"The City ABC Blew Up"
“This is Lawrence … Lawrence, Kansas … is anybody there?”
Following a nuclear attack on Kansas City, Missouri, a bewildered Dr. Joe Huxley (played by actor John Lithgow) radios from Lawrence, desperately, but ultimately futilely, seeking signs of life in the formerly thriving, now decimated midwestern metropolis.
This gripping scene from ABC’s made-for-TV movie, The Day After, only presaged more terrible ones depicting the likely aftereffects of a nuclear explosion on a typical American town. From radioactive fallout and mob rule, to burned, blinded, and maimed civilians, conditions in the city of Lawrence represented in microcosm what all Americans could surely expect should the United States and the Soviet Union ever wage a nuclear war.
The message was clear: No one would be safe; all would be affected; and those who survived might wish otherwise.
As a reward for allowing their town to be fictitiously ravaged, and for so graciously accommodating the movie’s cast and crew as they filmed in and around Lawrence for six weeks, the producers of The Day After decided to treat local residents to a sneak preview of the film, a month prior to its national airing.
Thus, on October 12, 1983, over 2,000 people, many of whom were KU students, filled the Kansas Union’s Woodruff Auditorium to see one of four special showings that were held on campus. The film’s director, Nicholas Meyer (who had just finished directing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), attended the Lawrence premiere and brought with him hordes of national media. Reporters from Time, Newsweek, USA Today, and many others were anxious to hear local reaction to this highly anticipated and sure-to-be controversial television event.
Filmed during August and September of 1982, roughly 2,500 KU students and Lawrence residents had the opportunity to work as extras in the movie, which starred such famous Hollywood actors as Jason Robards, John Lithgow, Steve Guttenberg, and JoBeth Williams.
Some KU faculty members also played important roles. For example, Jack Wright, professor of speech and drama, served as the local casting director. Chuck Berg and William Kuhlke, two other professors of speech and drama, had minor speaking parts in the film, as did Charles Oldfather, professor emeritus of law (and namesake of KU’s Oldfather Studios).
Additionally, the University itself was something of a supporting actor, as a number of scenes were shot in Allen Field House and the Spencer Art Museum, with several aerial views featuring Memorial Stadium, Spooner Hall, and Jayhawk Boulevard.
In an article titled “Hollywood Goes Midwest!” the Jayhawker yearbook recalled how the “folks from California expressed amazement at the ‘normalness’ of residents.” Said one crew member, “They’ve got a lot of slick-looking people out here in Kansas…. I guess we expected the state to be in black and white.”
Among the most memorable scenes involving KU students was one in Allen Field House, which had been transformed into a makeshift hospital following the nuclear explosion. There, 1,200 students were “caked in mud and grease, dressed in rags, and bathed in blood” in order to resemble fallout victims. (It was, in the jocular words of Kansas Alumni magazine, “the largest portrayal of human suffering in Allen Field House since last season’s K-State game.”)
Another Lawrence scene took place under the Kansas River Bridge, where survivors had built a pitiful, dilapidated tent city and dug a giant burial pit. And according to Kansas Alumni, “One of the film’s most striking scenes is of Russia-bound missiles rising in the sky above Memorial Stadium, which is packed with cheering, doomed football fans.”
So what did the people of Lawrence think of The Day After when they finally saw it (and, in some cases, themselves) at the Oct. 12 screening? “The film seemed so real,” said Lawrence homemaker Juanita Retter, “you could almost smell the stench.” Mark Scheopner, an Atchison sophomore at KU, noted, “the crowd in general seems to be affected. A lot of people were talking about other wars as they walked out. I think the film will get a lot of people to think.”
According to KU anthropology professor John Janzen, “the overwhelming feeling I have is the hopelessness of what would follow a real nuclear war. If anybody’s around, life as we know it would be gone.” Kansas State Senator Wint Winter Jr. described it as “absolutely devastating. I had tears in my eyes a few times. If I had the power to translate it into 80 languages and broadcast it around the world, I’d do it.”
Getting to the heart of the director’s purpose, Shawnee sophomore Steve Miller thought setting the movie in Lawrence was quite shrewd. “I think it was a well-thought out attempt to make people realize that it won’t be just New York and Chicago.” It makes one wonder, added Lawrence resident Beverly Carothers, whether “the fortunate people [were] the ones who died.”
There had been a great deal of media attention and network hyping in the months before its official debut. And when The Day After aired nationally on November 20, 1983, as many as 100 million viewers tuned in to see what all the fuss was about. Instantly it caused tidal waves of controversy, and reactions were as varied as they were passionate.
Many conservative leaders denounced it as left-wing propaganda, which undermined President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and weakened the US at a time when the Cold War could not have been much colder. Indeed, earlier that year, in a March 8 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Reagan had famously referred to the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
And shortly thereafter, he unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiate (SDI), which opponents mocked as “Star Wars” and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyin predicted would “open a new phase in the arms race.” The president’s assessment of the “Evil Empire” was seemingly confirmed on September 1, when a Soviet fighter plane destroyed a Korean Airlines jet (KAL 007), killing all 269 passengers, including 61 Americans. It was “a crime against humanity,” exclaimed Reagan.
A cornerstone of the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy vis-à-vis nuclear arms and the Soviet Union was the concept of “peace through strength.” The best way to avoid a catastrophic, perhaps apocalyptic, nuclear exchange was for the US and its Western Allies to be effectively immune from a Soviet nuclear strike by building up comparable, even superior, nuclear capabilities. To unilaterally disarm, to show any hint of weakness, would merely invite further Soviet aggression, contended Reagan and his supporters.
And since the Soviet Union had never demonstrated any willingness to comply with arms-control treaties in the past, Reagan believed that it was useless to pen hollow agreements or engage in high-level talks until he had some evidence that the Kremlin would keep its word.
The White House, along with other leading conservatives, were thus naturally upset with the underlying pacifist message in The Day After. Undeniably, the movie’s goal was to suggest that the very existence of nuclear weapons was an inherent evil, irrespective of which nation possessed them. This idea of “moral equivalence” between the democratic United States and the totalitarian Soviet Union was deeply insulting to many and represented an implicit affront to Reagan’s muscular foreign policy.
The film’s critics were vociferous and legion, including such prominent figures as Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., and Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly. The fact that it aired just days before President Reagan ordered the nuclear-tipped Pershing II and cruise missiles to West Germany made it particularly odious and opportunistic. This was hardly a coincidence, many thought.
At KU, protestors against the film were a distinct minority. However, the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and students from Maranatha, a college ministry organization, did organize marches and rallies where they denounced the film’s fear-mongering emotionalism and burned the Soviet flag.
One student, freshman Matt Thor from Billings, Montana, told the University Daily Kansan, “You can’t fight evil without weapons. If we let the Communists take over, we will be destroying everything that every soldier who ever fought and died in war for America and the Constitution ever fought for.” He continued, insisting, “Communism stagnates the mind. America stands for right and if we don’t defend her with our arsenal, that freedom will wither and die.”
KU student Donna Alexander agreed, saying, “The whole philosophy of communism is to eventually take over the West. Total disarmament for us is total strength for them. The people are being deceived by the movement to disarm.” The movie, she added, “was not pro-America. It was a defense of socialism. We’re pro-armament and pro-Reagan.”
Conversely, liberal peace activists and the so-called “Nuclear Freeze” movement hailed The Day After as a triumph, a shockingly realistic film that laid bare the dangers of “peace through strength” and made an undeniable case for immediate disarmament. “There is no role for nuclear war,” said former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. “If the film can get that across, maybe it will contribute to world sanity.”
Many used the film as an opportunity to paint President Reagan’s defense build-up as destabilizing lunacy and his decision to deploy advanced missiles in West Germany as senselessly provocative. The fact that Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, in response, broke off ongoing, low-level arms-control talks in Geneva merely confirmed their fears.
Leading a 1,000-person strong candlelight vigil under the Memorial Campanile the following evening, Lawrence Mayor David Longhurst said that, last night “we saw our community destroyed. We saw civilization annihilated. All our nightmares came true. I don’t want the film to be a preview of coming attractions.”
Before urging people to write their congressmen expressing support of the Nuclear Freeze, KU anthropology professor Allan Hanson lamented that, “We are so busy with everyday things, and we fill our minds with daily activity. We push nuclear war out of our minds. The difference is that we live in the day before. We have other options.”
Hanson, who also was the leader of a local peace program called Let Lawrence Live, said he was “overwhelmed and elated” by the student turnout. “If we do stand strong and demand peace and demand disarmament from our leaders,” he insisted, “then we do have the opportunity to open a new page in history in the world of security for us, for our children, for our civilization.”
Despite the initial shock and impassioned rhetoric, the Nightline specials and the town meetings, all indications are that the political fallout from The Day After was remarkably short-lived.
On the one-year anniversary on the film’s airing, the Lawrence Journal-World interviewed Hanson on its residual effects and the state of the Nuclear Freeze movement. “The bottom line is disappointment,” he admitted. He saw “no change in government policy, no decrease in nuclear arms stockpiles, no slowdown of the arms race.” “Maybe people just got frustrated. I think there was a feeling that the peace movement had failed – not permanently. But we lost this round.” Margaret Schadler, associate professor of psychology at KU, thought the film was “oversold,” all “Madison Avenue hype and good selling on the part of ABC.”
Others were even less charitable. According to Victor Goodpasture, president of the University’s YAF chapter, The Day After was merely another “left-wing political maneuver that failed.” “I’d say the effects were none – zero,” he told the Journal-World, which noted his “broad smile” as he declared the freeze movement “dead.”
While some credited The Day After for making arms control an important issue in the 1984 presidential campaign, it seems obvious that Reagan and his opponent, Walter Mondale, would have debated it regardless. Whatever wounds the president had suffered as a result of The Day After, they had healed in time for him to win 49 states and 525 electoral votes in one of the biggest landslides in American political history. And to conservatives, at least, the subsequent relegation of the Soviet Union to the “ash-heap of history” soundly vindicated Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength.”
As for the city of Lawrence, the legacy of The Day After was more economic and spiritual than political. Judy Billings of the Chamber of Commerce told the Journal-World that the film “made it easier to attract tourists. Certainly, people know where Lawrence, Kansas, is now. I think we do have much, much higher name recognition than we did before.”
A number of local businesses capitalized on the event, making much out of their “day after” Thanksgiving sales. And furthermore, many churches sought to transform the “atmosphere of despair” and “sense of hopelessness” into a crusade to win more souls to Christ.
The final word, though, belonged to Journal-World columnist Chuck Twardy. “Aside from bringing more than a million dollars into the local economy,” he wrote, “the film has earned Lawrence an association with nuclear devastation. The town William Quantrill burned down has become the city ABC blew up.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas
Addendum: Read a 35th anniversary retrospective from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that gives a national perspective of the film.