There were two generations of kids who grew up in the Cold War. The first generation was the Baby Boomers, who were taught to duck and cover. Their parents built fallout shelters, and tried to figure out how to surive a nuclear war. I’m a member of the second generation, the children of the Boomers. We were a bit more fatalistic: if there was a nuclear war, we would likely not survive. I remember very animated discussions where classmates debated the dark question that lurked in every Gen-X mind: if there were a nuclear strike, was it better to run for the hills (and try to eek out an existence), or towards the blast, for a quick death?
Looking back, 1983 was perhaps the scariest year of the Cold War. Reagan took office in 1981, and started a weapons build up, ratcheting up the tension between the United States and its rival, the Soviet Union. In September of 1983, Korean Air Lines 007 was shot down, mistaken for a US spy plane. Later that month, a Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet air defence commander, came close to responding to an erroneous RADAR reading with a nuclear attack. The Soviets were convinced that the Able Archer 83 exercise was a prelude to a first strike, and made preparations for a response. That the Soviet Union would fall by the end of the decade seemed laughable.
I was twelve in 1983, when the movie “The Day After” was aired. It was billed as a relatively realistic telling of a nuclear attack on a college town in Kansas (a card at the end aparently noted the effects of the attack were downplayed for the sake of the story). It aired thirty years ago today, and, at the time, was quite the sensation. Toll-free numbers were set up for people who had concerns after the broadcast, and a panel discussion followed. President Reagan was even affected by it, changing his thinking on nuclear war. It’d be a stretch to say that this movie alone ended the Cold War, but it definitely help cool the fires that were burning.
I actually didn’t get to see it. My parents didn’t allow me, fearing it would give me nightmares. In the short term, they were probably right–it would have had a lot of immediate worry and sleepless nights. However, it also prompted me to read anything I could get my hands on about nuclear war and its effects. I’m not sure if it was comforting or troubling. Gradually, the obession faded, along with the threat.
I’m actually rather surprised that the thirtieth anniversary is not being marked in any way. I haven’t seen any articles on the web, much less an anniversary airing with a special explaining context. It just seems like other relics of the Cold War, everyone is content just to put it behind us.
I still haven’t seen the movie, aside from a few clips here and there. It pops up from time to time on SyFy, almost as a B-movie. Part of me still carries the worry of nightmares and panic. However, as it has moved from warning to a cautionary tale of what might have happened, I’m glad to let it be something so absurd as to seem like a waste of time.