Life and Television in a Cold War Town
On November 20, 1983, 100 million Americans tuned into ABC for a special two-hour television event, The Day After. The film chronicled how a fictitious nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union affects four characters in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. Director Nicholas Meyers chose to shoot the film on location, utilizing thousands of Lawrence, Kansas extras and shooting on Massachusetts Street and on the University of Kansas campus. The Day After showed millions of viewers that a nuclear attack would not just impact people in far-away places, but that it could also bring death and suffering to the American heartland.
The Day After proved influential on a local, national, and international scale by galvanizing public opinions on nuclear armaments. In Lawrence, business owners, university students, teachers, and even school children were inspired to build understanding with the Soviet Union in the hope of achieving peace. The film also influenced US President Ronald Reagan to pursue a policy that limited nuclear armaments globally.
Meyer knew that the film’s setting was pivotal to connecting with television audiences. In other films about nuclear attacks, the targets are often large cities or military bases. By filming in Lawrence and casting locals in the production, The Day After helped viewers imagine how ordinary people, students and farmers rather than soldiers and politicians, would face such a disaster. The city’s location, near Kansas City and close to two air force bases equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), placed it in the fall-out zones of multiple targets in the event of a nuclear war.
The second half of the film centers primarily on Lawrence; people valiantly try to establish some semblance of order following nuclear attacks across the country, resulting in the deaths of millions. The film’s final shot reveals the entire floor of Allen Fieldhouse, one of the best-known basketball arenas in the country, filled with people suffering and dying from radiation poisoning and other related injuries.
Meyers’ choices paid off, The Day After was one of the most-viewed television events of all time, touching ordinary Americans and their president alike. President Ronald Reagan, a former actor who grew up in Dixon, Illinois, screened the film before its initial broadcast. He wrote in his diary on October 10, 1983: “It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed… My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war.” Five years later, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This treaty banned the use of land-based ballistic missiles like the ones featured in the film and was successfully ratified by both governments in June 1988.
Closer to home, The Day After influenced local residents to foster a relationship with citizens of the Soviet Union in hopes of achieving peace between the two nations. The “Meetings for Peace” movement began as an effort to host peace talks between the United States and the Soviet Union in Lawrence. To this end, people sent thousands of pre-printed postcards to the US and Soviet governments, imploring them to hold a summit in Lawrence rather than a large city. Senator Bob Dole endorsed the meetings in an op-ed published in the Lawrence Journal-World. Many letters were also written by local elementary schoolers.
Image 2: Front page of Lawrence-Journal World announcing the arrival of a delegation from the Soviet Union, with a headline in English and Russian, 1990. Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History. View Image Full Size
The citizen-led activism eventually proved effective. After four years of postcard writing, “Meetings for Peace” came to fruition, though not in the form of hosting political leaders. Instead, A 250-person group from the Soviet Union spent one week in Lawrence in October 1990.
“Meetings for Peace” profoundly moved the visiting Soviets and their Kansas hosts alike. The visitors were hosted by local families, attended a slew cultural events, and participated in discussions with citizens, students, and local leaders. To commemorate the meeting, the Lawrence Journal-World printed a welcoming headline in both English and Russian. One visitor to Lawrence, Soviet journalist Alexander Lopukhin, described the reception of the delegation as a “storm of hospitality.” Vakhtang Recheulishvili bonded with KU students, telling a Lawrence Journal-World reporter, “they are very warm people who love smiles.” On the day of the Soviet delegation’s departur, Journal-World photographer Richard Gwin photographed host Carolyn Montney bidding a tearful goodbye before the bus carrying the Soviet visitors headed to the airport.
In less than a decade, Lawrence had gone from the setting for a fictitious Third World War to a Midwestern torn where many could claim to know someone from the Soviet Union. With its setting in the heartland, The Day After connected the horrors of nuclear war to the lives of ordinary people far outside of the capital.
Andrew J. Avery
University of Kansas