Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

A Movie as a Political Actor

‘The Day After’ (USA 1983), Nuclear Futures, and the Power of Fictional Reality

Constantin März, Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen

Online (Zoom) & Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI), Raum 106, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen


The Day After (USA 1983), Nuclear Futures, and the Power of Fictional Reality

On the evening of November 20, 1983, 100 million Americans sat in front of their screens as the ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union turned into an all-out thermonuclear war.

The Day After, a TV movie, depicted what could happen if the Cold War were to become hot one day – or the next. The hype and controversy that this broadcast generated among the American public was unparalleled. It was released at the end of a year during which relations between the superpowers reached a new low. Fears of nuclear war, which were thought to have been overcome during the period of détente, saw a nightmarish renaissance. In its time, ABC´s drama was interpreted either as an anti-American manifesto of defeatism or as a plausible and pedagogically invaluable contribution to peacekeeping. In both cases, it was ascribed a formative power that may seem alienating today. The film could be politically operationalized in an exceptional way due to its intended relevance to the present, the link to real social structures, the use of “normal” people as actors, and the psychological play with expectations. It illustrates how scenarios of nuclear war were deliberately implanted with (or assigned) educating, participatory, political impetus – both by their creators and their critics. In this sense, the battle for the future was very much a battle using futures.

As an era of global systemic conflict between two highly armed power blocs, the Cold War always carried the potential for escalation. It was “under the spell of an apocalyptic vision that people never tired of claiming was ‘very real’ – and above all ‘very close’” as cultural and literary scholar Eva Horn puts it. Between (1947/)1957 and 1991, a wide variety of US individuals, groups, and institutions took a preventive approach to a nuclear future, reaching very different imperatives for action, prognosis, and contextualization. This includes political-military security institutions, transversal knowledge institutions, conservative (Republican) activists, or liberal (Democratic) activists. All appeared as producers of thermonuclear “Zukunftswissen” (future knowledge) and thus attempted to shape the political present of their time through the production, dissemination, and (de)legitimization of nuclear based scenarios. The Day After is a product of the Cold War that captures this fusion of reality and fiction against the backdrop of the fear of nuclear war in a unique way.