ST. LOUIS – With everything going on in the headlines, from Russia and Ukraine threatening nuclear war to a probable Chinese surveillance balloon hovering over the northern US on Thursday night, let’s revisit a 1983 film called “The Day After.”
After a nuclear bomb goes off in Kansas City, Missouri, the movie follows the lives of a lot of regular people. The film that you can now see streaming on YouTube focuses on how the characters deal with life after a cataclysmic event.
The events leading up to the battle are only shown on television and radio newscasts. The movie says that the Soviet Union put more troops in East Germany to scare the United States into leaving West Berlin. When the US doesn’t give up, the Soviets send tanks to the border between West Germany and East Germany.
The film does a fantastic job of depicting the slowly building tension. After the first nuclear exchange in Europe, it is clear that the US sticks to its policy of “launch on warning.” Under this strategy, the US conducts a full-scale nuclear assault on the Soviet Union if it detects that the Soviet Union is preparing to do the same.
The Soviet Air Force then uses low-kiloton nuclear missiles to destroy two early warning sites for ballistic missiles. One is at RAF Fylingdales in England, and the other is at Beale Air Force Base in California.
The US president orders a full-fledged nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. An officer in the Air Force learns of a massive Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. “There are 32 targets on track, with 10 impact points,” he explains.
Another airman claims that over 300 Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles are on their way. It’s hard to tell from the movie whether the main nuclear attack comes from the United States or the Soviet Union.
Within 30 seconds, ICBMs from the Soviet Union started aiming at military and civilian targets, like Kansas City.
An emergency warning on the car radios tells everyone traveling in the Kansas City metropolitan region to find a safe spot.
At 3:38 p.m. Central Daylight Time, a nuclear weapon detonates at a high altitude over Missouri. This generates an electromagnetic pulse, which disables the missile silos at nearby Whiteman Air Force Base.
The power also goes out in people’s vehicles, homes, and businesses when the bombs hit the atmosphere.
“I was on the interstate, I’m not sure if it was high in the air exactly, perhaps 30 miles distant, over downtown,” Dr. Russell Oakes, played by Jason Robards, stated. He was outside when the bombs detonated and witnessed their detonation from the highway. “The signs blew up.”
Oakes is about 30 miles from downtown Kansas City when the rockets strike. The attack kills his wife, son, and daughter, as well as several of his coworkers.
Following the explosions, Oakes travels 10 miles back to Lawrence, where he treats the injured alongside Dr. Sam Hachiya (Calvin Jung), Nurse Bauer (JoBeth Williams), and other aid workers.
Joe Huxley (John Lithgow), a science professor, gathers a group of his pupils and uses a Geiger counter to assess the quantity of nuclear fallout outside.
“I have an atmospheric report for everyone who is listening,” Huxley stated. “We’re staying steady at slightly around 50 rads per hour.”
They also build a homemade radio to communicate with Dr. Oakes at the hospital and any other transmitting survivors outside the city.
“I thought it would have subsided by now,” Dr. Oaks remarked. “I suppose that means we’re taking up a lot of fallout from targeted missile bases in Wichita and elsewhere in the West, because that’s how the wind blows, straight into St. Louis.”
Huxley stated that when the radiation level drops to two rads per hour, it will be “safe” to escape underground shelters.
A voice in the film announced, “The radiation count has now reached 4 rads per hour, which is safe for small amounts of time spent outside,” a voice in the movie says. “We recommend anyone who is not experiencing a specific physical injury seek fresh sanctuary at another school building.”
Farmers collaborate to find a means to cultivate crops for the remaining population in order to give hope to those who are still alive.
The idea is to cultivate food for humans rather than animals. They will have to scrape four or five of the top layers of soil off their land and remove the “dead” dirt in order to do so.
“We’re talking about a disaster here, not everyday life. The National Emergency Reconstruction Administration’s major purpose now is to restore order and assist you in salvaging your resources for the benefit of the country as a whole,” said a character in the film.
“So, what we want you to do now is burn out your current crops, start decontaminating the land, and plan next spring’s planting; crop selection must consider plants least susceptible to ultraviolet radiation,” explained Mel, a farmer in charge of resuming farming. “As well as yields for human consumption rather than animal consumption.”
“Well, you primarily wait for the fallout to degrade to safe levels before you plow under or scrape off the top layers,” Mel explained. “A task team for the new age will advise each county agricultural cooperative.”
But as things go on, lawlessness takes over, and one of the most important farmers in the area is shot and killed by someone who is on his land.
Even though it doesn’t say for sure, the movie makes it clear that many cities, military bases, and industrial bases in the United States have been severely damaged or destroyed.
Finally, the unseen US President transmits a radio transmission calling for a stop to the battle between the US and the Soviet Union, both of which have been severely damaged.
A note from the filmmakers appears at the end of the film, right before the credits roll:
The devastation you have just watched is almost certainly less terrible than that which would result from a full nuclear strike on the United States. The pictures in this film are meant to motivate the world’s nations, people, and leaders to find a way to avert this tragic day.