Lessons from The Day After for New Cold Warriors

Lessons from The Day After for New Cold Warriors: The ABC News Discussion Panel on the Film that Shook the Reagan Years

From the beginning and throughout all the years of the Cold War, the United States led the Soviet Union in total numbers of strategic nuclear bombs and warheads. The bitter US political debates of the 1970s and early 1980s about nuclear strategy, nuclear force levels, supposed Soviet first-strike capabilities, and strategic defense hinged on arguments as divorced from reality as the debates of medieval scholars about the characteristics of seraphim and cherubim.
-Richard Rhodes
Arsenals of Folly:The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, p. 97

In the spring of 2016, season four of the Cold War spy drama The Americans was released with an episode entitled The Day After. The story, set in the autumn of 1983, used the broadcast of the ABC television film The Day After as a central influence on the characters and plot of the serial drama. This reference to this television special produced thirty-three years ago is a testament to its historical significance. The inspiration for the film came from the mass popular movement for a nuclear freeze and nuclear disarmament, a movement which had grown in reaction to President Reagan’s hardline anti-communist dismissal of détente with the Soviet Union. One million people had marched in Manhattan in June 1982, and the anti-nuclear message was considered important enough for even the board of a corporate broadcaster to approve the expensive production of a film that would show in graphic detail the nightmare of full nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), an influential group of hardline anti-communist Washington insiders, had been active since 1976 in trying to convince the American public that America was falling behind the Soviet Union in the arms race and faced an existential threat from the "evil empire."

On November 20, 1983, the film was seen by an estimated audience of 100,000,000. The broadcast was an event that many would remember as traumatic and a turning point in their awareness of the world they inhabited. It was simply unbelievable that a major network had chosen to show this horror to a prime time audience. It was a most uncanny "interruption of regular broadcasting" to the consumer consciousness.

The Reagan administration was in a panic about how to respond, and the official backlash was anticipated by ABC. The news division prepared a post-broadcast discussion that would allow a panel of establishment experts to respond to the film and explain to the American public that the situation was and always would be under control. Nonetheless, officials had lost control of the narrative to a certain degree. Popular resistance had led to this film being made, and it spurred further changes that may not have happened otherwise. Ronald Reagan later admitted to being deeply affected by it, as well as by other films, so it is safe to say that The Day After had an influence in the significant reductions in nuclear arsenals that were made over the following decade. In his second term, Ronald Reagan shocked even his own cabinet with his determination to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

The video of the discussion is freely available on YouTube, but the transcript posted on this blog is, I believe, a first which I hope will be used by other researchers or translators. A separate blog post has the full transcript by itself, while this one below is a collection of segments of the transcript and discussion of the main points covered by each guest on the panel.

The video is in the public domain, so the transcript is published here with the understanding that it is fair use for non-commercial purposes. For all other purposes, contact ABC News.

Highlights and Discussion of
ABC News Viewpoint, discussion panel held immediately after the broadcast of The Day After
Washington DC, November 20, 1983

Ted Koppel
George Shultz
Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, William F. Buckley Jr., Carl Sagan, Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, Robert McNamara

ABC News ViewpointNovember 20, 1983

George Shultz

Secretary of State George Shultz was the only member of the Reagan cabinet to participate in the discussion to express the administration’s reaction to the film. Without strongly condemning The Day After, he spoke calmly and reassuringly to tell the American public that the film is a “a vivid and dramatic portrayal of the fact that nuclear war is simply not acceptable,” and it is “possible to have a policy that prevents nuclear war.” He reminded the audience that President Reagan had a policy of balance and deterrence but was also working on reductions “right down to zero.” Thus he stated that what was depicted in the film should show the president’s hardline critics that he is right to pursue this goal. He expressed confidence that people throughout the world, including in the Soviet Union, feel the same moral imperative to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Henry Kissinger

By 1983, Henry Kissinger was widely regarded by his critics as a war criminal who should have been banished from public life at the very least, but preferably treated like German and Japanese Class A war criminals. He planned the secret bombing of Cambodia and the violent overthrow of Allende in Chile during the Nixon administration, to name just two achievements on his resume. Considering his complicity in Richard Nixon's crimes, it's a wonder he emerged unscathed and joined this panel a decade later for a discussion about how to establish peace and stability in the world. However, it must be noted that by this time in 1983, Kissinger was one of the sober-minded realists when it came to disarmament. He and Nixon had started disarmament talks with the Soviet Union, and the détente that they had established was now considered too soft by the thirty-one radicals in the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) who were appointed to the Reagan administration. It was the policies of the CPD that had been adopted by Reagan during his first term as president.

Henry Kissinger began by expressing strong disapproval of the graphic “orgy” of carnage and destruction in the film that portrayed a hypothetical nightmare, one that he claimed everyone was well aware of. With these comments he may have been dismissing the public as irrelevant because certainly people in the higher levels of academia, government and the military knew the problem well, but he did not seem to realize that for the average citizen, this film really was a startling reminder of a danger that was kept out of mind in daily life. Or it could be that Henry Kissinger really preferred that the public shouldn’t think too much about it. He seemed to imply that everyone who mattered was well aware of the problem. He elaborated on his views by saying:

… this film presents a very simple-minded notion of the nuclear problem and it deals with the most obvious question that a general nuclear war aimed at cities is a disaster and a catastrophe… the problem we have to grapple with is how to avoid such a war, how to preserve freedom while seeking to avoid such a war, how to establish, how to create a military establishment that reduces the dangers of such a war, what arms control policies are compatible with this policy, how we handle crises… To engage in an orgy of demonstrating how terrible the casualties of a nuclear war are, and translating it into pictures from statistics that have been known for three decades... I would say: what are we to do about this? Are we supposed to make policy by scaring ourselves to death, or is somebody going to make some proposals about where we are supposed to go?

Henry Kissinger went on to emphasize that the number of nuclear weapons is not the main problem. Others on the panel were in general agreement. He added that the world was still grappling for a way to manage nuclear weapons, that they were “weapons in search of a doctrine.” He said the challenge involved such things as avoiding accidental triggering of nuclear war, and ending the launch-on-warning policy, which is problematic because both nations see an advantage in being ambiguous about stating what they would do if they believed missiles were incoming. He also emphasized the importance of structuring the deterrent force in such a way that it removes enemy incentives for a first strike, and stabilizing political tensions while not becoming “morally and psychologically disarmed” about the danger posed by other nuclear powers. The number of nuclear weapons is not a prime concern for other reasons. Reducing the arsenal involves modernizing the arsenal, and this process raises many questions about how to quantify and define what constitutes a reduction. Do we count the missiles, the warheads, or the total megatonnage of explosive force?

At one point Dr. Kissinger even warned of the possibility of a limited nuclear exchange occurring, so in that event there would have to be a way to stop it from escalating. He claimed that the horrible total war shown in the film was more likely in a scenario where the superpowers had a low number of weapons because the lack of overwhelming mutual deterrence would lead to instability and risk-taking.

The Reagan administration was famous for launching an ambitious space-based anti-missile defense system nicknamed Star Wars, but it eventually came to nothing because of opposition in Congress. It had an effect on the Soviets in getting them to seek dialogue in arms reduction talks. This issue came up in one of the audience questions, and Henry Kissinger was unenthusiastic about the idea of a technological fix for disarmament. He said, “I do not believe… that there is one reliable technological means on the basis of which you can say that now the danger of nuclear war has been eliminated.”

The Day After

Elie Wiesel

Ted Koppel said that the philosopher and theologian Elie Wiesel had been invited for a “humanistic touch,” but as a Holocaust survivor he brought a perspective that seemed out of place. He joined other panelists in warning about disarming too carelessly, comparing hasty, unilateral nuclear disarmament to Nazi appeasement. However, just as it was a false analogy to compare Saddam Hussein in 2003 with Hitler in 1933, nuclear disarmament cannot be compared to historical cases of appeasement. The nuclear holocaust, if it happens, is likely to start through a series of errors rather than through a deliberate genocidal policy targeting a minority. It is a unique and totally new sort of dilemma. As such, Elie Wiesel’s statement that “the whole world strangely has turned Jewish” was hard to comprehend. I would say that Jews who lived in fear of being sent to death camps faced something much worse than modern Americans living beside missile silos. Meanwhile, there could have been so many other qualified people to take this place on the panel, people who could also speak with a humanistic touch but with much more expertise and experience in fighting for nuclear disarmament.

In 1983, the movie Silkwood was released, and so the scandalous health and environmental record of the nuclear bomb production complex had been known since the mysterious death of Karen Silkwood in 1974. Massive protests had been held at the Rocky Flats factory in recent years, so there were numerous people who could have joined the panel to speak about the consequences operating that bomb factory and others like it. A representative of the Ploughshares movement, or hibakusha from Nagasaki and Hiroshima could have been invited to make the moral and religious case for unilateral disarmament and peacemaking in America’s antagonistic foreign relations. Perhaps some veterans of the Nevada bombs tests could have talked about the harm that comes from nuclear weapons before they are ever used in war. Finally, and most obviously, there were no women on the panel!

Another notable absence was any form of representation to speak about the Soviet point of view. It was unthinkable for this show’s producers, from their studio in Washington, to invite a Soviet diplomat, Sovietologist, or even a mainstream writer like New York Times journalist Hedrick Smith, author of The Russians, a book about his years as a correspondent in the USSR. No one seemed to give a thought to hearing non-American perspectives. The “other” who was much discussed by the panel, had to remain behind the curtain, de-humanized and voiceless while this insular panel of Americans discussed this very international problem.

The most insightful thing that Elie Wiesel added to the discussion was his remark about the potential for popular movements in the Soviet Union. He reminded everyone that there was a human rights movement there and he had witnessed Soviet Jews demonstrating for their rights. He said:

I have the feeling that what is happening here in Western society, meaning there is an increasing awareness about the nuclear madness… it is beginning to happen in Russian society as well. The human rights movement in Russia, headed by Sakharov, who is a great hero and a great man... the human rights movement is an anti-nuclear movement in Russia.

Other members of the panel also commented on the growing possibility of reform in the Soviet Union, and it would have been logical for them to mention here the significance of the Helsinki Accords, but the topic was never pursued. They also noted the need to negotiate with the Soviets toward gradual reduction of tensions. In this regard, they make a striking contrast with today’s political class who have thoroughly demonized Vladimir Putin and Russia to the point where progress in nuclear disarmament has been reversed. Communism is gone as a threat. No one can claim that unilateral disarmament will expose Americans to being dominated by a godless, totalitarian Stalinist enemy bent on world domination. There may have never been any truth to the fear sixty years ago, but now that it is definitely gone, an enemy has been re-created and the Obama administration and the neo-conservative think tanks supporting presidential candidate Hillary Clinton make the Reagan administration look like doves.

William F. Buckley Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr. was the only person on the panel to maintain an archaic hardline stance toward the Soviet Union. The hardliners in the administration from the Committee on the Present Danger, people such as Richard Perle and Dick Cheney, were curiously absent from this panel discussion. Buckley seemed to allow for no possibility of dealing with Soviet leaders as humans with their own aspirations for peaceful settlement of the terrifying dilemma under discussion. Thus he is here shown to be the one who most failed to see, like so many other ideologues of the time, the changes that lay ahead in the late 1980s. A French demographer, Emmanuel Todd, had written a thesis in 1976 that accurately predicted the timing and process of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was completely ignored.

Others on the panel mentioned the possibility of reform and spoke confidently of their ability to negotiate with their Soviet counterparts. They mentioned the possibility of getting the number of weapons in the world reduced by 20,000 within the next ten to fifteen years, and this number turned out to be underestimated. By the mid-1990s the world total had gone from 60,000 to 16,000. But William F. Buckley could see only danger ahead. He stated that the makers of The Day After sought to “debilitate American defenses.” When asked if American involvement in Latin American wars could lead to superpower nuclear conflict, he glibly said,

Well, theoretically anything could result in a nuclear war if the Soviet Union thought it could win it, but I think that we proved that we are stronger than Grenada and that in flexing our muscles there we probably convinced the Soviet Union that it would not be profitable to provoke us with a nuclear war…

In his concluding remarks he declared:

There is an ongoing catastrophe that is not hypothetical. That’s life in the Soviet Union under gulag. I very much regret the kind of drunk thought that is encouraged by ventures of reductionism of the kind that that movie suggested… We have to fear the Soviet Union because they have an appetite to govern us and do to us what they have done to their wretched people.

Soviet leaders of the time were no doubt dumbfounded to know that there were Americans who still thought this way. Reagan’s Evil Empire speech (March, 1983) had left them scratching their heads about these Americans who were suddenly looking at the USSR as if nothing had changed since Stalin died. In the early 1980s, the aging Soviet leaders were dying in quick succession until Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The USSR was on the brink of economic collapse, riven with internal dissent, failing to make any progress in Afghanistan, and living in dread fear of America’s strategic and material advantages. They would have been flattered by Mr. Buckley’s high estimation of their abilities, but confused and offended by his notion that, if empowered to do so, they would have even wanted to conquer and oppress an America unprotected by nuclear weapons.

Finally, Mr. Buckley misrepresented two facts in one statement when said:

We began with a monopoly of atom bombs. We offered to give them to the United Nations. When we had a monopoly we dropped one on Japan. If Japan had had one we wouldn’t have dropped one on Japan, so I see nothing that has changed involving that essential stability, and although all of us wish this nightmare would go away, in point of fact it is probably not going to until somebody does a lobotomy on the men in the Kremlin, and nobody suggested doing that.

In Japan it was two bombs in quick succession, as everyone knowns, and the offer to the United Nations refers to the Baruch Plan of the late 1940s which was an American proposal to put atomic energy development under the control of the UN. It has been largely forgotten because it became obvious that it was never a serious proposal. The Americans drafted it with terms that they knew the Soviets were sure to reject. Bertrand Russell later wrote about it:

The Baruch Plan is often questioned on whether it was a legitimate effort to achieve global cooperation on nuclear control... there were certain additions which, it was hoped, would make the proposal unacceptable to Russia. The hope proved justified. (Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? 1962, Simon and Schuster, pages 25-26, 98)

The great thing that one can say about William F. Buckley is that, by comparison with contemporary “conservative” television personalities, he was gracious and kind to the guests he invited onto his program, Firing Line, and he invited everyone from across the political spectrum. He had many liberals, poets and hippies on his show, and they often got such positive exposure that one could wonder if Mr. Buckley was secretly more liberal than he let on. The best example of his hospitality and his love of freedom may be the time he let Alan Ginsberg charm him with a six-minute reading of Wales Visitation, a poem he wrote under the influence of LSD.

Alan Ginsberg reading Wales Visitation

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was the token representative of the “radical fringe” that favored rapid disarmament. At the start he stated:

… we’ve been sleepwalking during the last 38 years and passed this problem without really coming to grips with how dire and compelling it is, and I think ABC should be congratulated for spurring what I hope will be a year-long debate on this issue, but it’s my unhappy duty to point out that the reality is much worse.

While the realists in the room talked about the need to accept that the number of warheads will remain in the five-figure range, Carl Sagan reminded the audience that the limit for triggering a life-destroying nuclear winter would be about 1,000 weapons, and he argued for getting the number down as low as possible as soon as possible. He pleaded with Americans not to accept the status quo and remember:

… just as slavery was once in the world, and people considered it impossible to change, and it was everywhere, well, now we have a world in which there is virtually no chattel slavery. Conventional expectations about what is inevitable can be changed if there is political will.

On space-based weapons he said:

… for them to have any adequacy to stop a significant strike, they have to have a technology which does not exist today, which the best experts in the field say cannot exist, in any case something which would cost enormous amounts of money that would have to be deployed on an absolutely unprecedented scale, and which is vulnerable to the simplest kinds of countermeasures, so my sense is that the ballistic missile defense system that is being talked about–and there are a variety of them and obviously we don’t want to get into the details–is dangerous… because it lulls us into thinking that we can get away from this problem without the kind of confidence-building and stabilizations.

He favored the nuclear freeze (a halt to all growth and modernization of the nuclear arsenal) because it:

… tends to prevent the introduction of further destabilizing modernization, and it would almost certainly be followed, as in the Kennedy-Hatfield resolution, by an agreement on an annual percentage drop in nuclear weapons, and if that’s at the 5 to 10% a year level…

When asked if this would be a form of dangerous appeasement, he responded with his famous analogy:

Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches. The other has 7000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger. Well, that’s the kind of situation we are actually in. The amount of weapons that are available to the United States and the Soviet Union are so bloated, so grossly in excess of what’s needed to dissuade the other, that if it weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable. What is necessary is to reduce the matches and to clean up the gasoline.   

After giving this response, he was confronted with a question about trusting an adversary when “we’re dealing with people who would kill civilians on an airliner, who would use chemical weapons against women and children, along with soldiers, and people who have never held up to many treaties that we made with them?” Carl Sagan’s reply:

Without debating whether what you said is factually right or not, which could be interesting, but maybe too time-consuming, let me merely quote Averill Harriman who said in this context that the only thing you can trust the Russians to do is to act in their own interest, and it is very clear that it is in their interest, as it is in our interest, to first freeze and then make a very steep decline in the total number of warheads in the world. What’s more, we do have to trust and we can trust our own technology because the ability of the United States through reconnaissance satellites and other national technical means to verify a freeze and a major reduction is very clear.

Throughout the panel discussion there was frequent reference to the questions of being able to trust the Russians to avoid blunders, to not launch a first strike, either deliberately or through error, to not launch on warning, and how to verify the adherence to treaties and so on. The panelists said such things as, “They only respond to strength. They take our goodwill gestures as signs of weakness. They won’t give up anything they can keep for free. They only act out of self-interest.” No one evinced much awareness that the Soviets must have viewed the Americans with the same suspicions, or that Americans themselves were fallible human beings with a fallible political system.

Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft

As is often the case, it is the generals who have the most objective understanding of conflicts and human nature. To those who asserted that deterrence is guaranteed at the present time, General Scowcroft stated, “It [nuclear war] may be unthinkable, but deterrence is a very ambiguous notion. It cannot be demonstrated unless it fails, in which case you know it was not there. Otherwise, it cannot be demonstrated.” He was the only one on the panel who filled audiences in on some basics of Russian history, saying:

We have probably very different ideas about deterrence than does the Soviet Union. I think we tend to think that nuclear weapons have done away with war as an instrument of national policy… The Soviet Union, however, both as a result of its history of repeated invasion and the extent to which ideology still motivates its belief that it is surrounded by hostile states, probably wants nuclear war no more than does the United States, but I think realistically it anticipates that it could happen. And if it could happen, then they must do their best to prepare for it, and I think it is that that is the essential, central issue of deterrence, and that is we must have a military posture which the Soviets, whatever they think about deterrence, whatever they think about the nature of nuclear weapons, can never imagine that resort to them makes sense.

The general’s most intriguing comment came when he spoke of a policy that laid bare America’s determination to always have supreme dominance over the world order and appoint itself the keeper of stability. It is well known now that the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia have gone from their Cold War peak of 60,000 to about 14,000 weapons. Yet still these two nations hold 93% of the nuclear weapons in the world. This begs the question of why the decrease stopped and has stayed at this excessive level since the mid-1990s. General Scowcroft revealed a grim reality of superpower policy when he said:

In some respects, the lower the numbers, the more unstable the situation and the more the encouragement for other powers to acquire nuclear weapons… if each side of the Soviet Union and the United States has only a thousand weapons, or each only 500, that encourages other powers to become major nuclear powers in a way that they can do because the numbers are relatively small.”

More is less in the doublespeak and paradoxes involved in the possession of nuclear arms.   

In his concluding remarks, General Scowcroft said something that proved to be an accurate assessment ten years later when the weaknesses of the Soviet Union were laid bare in its collapse. He reminded the audience that Americans should not over-estimate the capacity, not to mention the will, of the Soviet Union to harm the United States. He finished with  a statement conservative scaremongers preferred to leave unsaid:

The resources available to the West are so out of proportion to those available to the Soviet Union that if we can survive the next decade, the next 10-15 years, I think we will be in good shape.

The mention of this time frame proved to be an accurate prediction of when the Cold War would end.

Robert McNamara

Former Secretary of Defense during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert McNamara, seemed to speak the most during the discussion, with intensity and strong convictions that alternated between being reassuring and alarming:

I do not believe the American people understand the world we live in. I do not believe they understand the full risk that we face. There are 40,000 nuclear warheads in the inventories of the US and Soviet Union today… I don’t know any arms expert, and I doubt if anyone in this room believes in the next 10 to 15 years we can reduce that number by more than half…

In response to W.F. Buckley’s question, “What makes you think we’ll be alive 15 years from now?” he said:
Because in addition to stressing reduction in the numbers of weapons, we need to stress introducing stability in the forces to avoid temptation to either side to pre-empt, and most of all we need to introduce steps to reduce the risk that those weapons will be used… We live in a nuclear world by stressing that this is a plus sum game that we’re working on. There is a commonality of interests between the Soviets and the US to avoid the use of these weapons. That’s what that film shows. I totally disagree with those who say it’s a disservice to the nation to show the film. Not at all. It’s stimulating discussion on exactly the issue we ought to be discussing.

Like Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara often faced criticism that he was a war criminal for his involvement in the Vietnam War as Secretary of Defense. However, in the the 2003 documentary Fog of War, Mr. McNamara discussed his regrets and the mistakes in foreign policy during the war in a way that Kissinger never did. In this panel discussion twenty years earlier, the difference between the two men was already visible. Mr. McNamara was optimistic that conflict with the USSR could be avoided if both governments acted prudently and took some necessary measures. He expressed more understanding of the common humanity of the Soviet leadership and had a more realistic assessment of the threat they posed, which was much less what anti-communist hardliners always wanted to have everyone believe. 

Toward the end of the program Mr. McNamara responded to a person in the audience who asked him to list some of the steps that need to be taken to improve stability and guarantee that nuclear war never happens. Many of these were indeed carried out in the years that followed thanks to the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, perestroika, and probably thanks to some degree to the film The Day After:

We must be more daring, we must be more imaginative as a society, not just as a government–-as a society–to reduce this risk and we must negotiate. We must drag the Soviets into negotiating.

I don’t think fundamentally we’re talking about a deliberate decision to launch nuclear war. We’re talking about behavior in a crisis where each side is estimating both the posture and the will of the other side, in which case miscalculations can make all the difference between peace and war, and it is in that guise that we must ensure that the Soviet Union can never miscalculate.

We should not have a strategy that is designed to maximize casualties because then if anything goes wrong, we will have Carl Sagan’s world [the nightmare of a full exchange]… Nobody that I have ever talked to knows how to stop a nuclear war once it is started. Therefore, for God’s sake, don’t ever start one. That’s the first point.

We need to maintain and tighten our non-proliferation policy... Secondly, we need to establish procedures that will ensure that our nuclear forces are not triggered by a terrorist launch of a weapon, or by an accident, a mechanical or a human failure, and we need to ensure that the Soviets are following the same procedures… and then we ought to try to persuade them to adopt as well, is to state publicly we will never, never, never launch on warning. We have not yet said that nor have they.   

We should not create myths of our weakness. In the 1960s, the presidential campaign was fought on the myth, as it turned out later, of a missile gap. Recently we’ve had the myth, and it is a myth, of a window of vulnerability, and it was General Scowcroft’s commission that tore aside that myth and destroyed it.

… first, we should reduce the number of warheads in Europe far more than we’ve agreed to so far. There are roughly 6,000 warheads there. They’re obsolete. They’re vulnerable. They’re dangerous. They’re useless. We could cut them in half tomorrow and be ahead. Secondly, we should withdraw, of the remaining half, those that are in the forward areas of Germany. They would be overrun in the early hours of a conflict. There would be a use-them-or lose-them tension, and the great danger is they’d be used and start the conflagration we’d all want to stop. Thirdly, we could engage the Soviets into much more productive negotiations of how to stabilize our respective forces beyond freezing or reducing the numbers.

As was mentioned above, this discussion panel on ABC was framed by the limited parameters of acceptable dissent within American corporate media. Yet in retrospect, compared with news programming available to the American public now on the big networks, it was intelligent, professional, extremely detailed, and respectful of the intelligence of the audience. Ted Koppel was well-informed and prepared, and he did an excellent job of managing both the questions from the audience and the strong personalities on the panel. In the history of the American nuclear age, there may be no other example of a better discussion of the issue that was made available to a mass audience. One could fault the panel for being too attached to the American nuclear deterrent, and too unwilling to contemplate the dangers and immorality of possessing nuclear weapons, but again, in comparison to the present age, the 1980s are starting to look like a golden age of peacemaking–by a Republican administration! How the has shifted! The Democrats have shifted to the right, and the Republicans have gone right over a cliff.

The US now has a Democratic administration that seems bereft of elder statesmen/women who sense any need to learn about Russia, understand its perspective, and deal with Russian leaders diplomatically and respectfully—regardless of whatever internal problems Russia may have. The mass media has gone along for the ride, demonizing Vladimir Putin and fretting about a Russian invasion of the Baltic states. Presidential candidates hurl insults at Putin such as thug, dictator and tyrant, forgetting that someday they are going to have to deal with him as a partner in resolving various international problems.

Progress in disarmament is absolutely impossible when trust breaks down like this, then it becomes impossible to do even the routine work of mutual inspections and verification of existing arms reduction treaties. As Robert McNamara stressed thirty-three years ago the need to empathize with adversaries and “drag the Soviets into negotiating,” he would be appalled to see the state of US-Russia relations today. Communism is gone, and no sane person can say Russia has “an appetite to govern us and do to us what they have done to their wretched people” (it was crazy enough already to say it in 1983), but for reasons which President Obama cares not to explain, the old antagonism is back, and perhaps it is worse this time simply because of the complacency of the masses and the recklessness of the people running Washington. The Americans–the TV drama–is to be commended for putting the broadcast of The Day After into one of its episodes this year. It was a timely reminder, and perhaps it’s time once again for a mass audience to revisit both the film and the discussion that followed it.

Related articles:

Watching The Americans: A 1980s Primer

Barack Obama on Nuclear Disarmament, 1983

No comments:

Post a Comment