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The Day After - 25 November 1983

This was a sombre week in which to return to America. It ought to be, and it usually is, a festival week, when Congress has gone home, and everybody else downs tools on Wednesday and drives, flies, buses or trains to the family hearth, to settle in to the turkey and the corn pudding and the sweet potatoes and the pumpkin pie and the other tasty memories of that first harvest, which signified to the first Puritan settlers of New England that they would survive.

Thanksgiving in this country – and especially because it’s a country without a state religion – Thanksgiving is the family festival, even more than Christmas. This year it was darkened by two happenings or rather by two events, created by the media.

The first, as you may have heard, was the television programme that attracted – perhaps attracted is the wrong word – that drew then, as to the scene of a crime, the second largest national audience since television began.

It was a vivid, unflagging nightmare of a programme, the fictional filming of the town and people of Lawrence, Kansas going about their business and their play before the nuclear missiles hit it, but mostly about what the same people did and looked like after they had been reduced to cinders or radiated beyond walking, eating, beyond any condition that can decently be called living.

For most of two hours we saw, simply and appallingly, what it would be like for one town making a brief, hopeless attempt to survive. The reminder, that in fact, a nuclear attack could not possibly target on one town alone was provided by the grimmest pan shot in the history of the movies, a slow panning back to reveal, on the horizon, the dead and silent ashes of what the day before had been Kansas City.

This programme is so publicised, so hyped ,so far ahead of its showing that the battle lines of controversy about it were drawn up and furiously engaged, before most people had seen it. And we have to ask how it came about, especially on one of the foreign national television networks which is, most of the time, most devoted to what we call escapist entertainment.

The idea came from a Yale graduate who was in charge of the motion picture division of ABC, the American Broadcasting Company. Practically nobody high up, or low down, on the staff would hear of it. Eventually though, two men were put on to it as a tentative project. They went about it in the conviction that the programme, as they conceived it, would be softened beyond recognition.

They enlisted most of the population of Lawrence, Kansas, they sketched a vague outline, and fleshed it out not from their imaginations, but from research studies available from the government's department of defence. I think it’s worth mentioning this point, since so many of the people who cheered the movie both before and after its showing implied, when they didn’t insist, that its great value would be to wake up the defence department to the realities of an Armageddon it was coolly preparing for. These studies went into such horrors as the many varieties of radiation burns that would instantly disfigure and soon kill off the victims.

Well, before the showing, people were fearful of what it would do to children. As a protective measure, literally thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of families, arranged to round up school classes or groups of neighbours to watch the whole show in the company of teachers and parents. For several days after the showing the papers and the television networks let us read or hear what scores of children had felt and thought.

There was very little in this that you could not have guessed, except we saw, we heard of, no hysterics no inconsolable weeping; I suppose that, and the nightmares, would come later. What was striking to me, and infinitely pathetic, was the gravity, the careful sadness of so many childlike responses.

Many, I noticed, harped on a note sounded by those Russian children I mentioned a few weeks ago, who were asked to ruminate on nuclear war. This note was one of steady anxiety about losing their parents, the childlike implication being that they would be whole and alive, but the parents would be dead.

Well, there is no point in going on about the glumness, the solemn awe with which so many of Americans must have watched in this appalling film. Immediately afterwards statesmen old and new, commentators, were on the air, arguing about it, ought the film to have been made at all? Was it made with a political purpose? If so, what? Practically no opposing groups can agree about that.

The most vocal of the groups who hailed the film were those who can be fair lumped together with the unilateral disarmers, as that international army of so-called crusaders for peace.

Obviously the film was also strongly approved by the nuclear freezers, the people who want the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers to be frozen at their present level – an argument that instantly provokes another argument about whether the arsenals are, in fact, level at all.

The Reagan administration and its supporters responded by saying that the practice, the continuing build up of deterrents, had kept the peace for over 30 years, and is the only way to prevent the fictional tragedy of Lawrence, Kansas becoming fact. The governments of Britain, West Germany and, obviously, the United States, are wedded to that doctrine.

The people who have plainly gained most from the film, whether or not its makers had this in mind doesn’t matter, are the marching members in this country, as in so many other countries, of what is called the peace movement. And I think it has to be said that the peace movement has acquired and exploits a great and unfair advantage by so calling itself.

It suggests many of its members actually assert that it alone has a monopoly on compassion, on a humane imagination, on the longing for peace as if peace was something positive, and identifiable like Buddhism or roast beef that you can choose to like or dislike.

I am quite sure that Mr Reagan and Mrs Thatcher and Secretary Shultz are not indifferent to the future of their children and grandchildren. They, too, know that nuclear power, once discovered, will not go away, and that its use in war is certain to doom the planet. The same must be true of Mr Andropov and his colleagues.

What none of us, of any contesting group, seems able to think through is some way of introducing the notion of mutual trust to the superpowers. He or she would be a blessing to the human race. Who could do this, who could discover and empower, at the centre of the Soviet and America governments, a nucleus of sane men, willing to begin again, to scrap the arsenals of overkill and achieve that minimum and equal deterrent force that would still make a nuclear war not feasible and unwinnable?

The second cloud that hangs over this year’s Thanksgiving is, however, one that has a fringe of a silver lining. The cloud itself was also manufactured by the media. It’s the immense billowing cumulus of words and pictures and films and discussions that have been given over this week to the memory of John F Kennedy.

It is, as everybody knows, the 20th anniversary of his murder in Dallas. No such memorial outpouring marked the 10th or the 15th anniversaries, but somehow, every magazine and newspaper and television network in a score of countries felt obliged this time to make, as Kennedy himself would have said, to make a judgement, of the Kennedy presidency.

Now when, in January 1982, the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Franklin Roosevelt was coming up, the celebration of this mighty man and what his presidency had done to this country, and to the world, happened almost as an afterthought. One television network prepared a documentary. The White House remembered the date only two weeks before and hastily arranged a small lunch for living colleagues and old reporters of President Roosevelt.

Yet 100 or more American historians have just published a commentary verdict on the historical standing of all the American presidents; they put Franklin Roosevelt with only two others, with Lincoln and with Washington, as one of the three greatest. Kennedy is rated as thirteenth among a group called "Just above average".

I can only conclude that the circumstances of Kennedy’s death, the lurid melodrama of it as preserved in film and photographic libraries, was too tempting for the networks and the magazines not to unload.

Also, there is the emotional fact that in this time of great anxiety, the myth of Kennedy as a young, gallant and blithe leader, presiding confidently over a superpower, not yet suspect in the western world, has lead us willingly into a bath of nostalgia.

There are, however, two things Kennedy did which it was right to remind us of this weekend. One was the peace corps, the dispatch of wiling and unpaid young Americans to help the poor and the disposed in many parts of the world. The other was his handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. I think this is a good time to recall that the man who made the wise, the fatefully liberating, move at the height of that crisis was Kennedy’s brother, Bobby.

He was the one who, on that wracking weekend, urged the president to ignore an inflammatory letter from Khrushchev and answer a second, a reasonable letter. And the peace corps was the invention, passed on to President Kennedy, of a Wisconsin congressman named Henry Reuss.

It does not, I think in any way, slight the good memory of John F Kennedy to remember too, this weekend, the names of Bobby Kennedy and Henry Reuss.

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

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