Nuclear Winter: When Life Imitates The Movies

A 1946 test of a U.S. atomic bomb in the lagoon at Bikini Atoll.  [Source: aip.org]
A 1946 test of a U.S. atomic bomb in the lagoon at Bikini Atoll.  [Source: aip.org]

It’s an unexamined myth today among many Americans that Ronald Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War and engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union. This narrow-minded notion gives no credit to the people of Eastern Europe who resisted Soviet oppression for decades until they succeeded in outlasting it. In a new book about the nuclear arms race, The Dead Hand, journalist David E. Hoffman argues that Mikhail Gorbachev had as much to do with backing up from the brink as Reagan did. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR Fresh Air, Hoffman explains that Reagan needed to see a made-for-TV movie about nuclear armageddon before he decided to get serious about trying  to prevent it:

HOFFMAN: You know, it’s fascinating because I think both of them were both romantics and revolutionaries in entirely different directions. You know, Gorbachev was moved, in all the years he was a party apparatchik, to see the poverty of his own people. And when he finally became Soviet leader, he was not going to come to work in the morning and say, I’m going to end the arms race. He actually came to work in the morning and said, I have to save my country. And he had a lot of experience with this – living standards that were low with the huge strain that his military put on the country.

And Reagan came from a country that was prospering and he was the champion really of that prosperity, of the march of capitalism. His anti-communism was well known for decades. But when Reagan came to office he also harbored this somewhat inner idea that once he came to work every morning he could make nuclear weapons obsolete. And I must tell you, as a reporter who covered him all those years, I wrote a lot about U.S.-Soviet relations and I certainly tried to understand what Reagan was thinking from their public statements. But this deep nuclear abolition that he harbored, that he thought about, now comes through. And it comes through in some of his private writings. We now can read his diary entries and understand more what he was really thinking. When there was that movie that was put out during Reagan’s term called “The Day After,” which depicted the horrible consequences of nuclear winter after a nuclear attack, Reagan watched that movie and it had a profound affect on him. Those who were around him recalled that he was depressed for a couple of days.

So when these two guys come together they are a little bit of a chemical reaction because they both have dreams and they both have needs that are radically different. And I think it took them a little while – certainly Reykjavik and the experience of almost going all the way toward abolition and then pulling back – they began to see other whole.

GROSS: I still want to get back to the movie “The Day After” a second. This is the movie that, you know, made-for-TV movie that depicted a nuclear attack on the United States and how horrible it would be. I’m always a little confounded and disturbed when I hear how moved President Reagan was about that. And here’s why: Everything that was in that movie about what would happen, I’d already heard that from so many experts, from doctors, from physicists, from, you know, political experts. Journalists were writing about it. And to think that Reagan didn’t know this, that he hadn’t thought about the extent of that devastation until seeing a made-for-TV movie, when the information was already out there. What does that say?

HOFFMAN: Terry, he was a Hollywood man through and through and to him, a made-for-TV movie was much more powerful than all of those briefing books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don’t know. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: Look, in his diary Reagan wrote: Columbus Day, in the morning at Camp David I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air November 20. It’s called “The Day After.” It has Lawrence, Kansas, wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It’s powerfully done – all $7 million worth. It’s very effective. It left me greatly depressed. So far, they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.

Those were Reagan’s words written in his own diary at the time. That’s not a press release. That’s the man speaking. Listen/read more.

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