Wednesday, November 20, 2013

From the Archives: 'Act Now to Save Lives After a Nuclear War'

Thirty years ago tonight, ABC-TV broadcast The Day After, a movie about the aftermath of nuclear war set in the American heartland. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the film featured John Cullum, Steve Guttenberg, Wayne Knight, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, and other familiar actors.

Henry Kissinger in 2006
That Sunday night, I was in the audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a special screening of The Day After that was followed by a live post-broadcast discussion about the movie, hosted by Ted Koppel and featuring George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State at the time, as well as National Review founder William F. Buckley, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, astronomer Carl Sagan, and Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel.

I was seated in the auditorium next to a traditionalist Catholic who, when called upon to present a question by Koppel, asked the puzzled policymakers on stage whether nuclear war would be a fulfillment of the prophecies made by the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal, during the First World War. As I recall, none of the panelists made an attempt to reply to his question; I'm sure only Buckley actually understood it. I slunk in my chair, aware that the TV cameras were aimed in my direction at that moment.

Several days prior to the broadcast, because of my affiliation with the American Civil Defense Association (TACDA), I had seen a preview screening of The Day After, so I knew what to expect. The movie had been hyped in the weeks preceding its on-air debut, so I expected many people would be watching. (It turns out to have been seen by as many as 100 million home viewers, a record for a made-for-TV movie.)

At the time of the broadcast, USA Today invited me to submit an opinion piece about The Day After, which appeared a week later with the dateline of St. Louis, Missouri. (I was actually in Washington, D.C., when I submitted the draft but was about to leave St. Louis the morning the article was published, having attended a conference there on war and peace and nuclear weapons policy. The editor told me he did not like too many datelines from Washington on the same page, so it looked like I wrote from St. Louis.)

Here is "Act now to save lives after a nuclear war," which was published on Monday, November 28, 1983 -- almost 30 years ago -- in USA Today.  This is the first time the article has been made available on the Internet.

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. – During the opening sequence of the ABC-TV movie, The Day After, the camera pans through scenes of Kansas City and its surrounding countryside. Then we see a plaque reading: “Be Prepared.”

To thinking and concerned citizens, that was the clear message of this film. The threat of nuclear war requires us not only to hope and work to avert war, but to prepare for the failure of nuclear deterrence and the consequences of nuclear devastation.

It is significant that, despite the attempts of some groups to persuade the public that no medical help would be available after a nuclear war, a hospital is still standing in The Day After – as would likely happen in real life.

Also, as in real life, the fictional doctors and nurses put forth better than their best efforts to treat an enormous number of patients – not only victims from near the hospital, but refugees from hundreds of miles away who come looking for help.

Dr. Oakes, played by Jason Robards, responds to the question, “What will we do with all those people outside?: by saying: “We're going to let them in … as many as we can.”

Rick Sincere with Helen Caldicott on CNN's 'Crossfire', 1983
The doctor's dedication, which he carries to his death, stands in stark contrast to the bleak attitude of doctors such as Helen Caldicott of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who argue against preparing ourselves for the horrid consequences of a nuclear war.

Towards the end of the movie, one character says: “We knew the score. We knew all about bombs. We knew all about fallout. We knew this could happen for 40 years. Nobody was interested.”

Those of us committed to increased civil defense preparations indeed “know the score.”

All the people you saw in the film who survived the initial blast did not have to suffer and die before the ened of the story. Simple preparations, elementary education about the effects of nuclear weapons, and caution could easily have prevented the sickness and death

People should be taught that they should not walk around in the fallout, but stay indoors. They should know that simple, everyday hygiene practices can prevent much of the sickness, both from radiation and germs, that would occur after a nuclear attack.

Above all, people should not be outdoors when an attack occurs, and they should not look at the blast or run towards it, like so many characters in The Day After seemed to do.

Civil defense is a moral obligation – it saves lives and alleviates suffering. Without it, all Americans are left vulnerable to deadly attack, if by accident or design nuclear war should occur. The Swiss have a slogan: “Better civil defense without nuclear war than nuclear war without civil defense.”

Richard E. Sincere Jr. is a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Defense Association.

1 comment:

Duane said...

I've recommended this film, and in particular the panel commentary afterward, to several Millennial friends to help them understand the experience of the Cold War. I was just entering adulthood when "history ended" and the world order abruptly changed. It is hard for people under 40 to understand the immense threat we lived under. In some ways we still do, but we speak of it less because nuclear weapons are rarely paraded in streets now.

We do have an obligation for civil safety and it is surprising how far a little precaution goes even in a terrible situation. I would say that we have a greater obligation to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction, starting with our own.