As I See It

Lawrence remembers 30-year-old nuclear destruction movie, ‘The Day After’

Updated: 2013-11-18T00:07:40Z


Special to The Star

In the fall of 1983, television viewers tuned into ABC to watch nuclear missiles destroy eastern Kansas. Filmed in Lawrence and Kansas City, the TV movie “The Day After” was a loud voice in the national debate over the threat of nuclear weapons during the Cold War’s twilight years.

Thirty years later, the world has changed. But the fame — and infamy — that “The Day After” brought Lawrence remains.

So how did a college town in eastern Kansas become the staging ground for a graphic depiction of nuclear war? And what did that mean to locals suddenly caught up in a national debate about how a nuclear apocalypse might affect ordinary Kansans like themselves?

Scouting locations for the film, producer Bob Papazian found that by looking at a map of the 48 contiguous states, eastern Kansas sat at the “crosshairs of the nation.”

To Papazian and director Nicholas Meyer, the very idea of Kansas evoked the almost mythical heartland of the American imagination.

By setting their film in Kansas — the “quintessential heartland state” according to historian Beth Bailey — they could also promote the idea that no American was immune from the threat of nuclear war.

During the filming of “The Day After” in 1982 and its broadcast in 1983, the nation’s media also turned its attention on Lawrence.

People magazine argued that “never before had the specter of nuclear annihilation seemed more vivid” to this “pastoral and photogenic college town.” This idea of Kansan innocence seemed to make nuclear war appear all the more horrific.

Twenty-five years later, when I traveled to Lawrence to interview locals about the film and its legacy, many remarked that in the early 1980s, they didn’t think the threat of nuclear war was all that serious.

Some spoke of their memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when that threat was much more real. Others recalled the special effects and makeup used by the filmmakers as helping create a spectacle that detracted from the seriousness of the film’s subject matter.

Many who took part in “The Day After” as extras or crew did believe it would provide an important educational service. Harliss Howard felt “pleased to be associated with a film that intends to educate people about the effects of a nuclear war.”

But this was Lawrence, not Washington, D.C., and some locals thought the hoopla about nukes raining down on Kansas a bit of a joke. Anne Marvin recalled that her home was by no means “in the middle of the action... not a coastal city.”

However, if Lawrencians could add their voices to the national debate about nuclear weapons, they would add an important dimension to a discussion that mostly revolved around seemingly abstract issues of nuclear winter, geopolitics, and strategic missile deployment. It was useful, as the Let Lawrence Live campaign argued in 1983, to add the voices of “ordinary people in ordinary towns” to this debate.

“The Day After,” and the local reaction to it, reflects a particularly Kansan image of rural traditionalism, mixed with Lawrence’s college town progressivism and the almost mythic ideal of heartland authenticity.

As “The Day After” challenged television viewers nationwide to question what it means to live with the threat of nuclear war, it also challenged Lawrencians to think about what it means to be a Kansan.

Kyle Harvey, of Sydney, Australia, is a research fellow at the State Library of New South Wales, and is currently completing a book on the history of U.S. anti-nuclear activism in the 1980s.

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