The People Who Would Survive Nuclear War
How an appendix to an obscure government report helped launch a blockbuster and push back the possibility of atomic war
Somehow, some way, nuclear war is once again a live possibility. The most startling incident came earlier this month when a state employee accidentally clicked the wrong choice in a piece of emergency-alert software, sending a notice of imminent destruction to everyone with a phone in Hawaii. But what’s striking is that people believed the message. For much of the past 30 years, it would have been implausible enough to be received as a likely mistake. But 2018 has already seen President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trade barbs about their nuclear buttons. People are buying potassium iodide pills again. The December 2017 issue of Harper’s magazine featured seven writers “taking stock of our nuclear present.” Atomic weapons—and their horrifying effects—are back in the national consciousness.
Of course, they never really went away. But a combination of peace activism’s successes, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the other threats that have been lumped together in the war on terror simply pushed the prospect of nuclear war out of sight and mostly out of mind.
It has been possible to consider the government planning reports of the Cold War with historical detachment or even bemusement. For example, the U.S. Post Office once printed 60 million change-of-address cards and sent them to regional offices, just in case of a major nuclear exchange that created tens of millions of refugees. The Federal Civil Defense Administration created cartoons showing kids how to duck and cover, which would not have been of much use in a nuclear exchange that killed hundreds of millions of people. There were detailed, practiced plans of possible governmental succession based on endless reports. Looking back in 2003, Slate declared “it’s hard today to do anything but laugh at these Cold War inanities.” Even just last April, The Washington Post reviewed a book on the American government’s Cold War plans and found the details ridiculous.“For all the ominous directives and war scenarios, there is something random and even comical about planning for Armageddon,” wrote Carlos Lozada. “How many Export-Import Bank staffers rate rescuing? How many from the Department of Agriculture?”
The sociologist Lee Clarke has described these sorts of reports as “fantasy documents.” Faced with the unthinkable—a tragedy equivalent to World War II many times over, and executed in just a few hours, carrying the possibility of ending technological civilization—they created process and documentation as a way of feeling in control. Did anyone have a plan for nuclear war? Every bureaucracy did. And they used them to reassure themselves and the public that they had a plan. They’d built bomb shelters made of paper. But these were, like the neatly stocked basements with flashlights and canned food, exercises in imagination, or more simply, fiction.
And so it is appropriate that in 1978, the government commissioned an actual piece of fiction, which was tucked into an appendix of a congressional report until it found a wild afterlife as a key source for the most popular made-for-TV movie ever produced.
The report was titled The Effects of Nuclear War. It was a product of the Office of Technology Assessment. The OTA, before it was disbanded by Newt Gingrich’s Republican leadership in 1995, was an independent research bureau that carried out research for members of Congress. In this case, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had asked the OTA to “examine the effects of nuclear war on the populations and economies of the United States and the Soviet Union,” in such a way that the “abstract measures of strategic power” could be translated into “more comprehensible terms.” The Senators were preparing for a debate on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which ultimately never happened after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the report was written.
The project fell under the direction of Peter Sharfman, the researcher who headed National Security Studies at the OTA. The executive summary does not mince words. “A militarily plausible nuclear attack, even ‘limited,’ could be expected to kill people and to inflict economic damage on a scale unprecedented in American experience; a large-scale nuclear exchange would be a calamity unprecedented in human history,” the report says. “The mind recoils from the effort to foresee the details of such a calamity, and from the careful explanation of the unavoidable uncertainties as to whether people would die from blast damage, from fallout radiation, or from starvation during the following winter.”
The report goes on to outline several different scenarios—single detonations, attacks on oil refineries, attacks on military installations, and an all-out nuclear war leading to the deaths of up to 160 million Americans.
In the last scenario, the authors propose that there would be some structure to the days and months after the war. There’d be the first few days when people were seeking shelter and trying to deal with what had happened, however, the report predicts, “boredom will gradually replace panic, but will be no easier to cope with.” Then there would be the “shelter period” followed by the “recuperation period.”
“Major changes should be anticipated in the societal structure as survivors attempt to adapt to a severe and desponding environment never before experienced,” the report states. “The loss of 100 million people, mostly in the larger cities, could raise a question on the advisability of rebuilding the cities ... The surviving population could seek to alter the social and geopolitical structure of the rebuilding nation in hopes of minimizing the effects of any future conflicts.”
And it is this longer-term set of difficulties to which the fictional work, Appendix C, titled “Charlottesville,” addresses itself. The story was written by Nan Randall, a journalist who had reported for The Washington Post and Newsweek and put in a couple of years at the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy as a program director. In the spring of 1978, the St. Petersburg Times commissioned William Kincade, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, to write a story that “looked at life after a nuclear exchange.” He brought in Randall, and they produced a scenario that focused on two bombs falling near Tampa Bay as part of a large-scale nuclear war. It was published across four days, on A1, beginning February 25, 1979. They called the series “Doomsday.”
The work is something between fiction and nonfiction, envisioning the precise bomb locations in the area, the movements of the president, the predicament of the fictional Wechek family, who had barricaded themselves inside the “large walk-in closet in their home’s master bedroom” when a second bomb blast destroys their home, and the ambulations of the Braggs, who wait out the first few hours inside a bank’s barely functional fallout shelter.
The story is rich with detail. Each day follows the Wecheks and Braggs, and there are disturbing and emotional scenes. After Mrs. Wechek dies, Mr. Wechek is “recruited” (quotes in the original) to build a food warehouse. “His daughter followed him each day and watched silently. She was unable to let him out of her sight. She spoke to no one and barely ate. At night, she tried to curl up at the foot of her father’s thin pallet, even though he was now in a makeshift men’s dormitory, and no women or girls were allowed there,” the story relates. “For a time, the authorities permitted the daughter and father to stick together, but eventually the girl was sent inland to a special camp for the elderly and children suffering from shock.”
It’s brutal, compelling stuff, especially measured on the scale of fantasy documents and other government reports. This work—or her connection to Kincade—probably brought Randall to the attention of the Office of Technology Assessment. From contemporary reports, we know she both read the report and went to Charlottesville herself.
In the report, the story is preceded by a short introduction that explains that the fiction is “an effort to provide a more concrete understanding of the situation that survivors of a nuclear war would face.” It adds that while it only considers one possible scenario, “it does provide detail that adds a dimension to the more abstract analysis presented in the body of the report.”
“Charlottesville” is also a mix of fiction and facts, but it lacks the characters of the St. Petersburg Times story, concentrating on the community-level action in a postnuclear world. We see the “world building” common to this kind of science fiction, but after the exposition that sets up what’s happened, no human narratives actually enter the work.
In the weeks leading up to the war, Americans begin to desert the cities in preparation for nuclear war that they can see coming. They begin to shelter in place, keeping their children home from school, awaiting the onset of the war. Before the nukes begin to fall, refugees have already overwhelmed the town’s shelters. When the nukes hit, there’s almost a sense of relief in the story, as Charlottesville retains its status as a “genteel sanctuary.”
Over time, things begin to fall apart, however, as foodstuffs start to run out and people struggle to return to an agrarian way of life, without access to plentiful oil and electricity. Food riots break out when raw grain arrives from the federal government instead of flour.
The animating conflict in the story is the animosity between people who were native to Charlottesville and refugees who showed up from the surrounding destroyed cities. They form an underclass that speaks to the anxieties of 1970s racial strife. “One of the major problems, it was obvious to everyone, was the drag the huge refugee population had on the recovery effort,” Randall writes, echoing the tone of reports from big northern and western cities after the Great Migration brought African Americans to these areas. What civic spirit the Charlottesville residents have is local, racial, and class-based, not pan-American or linked to a broader humanity.
“Blacks distrusted whites, the poor distrusted the rich, and everyone distrusted the refugees as ‘outsiders,’” Randall writes. The white attitude toward black people is not recorded.
There are no named people, though a “city manager” makes regular appearances creating “highly centralized, almost totalitarian rule” within the city. The narrative perspective is synoptic, almost academic were it not for the colorful details that distinguish it from the traditional governmental scenarios.
CB radio enthusiasts, we’re told, “tried to set up a relay system on the lines of an electronic pony express.” We read that “horse thievery had made an anachronistic appearance,” and that people fight over bicycles. There is a long section at the end about a postapocalyptic panel held on the grounds of what had been the University of Virginia.
In many ways, it tracked the tendencies of most nuclear-war fiction. “One might assume that the depiction of the immediate consequences of a nuclear war would be a primary subject of the fiction under consideration here,” wrote Paul Brians in his literature survey, Nuclear Holocausts. “Far from it. Aside from those few authors whose subject is the atomic bombing of Japan, only a relative handful of authors concern themselves with the detailed description of the effects of atomic bombing. Many are more interested in the politics or long-range social effects of war.”
The people and press appeared to be more interested in that, too. Randall’s fictional account turned out to be the portal through which the report’s findings would be explored by the media. A review of the report in New Scientist found Charlottesville “by far the most telling part” of the massive document. “Fictionalized accounts certainly bring home the quality of the catastrophe much more credibly than such technical details as fallout ellipses on maps of Detroit and Leningrad,” it concludes. In an NPR segment on the report, the Charlottesville story was the main focus of the interview.
There were many, many fictional accounts before this particular one, but none had the imprimatur of the government’s own researchers. It was a different type of fantasy document, one designed to open up the imagination to the horrors of war, rather than foreclose them.
“I tend to think we picked a somewhat optimistic scenario. We assumed that the civic spirit survives; that people for the most part treat their neighbors well; that you don’t have riots or anarchy or mass looting or martial law. But you can’t be sure,” Sharfman, the report’s director, told NPR. “Remember, in a nuclear-war environment you’re talking about tens of millions of people dying. In such an environment, one of the things that goes by the board is the attitude that a single human life is precious. I suppose that is one of the ways you would know the war was over, that the recovery period was over, that the survivors had gotten over the war, would be when human life could again become precious. That could take a very long time.”
After the initial crush of attention around the report, it disappeared from the national conversation. It was, after all, a technical government document, no matter how striking its fictional component happened to be.
But then a series of circumstances propelled it to new levels of importance. First, a groundswell of political activism had developed around stopping nuclear weapons from being tested, produced, or deployed. It became known as the nuclear-freeze movement, which one political pollster described in 1983 as “the most significant citizens’ movement of the last century,” engaging millions of people. These activists became an audience that could carry a work into the mainstream.
And they did that with a series of New Yorker articles by Jonathan Schell thinking through the possibility that a full-on nuclear exchange would mean the extinction of humanity. These essays were collected into the book The Fate of the Earth in the spring of 1982, and they became the pole for the darkest end of the nuclear-holocaust spectrum. “The machinery of destruction is complete, poised on a hair trigger, waiting for the ‘button’ to be ‘pushed’ by some misguided or deranged human being or for some faulty computer chip to send out the instruction to fire,” Schell writes. “That so much should be balanced on so fine a point—that the fruit of 4.5 billion years can be undone in a careless moment—is a fact against which belief rebels.”
At almost exactly the same moment, a Stanford University physicist, science writer, and book publisher named Michael Riordan was readying another book about the effects of nuclear war for publication.
That book was The Day After Midnight, an edited version of the Office of Technology Assessment report, which, because it was a government document, was in the public domain. Riordan had gotten a tip from Sidney Drell, a politically connected Stanford physicist who consulted on the report, that the Reagan administration was trying to suppress the research by refusing to print more copies through the Government Printing Office. Riordan, who had published books on solar power (including the first, best history A Golden Thread) took the report, moved the fictional account to the front, made some other changes, and published it through Cheshire Books.
The Day After Midnight entered the market in a veritable glut of nuclear war books—at least 130, according to a count by Publishers Weekly—that followed the success of Schell’s work. “Some of the books have been in the works for years, for occasional nuclear titles have long turned up on publishers' lists,” wrote The New York Times in November 1982. “The difference this year is the sheer quantity of such books, many of which were rushed into print apparently to trade on the popularity of Jonathan Schell's best-selling The Fate of the Earth.”
The Times also notes that few of the books were selling well, but The Day After Midnight was an exception. “It did extremely well,” Riordan recalled. “We sold a lot of copies and we sold a lot of foreign rights. It kept us alive another year.”
As all these books were coming out, ABC was working to create a movie to dramatize nuclear holocaust. They signed film director Nicholas Meyer, who’d done The Wrath of Khan, and hired screenwriter Edward Hume to come up with an original screenplay. And when they went digging for research for the story, they found the OTA report, including the Charlottesville fiction.
The movie, which became known as The Day After, cost a reported $7 million, a big budget at the time. ABC, despite advertisers pulling out of the time slot, pumped the release up, taking out its own advertisements across the country.
When November 20, 1983, rolled around and the made-for-TV movie was finally broadcast, something like 100 million viewers in a country of something like 230 million people tuned in. In television-series history, only the M*A*S*H finale had more viewers. Nowadays, the only events that come close to those numbers are the NFL’s Super Bowls, and we have 350 million people in the United States now. It was a huge, huge deal. There was even a debate hosted by Ted Koppel after the movie starring Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, William F. Buckley Jr., and Robert McNamara, with a message from Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz. “By drawing its information largely from a study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, it avoided any reasonable charges of exaggeration,” noted a reviewer in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Reagan mentions the movie in his diaries.
In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called The Day After. It has Lawrence, Kansas, wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done—all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the “anti-nukes” or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.
Several years later, after Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty in Reykjavík, Meyer, the director, says that the Reagan administration sent him a note that said, “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
All in all, this strange little appendix of a short story had a remarkable impact, far beyond what could have been expected. In a world awash with statistics about global nuclear supremacy, a simple fiction about daily life in a postnuclear world served as an antidote to the bureaucratic magic that had been spun around the possibility of conflict.
“It really brought home what it would be if this became a reality: It said here is what it might look like,” says Riordan, who republished the report. “And people said, ‘Nope!’ I think it had some impact on tempering the nuclear enthusiasm of the time.”