactive aftermath of hundreds of explosions. They did this very effectively in Chernobyl, the mini-series, where the soundtrack is unnerving in the extreme. But there is no such music in the final film, and the second half of the story is a little stark without it.

I do think that if you’re not going to show the physical suffering, because of some concerns about taste or whathaveyou, that adding music to keep the emotional core of the film rooted in that suffering is a good compromise. So I don’t know why they didn’t do this, perhaps after all the arguments they ran out of time or money.

However, it’s important to note that there was little, if anything, actually stopping them from shooting the film as scripted, with all the gore and fire and horror. I understand why they didn’t want to have sequences of farm animals running around on fire or dying of radiation sickness, because a lot of people (myself included) find that more disturbing than seeing it happen to people. But this was in the days before V-chips and content warnings and age ratings on TV, that all came in under the Clinton White House in the 1990s, in part due to TV producers pushing the boundaries.

So all of these omissions may have been the right decision from a commercial point of view, it meant the film was seen by a record audience, and was more acceptable to them. After all, you want people to keep watching, not turn it off in disgust, otherwise the point gets lost. For all the producers pretended that they weren’t political, it’s clear that there was a political aim to this movie, to challenge attitudes and policies on nuclear war. They succeeded in that aim, but the film could have been more radical.

Deradicalisation and Political Censorship on The Day After

The part of this story that does bother me, quite deeply, is how the politics of the film got warped during the editing process, and just how much provocative stuff got lost. I admit, I did spend a long time watching both cuts of the movie and making a lot of notes and then going back to the script to check on something and then watching that segment again, and so on. It’s impossible to get on top of what happened here without doing all that, but now you can learn about it without having to do all that yourselves.

The first big omission that I noticed comes in one of the very first scenes, at the Kansas Board of Trade, as a newscast lays out the background to the plot.

In the script and in the rough cut there’s an exchange between two brokers, where one suggests that tensions are going to heighten, and the other dismisses this because they just did a big wheat deal with the Russians. This does not appear in the final film, which is interesting for a couple of reasons – first, for all the bipolar nature of the Cold War the two sides did trade, did exchange technologies and research, even exchanged intelligence at times. The other reason this is curious is that this argument has been made throughout history, that major wars won’t happen because both sides have too much to lose economically. But of course, major wars still happen, so I wouldn’t be relying on economics to keep China and the US from kicking the hell out of each other at some point.

The next scene that was subject to some interesting changes is when Doctor Oakes meets his daughter at an art gallery and they discuss the art and her decision to move to Boston with her boyfriend, before the conversation drifts onto what’s happening in Germany.

In the draft screenplay as soon as Oakes mentions being members of NATO, and that’s why America is involved in Germany, the camera drifts over to an apocalyptic work of art with flames and devils chasing damned souls. In the rough cut this artwork goes missing, and in the finished film this little dialogue about being in NATO also disappears.

This is significant because the movie was clearly trying to say that a mutual defence pact has its downsides – it means that a local squabble over the border between East and West Germany can escalate into a full nuclear exchange, which is exactly what then happens.

Interestingly, this is one of the things the Pentagon didn’t like. In one of their various sets of script notes they said:

Page 16, Scenes 37, 38: Oakes says “We’re part of NATO,” and camera shifts to painting of flames/demons of hell. Subliminal/non-verbal effect is NATO membership is leading us to perdition. Whether NATO membership will ultimately produce good or evil in the real world is an open question. If author claims he is not taking a political position on nuclear issues, this belies it. Recommend redesigning scene to achieve affect-neutrality toward the idea of NATO membership (a less disturbing or “quiet” picture, with appropriate comment).

Kinda surprising they admitted they weren’t sure about being members of NATO but in any case the DOD got their wish. This is a shame not just politically but also artistically – using a piece of art to foreshadow the nuclear attack, in a piece of art that’s about foreshadowing a nuclear attack in order to try to discourage that from happening, is quite clever. It would have added layers and dimensions to this early part of the film and helped set up what comes later.

When it comes to the question of who was the aggressor in the conflict in Germany, which precipitated the full scale war, the script and the rough cut suggest it was the US. The information mostly comes from TV and radio news broadcasts and essentially the storyline is that the US moved new nuclear weapons into Europe, which then provoked the Soviets to begin locking down the border with West Germany. NATO forces break through into East Germany using low-yield tactical nukes on Soviet troops, and the Soviets respond by nuking a NATO military HQ in the region. Before long, both countries launch a few hundred nukes at each other.

It’s fairly clear that, just like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US provoked the confrontation. It’s also fairly clear that the US were the first to use nuclear weapons, even if they were battlefield nukes. There are a lot of newsflash updates and there are often other things going on at the same time, so it can be difficult to tell exactly what’s happened. To my mind it does seem that while the film-makers made out that they wanted it to be ambiguous as to who was to blame, they wanted to leave a trail of hints and breadcrumbs saying it was the US.

Naturally, almost all of this went missing in the edit. Newscasts were rewritten and scenes were cut out so it really isn’t clear what happened in Germany or why or who was responsible. Even just little things, like editing a newscast so it isn’t clear that the two tactical nukes that were airburst over Soviet troops were American bombs, softened all of these little hints or eradicated them completely.

Again, the DOD got what they wanted. There’s nothing in the file suggesting that they continued some sort of backdoor conversation with the fucking suits at ABC during post-production, but they did talk to them for months during the script review, pre-production phase. The executives knew full well what the DOD’s concerns were, presumably weren’t happy when the film got rejected, and it seems they then insisted that the finished film meet the DOD’s demands anyway. Or at least, some of those demands. The second half of the film does portray anarchy and the general uselessness of the government to deal with a situation they themselves created, so the DOD didn’t get everything they wanted, but in terms of the build-up to the nuclear exchange the final cut made pretty much every change they asked for.

So there was no hint that the US moving missiles into Europe provoked the whole situation, no discussion of NATO leading to disaster, no apocalyptic artwork, no clarity on who used nuclear weapons first. Despite this, Baruch still wasn’t entirely happy because the film did include the part about US and NATO troops effectively invading East Germany to break through the blockade, albeit in a very different context to the script and the rough cut.

Thus, this could have been one of the great anti-war films but got butchered and messed with so that it isn’t clear exactly what the politics of the film are. This is emphasised in a sequence midway through the second half, when the president comes on the radio to address the nation. The script has him sounding ‘like a heartfelt George Bush’, which is difficult to interpret, but the reaction of several students is the important part.

The students respond to the President’s broadcast with frustration, asking why he won’t say what happened, who fired first, who is responsible, before then saying it doesn’t matter and you’ll never know. In the context of the original script this is just students bickering and arguing and expressing their exasperation. But once all the backstory implying US culpability was stripped out of the script this scene becomes the overriding message – it doesn’t matter who was to blame for a nuclear war. The moral core of the movie was removed and it becomes quite nihilistic as a result – still emotionally effective, but without articulating anything politically subversive or radical.

So The Day After is something of a paradox – a brave experiment that succeeded despite itself, and a brilliant case study in how cultural content is shaped and censored.