Have you ever seen the 1983 TV-movie The Day After? It’s bleak as hell, to say the least. It was a media event, with untold numbers of Americans dying in the film after a tit-for-tat nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But curiously, President Ronald Reagan thought that it validated everything about his get-tough nuclear policy with the Soviets.
(You can watch the entire thing on YouTube if you haven’t seen it.)
There are two entries in Reagan’s diary about the movie. The first is from 10 October 1983, more than a month before it aired on TV. “Camp D”, of course, is referring to Camp David.
From Reagan’s diary on 10 October 1983:
Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called “The Day After.” It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done — all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the “anti nukes” or not, I can’t say. 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.
By its air date, it had become clear to the Reagan administration that the movie was going to be used as an example of why there are no winners in the arms race with the Soviet Union. Again, it’s a really dark movie, to say the last.
But Reagan sent out his Secretary of State, George Shultz, to argue on TV that the movie proved Reagan’s strategy of tough engagement was the right one. It wasn’t the most convincing argument.
From Reagan’s diary entry on Friday, 18 November 1983:
George [Shultz] is going on ABC right after its big Nuclear bomb film Sunday night. We know it’s “anti-nuke” propaganda but we’re going to take it over & say it shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.
Following the screening on Sunday, ABC America hosted a live panel discussion that included Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, William F. Buckley, Jr., Carl Sagan, Brent Skowcroft and Robert McNamara. But the discussion started with a statement from Shultz via remote.
“The film is a vivid and dramatic portrayal of the fact that nuclear war is simply not acceptable,” Shultz told the moderator Ted Koppel. “And that fact and the realisation of it has been the basis for the policy of the United States for decades now — the successful policy of the United States. Based on the idea that we simply do not accept nuclear war and we’ve been accepting in preventing it.”
Shultz then went on to explain that the US simply won’t start a war with the Soviet Union. Fun fact: The US almost went to nuclear war with the Soviet Union on 7 November 1983 during a royal screw-up known as Able Archer. The Soviet Union interpreted a NATO exercise as an actual attack and almost launched nukes. You might notice that Able Archer happened in between the time that Reagan screened The Day After at Camp David on 10 October 1983 and the time that it aired on 20 November 1983. One hell of a coincidence.
You can watch the entire panel discussion that followed the screening of The Day After on YouTube.
That coming Sunday, Regan didn’t watch The Day After with the rest of America. With his wife Nancy out of town, he watched the 1939 Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Why am I reading Reagan’s diary? Aside from it being a fascinating glimpse into his presidency, I’ve been working on a project for the past few years to examine every movie that the US presidents have watched in office. I’ve been compiling lists and am watching every one that I possibly can. This includes a movie list for Bill Clinton and some other examinations of George H.W. Bush. The goal is to produce as comprehensive a list as possible from Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump.
Reagan may have thought that The Day After validated his hardline policies, but the American public thought otherwise. The president’s obsession with his so-called “Star Wars” program of space weapons would only further exacerbate these fears.
But knowing that President Reagan thought (at least at first) that the movie validated his positions on nukes speaks volumes about the arrogance that can come with being the most powerful person in the world.