Ronald Reagan and the Apocalyptic Imagination

I: The Year of Fear

Nuclear war is unthinkable but not impossible, and therefore we must think about it.
Bernard Brodie

On July 7th 1983, Herman Kahn, the nuclear physicist and military strategist whose 1960 bestseller On Thermonuclear War had terrified America, collapsed and died in his home after suffering a stroke at the age of 61. He had, at the time, been working on an update of his book Thinking About the Unthinkable in an attempt to address the strategic realities of nuclear war in the 1980s. At that precise moment, there was a lot to address. During his first presidential term, Ronald Reagan authorised a 40% real term increase in defence spending; the 1982 bill was $242 billion, almost twice the 1976 budget. Prestige projects like the MX missile and B1 bomber were approved, while the army, navy and air force had been given new tanks, supersonic fighter jets and aircraft carriers. Then, on March 8, 1983, Reagan delivered a hawkish speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, describing the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world” and talking about “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” Two weeks later, from behind his desk at the Oval Office, the President presented the Strategic Defense Initiative, a research programme that was immediately criticised and derided as a crude fantasy, an attempt to militarise outer space and an explicit threat to the 1972 ABM Treaty. Meanwhile, in the background, a new generation of Tomahawk cruise and Pershing II missiles were destined for England, Italy and West Germany, a deployment that provoked Soviet leaders already threatened by American technology and Reagan’s rhetoric.

The early 1980s proved to be a short-lived moment of opportunity and renaissance for Kahn — the most fertile and auspicious since his 1960s Cold War peak. He agreed with Reagan’s description of the Soviet regime and approved of his military spending; after years in the policy wilderness, his ideas finally seemed to be influencing government nuclear doctrine again. In 1982, Reagan’s Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger made it  clear that America was rearming so that it would have the ability to “prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities in terms favourable to the United States…even under the conditions of a prolonged war” (1). This was war-fighting, not deterrence. The Reagan administration had declared its anti-détente position and turned the page on Nixon, Kissinger, Ford and Carter by reviving the concepts of flexible response and limited nuclear war. It was, on all major points, a policy built on ideas first developed by defence intellectuals like Kahn, Bernard Brodie and William Kaufmann at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s and 60s. For those not versed in the esoteric subtleties of nuclear strategy the language of RAND sounded reckless and aggressive; coming from the administration of a militant anti-communist who viewed the Cold War as a conflict between good and evil, it scared people. For Kahn, however, this was a positive development — for the security of the free world and for his own career.

If Reagan was depicted by his enemies as “a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy aching to pull out my nuclear six-shooter and bring on doomsday” (as he wrote in his memoir, An American Life, 2), then Kahn also had to live with his own caricature, having been crudely satirised by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove. At one point in Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, Kahn bristles at this history, barely suppressing the cumulative frustration of decades of public abuse and misrepresentation: “military planners and nuclear strategists ought not to be discredited out of hand,” he wrote, probably about himself, “many of them understand better than most the “immorality” of nuclear war — including not preparing for it” (3). In many ways, he’d asked for it: described by the New York Times as “a kind of thermonuclear Zero Mostel” (4), Kahn reveled in his own infamy, provoking audiences with stark imagery and macabre wit, forcing them to face up to the practical realities of nuclear war in the most outrageous terms he could devise. Even so, there were limits to what he could take: when Scientific American condemned On Thermonuclear War as “evil and tenebrous…a moral tract on mass murder,” he was horrified and attempted to submit a riposte to the magazine’s editor, Dennis Flanagan. “I do not think that there is much point in thinking about the unthinkable,” Flanagan piously intoned in response, “I should prefer to devote my thoughts to how nuclear war can be prevented” (5). Kahn considered this to be a wilful declaration of ignorance and he was still quoting Flanagan’s letter in outraged disbelief in the final year of his life. At the time he simply turned his riposte into Thinking About the Unthinkable instead and scored another bestseller in the process. Reviewing the book, Norman Podhoretz got much closer to understanding the true nature of Kahn’s “rich imagination of disaster” and the reason people responded to it with such hostility: “[he] does seem to take a visible delight in thinking about the unthinkable; in reading him you can feel the pleasure and excitement he experiences at his own intellectual daring in having crossed over a line beyond which no one else has had the courage to look with such brutal clarity” (6).

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Kahn was consistently drawn back to his main point, his primal fear: that deterrence might fail. Its success was based, he believed, on the constraint of fear and the quality of subjective judgement, but its vulnerability was this same reliance on human perceptions – and misperceptions. A military posture that prioritised deterrence at the expense of other strategies was inherently dangerous: not only could it fail but there might also be “an imbalance in the reliance on deterrence,” which, in 1983, Kahn thought there was: “based on available evidence, it seems clear that the Soviet Union does not accept the West’s apocalyptic view of nuclear war, nor do they support deterrence-only policies. Soviet military writings depict nuclear war as a survivable experience, and back up their reliance on deterrence with war-fighting capabilities, that is, the ability to fight a nuclear war and defeat the enemy” (7). According to Kahn, this was precisely what the U.S. had failed to do in the years of containment and détente, a period of complacency compounded by naive attitudes to arms reduction that left the Soviets with a perceived strategic superiority over the U.S. Those SS-20s sitting poised and ready to strike in the Urals were simply one more example of this. 

Such perceptions (or misperceptions) could be both dangerous and advantageous during the Cold War. In 1983, the Kremlin felt unnerved by America’s advance in computer technology, with the Chief of the Soviet General Staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov admitting that “in the U.S., small children — even before they begin school — play with computers. Here we don’t even have computers in every office of the Defence Ministry” (8). Reagan was mocked at home for ‘Star Wars’ with its cartoonish satellites and laser beams, but it alarmed the Soviets precisely because they did not know whether this really was science fiction. What if it wasn’t? They would have no way to compete. Reagan never claimed anything more immediate for SDI than research, but the announcement was tactically smart because it played on Soviet fears of a “technology gap” that would cancel out their mighty military machine. Kahn loved the idea and praised Reagan’s speech as “optimistic, long-term, and responsive to political and moral imperatives” (9) but flat-out rejected the claim that he had started a new arms race. There was no arms race, Kahn claimed, but there was an arms competition which the Soviet Union had been playing on its own for twenty years: “the present controversy over the expense and morality of “rearming” the United States is a result of two decades of a very lax U.S. defence effort; the controversy could largely have been avoided if a consistent pace and pattern of defence spending had been maintained all along” (10). What Kahn advocated and what Reagan committed to was, in effect, a form of peacetime military mobilisation. From the Korean War to the Cuban Missile Crisis, perceptions and misperceptions had provoked military conflict and inspired technological innovation. For Kahn the psychological element of this was as important in the 1980s as it had been during the early Cold War: “the purpose of a “modern” mobilization is as much to influence the enemy’s perceptions and calculations as it is to shift the actual prewar balance of military forces in one’s favor” (11).

This combination of new weapons of unknown destructive power and human subjectivity haunted the defence intellectuals who, like Kahn, set themselves the task of thinking about these things. The fact that nobody had ever used hydrogen bombs in conflict was inescapable. Everybody, including RAND systems analysts and Pentagon generals, could only imagine what would happen during and after a thermonuclear war. Everybody, or almost everybody, was appalled and terrified by the prospect, including Kahn himself. And yet, as he repeatedly pointed out, somebody had to think about what would happen and what could be saved, however horrible that may be. This was a task for the imagination: to think about nuclear war, you had to imagine it. The perception of enemy intentions and capability in the thermonuclear age was rooted, then, in the imaginations of superpower leaders and war planners. Avoiding doomsday also, it turned out, depended on human perception, fed by fear, shaped by the imagination. In the end, Kahn did not live to see how the most dangerous year since 1962 ended, but 1983 was punctuated by individual decisions made at moments of extreme stress that almost caused, but ultimately prevented, nuclear Armageddon. 

Context was all. American rearmament and rhetoric put a geriatric Soviet elite on edge: Andropov actually believed that the U.S. was making plans for an unprovoked nuclear strike, a misperception unknown to Reagan and the CIA. SDI exacerbated Kremlin paranoia by exposing their technological obsolescence and economic stagnation, while PSYOPS by U.S. planes and warships on their Eastern borders further unsettled the Soviet leadership. Andropov’s resulting “shoot to kill” policy aimed at suspect aircraft was put into practice in September when the Korean passenger jet KAL-007 was shot down over the Kamchatka Peninsula by an SU-15, killing everybody on board. Reagan responded with fury: “this was an act of barbarism,” he thundered, “born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.” The Soviets quickly countered, asserting that “the intrusion of the South Korean airlines plane into Soviet airspace was a deliberate, thoroughly planned intelligence operation.” This was, in fact, on both sides, a catastrophe borne of misperception, paranoia and fear: a navigational accident interpreted as a deliberate provocation; a decision made under pressure without sufficient intelligence presented as a calculated, cold-blooded massacre. 

The final act of 1983 was a terrible farce that almost turned into the ultimate tragedy. The story of the NATO war game Able Archer 83 was, again, a story of fear and paranoia, this time prompted by mirage, feints and illusions. As luck would have it, the annual NATO exercise scheduled for November 1983 was designed to be bigger and more realistic than ever before, involving 300,000 people in Western Europe, Norway and Turkey, with the final part designed to test procedures for launching nuclear missiles in a losing war with the Warsaw Pact. The KGB routinely monitored these events and everything about this one — from the scale to the details to the timing — put them on high alert. When Andropov concluded in the early Reagan years that “there is now the possibility of a nuclear first strike” he responded with a global KGB alert that created its own dangerous feedback loop, as Oleg Gordievsky later revealed: 

Because the political leadership was expecting to hear that the West was becoming more aggressive, more threatening, better armed, the KGB was obedient and reported: yes, the West was arming…it may be something sinister. And the reports of military intelligence were worse, because, being more primitive and orientated toward military reporting, they exaggerated the Western military threat even more than the KGB did…residencies were, in effect, required to report alarming information even if they themselves were sceptical of it. The Centre was duly alarmed by what they reported and demanded more. (12)

Soviet leaders watched Able Archer 83 unfold while trapped in an escalating cycle of suspicion and fear that inflamed their feverish imaginations. The Soviet Union had its own first strike plan which started under cover of a fake military exercise, therefore Soviet leaders assumed that Western war plans did the same and that, perhaps, this was it. So, unknown to NATO participants, the Soviets put all of their nuclear forces on high alert, with bombers wheeling onto their runways in East Germany and Poland. When NATO game planners switched codes in the middle of the exercise – thereby plunging observing Soviet intelligence officers into the dark – the Kremlin had to decide whether to launch a preemptive nuclear strike or not. Nobody really knows why they didn’t, but the most likely reason was fear. Their paranoid imaginations led them to believe something that was not true: that Reagan was preparing to launch a war. But their imaginations also saved them, and us, from starting that war themselves: fear of the consequences of unleashing their own weapons made them cautious, and they waited. Able Archer 83 ended without incident. 

1983 was the final demonstration that the nuclear arsenals of both power blocs had become so vast, so destructive, so close to their targets, while sitting on a fine hair trigger, that any wrong move could unleash terminal destruction. Nuclear strategy à la RAND was partly an attempt to find a way out of this trap. In fact, the early years of nuclear strategy in America had been a story of the apocalyptic imagination: imagining what nuclear Armageddon would be like, both to plan for it and to avoid it. This was a story in which Herman Kahn took a lead.

II: After Us, Silence

A catastrophe can be pretty catastrophic without being total.
Herman Kahn

On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union dropped a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb on Severny Island in the Arctic circle, triggering the largest man-made explosion ever witnessed. The detonation sent a seismic shock wave around the globe three times and produced a fireball visible from Alaska and Greenland (pictured above). The bomb itself was a scaled down version of the original 100 megaton design, but even so the test pilots only had a 50% chance of surviving the blast. The exercise had a scientific and political objective: to show the world that the Soviet Union could build a hydrogen bomb of any size it wanted. The Tsar Bomba, Khrushchev gloated, would “hang over the head of the imperialists like a sword of Damocles.” In the years that followed, the Soviets would build an enormous force of missile silos, mobile launch pads, nuclear submarines and bomber planes ready to launch nuclear strikes that could eliminate NATO forces and destroy Europe and America within hours. The problem was, NATO could retaliate in kind. Everybody who worked on nukes knew that a general war in which both superpowers fired off their arsenals in one go would end Western civilisation and leave the rest of the world virtually uninhabitable for anybody who survived. In recognition of this, the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force adopted the motto: “after us, silence.”

Back in 1946, while he was still digesting the implications of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, military strategist Bernard Brodie wrote: “everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destructive power is fantastically great” (13). The first generation of nuclear strategists, led by Brodie, quickly came to the conclusion that the atom bomb was “the ultimate weapon” and that the only rational military policy left in the nuclear age was deterrence. Nevertheless, Brodie also knew that somebody had to think about how to use the bomb because of the simple fact that it existed. The Air Force had it and they would not let it go unused in the event of war. For General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command, the only way to do this was to fully embrace its destructive power, so his first nuclear war plan proposed dropping the entire U.S. stockpile of atom bombs on 70 Soviet cities in 30 days. Later, SAC strategy would reach destructive apotheosis with the Single Integrated Operational Plan which was designed to ensure that the U.S. could effectively respond to any Soviet provocation with, in the words of John Foster Dulles, massive retaliation. In its infamous 1962 vintage this meant dropping 3423 hydrogen bombs on military, urban and industrial targets across the entire Sino-Soviet bloc, instantly killing an estimated 285 million Chinese and Russian citizens. There was no option to exclude China from annihilation if it was not involved in the war because that would ruin the plan, which had been precisely sequenced to ensure that all the bombs were dropped in the right place at the right time, while allowing U.S. pilots to escape their own payload. Eastern Europe had to be bombed so that air defence radars and missile sites could be eliminated, allowing U.S. strategic bombers to continue on to the Russian heartland: millions of Poles and East Germans would be sacrificed in order to facilitate an air corridor. If Western Europe escaped Soviet retaliation, which was unlikely, it would probably still be destroyed by radioactive fallout and ecological collapse.

The scale of the plan had been partly driven by money and inter-agency rivalry: the Air Force always overestimated the number of bombs needed to minimise any margin of error and “ensure” that targets were destroyed, thereby allowing them to buy more hardware and explosives than the navy. This meant that many targets would be hit over and over again with multiple multi-megaton hydrogen bombs. The plan, as it stood, was likely to produce so much radioactive fallout that, as one horrified naval officer who witnessed the briefing noted, “our weapons can be a hazard to ourselves as well as our enemy” (14). SIOP-62 was a fully worked out and clearly articulated road map to Armageddon that was presented by the U.S. air force elite as a serious plan to counter any form of Soviet provocation, including conventional incursions into Western Europe. Walt Rostow described it as “orgiastic, Wagnerian,” while Eisenhower, after sitting through the grisly flip-charts, noted that “every single nation, including the United States, that entered into this war as a free nation would come out of it as a dictatorship. That would be the price of survival.” When General Tommy Powers briefed Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara on the plan he decided, in his own style, to present one of its many little quirks in an arch aside: “Well, Mr Secretary, I hope you don’t have any friends in Albania, because we’re just going to have to wipe it out.” McNamara was not amused. The SAC philosophy was distilled to its purest essence on the day that Powers infamously barked at RAND counterforce advocate William Kaufmann, “Look, at the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!” “Well, you’d better make sure they’re a man and a woman,” Kaufmann replied

The atom bomb was a country killer but the hydrogen bomb was a world destroyer. The very first thermonuclear weapon had close RAND connections. Most of the physics department had contacts at the Los Alamos weapons lab and therefore knew something about its top secret research into fusion technology; Kahn had even helped solve some of the maths behind it. Meanwhile, in late December 1951, while the “superbomb” was still in development, RAND put together a four man research group led by Brodie to analyse its potential warfare capabilities and implications. The team started by methodically drawing circles on maps and calculating different types of damage and casualty rates relative to the size of the hypothetical bomb. As the work progressed, it became grueling, and then horrifying. When Jim Lipp, head of the RAND missile division, started looking at the best case scenario for the battlefield use of hydrogen bombs, he nearly threw up: two million was the lowest death toll he could come up with. Other scenarios concluded with tens of millions of casualties, even when avoiding cities. After a few weeks of this kind of work, Lipp retired from the project. “What’s happening at RAND?” asked the wife of Charlie Hitch, the mathematician of the group, “Charlie comes home, he barely says hello, he’s uncivil, and after dinner he just locks himself up in his study. Something terrible is going on there” (15). The work stretched the imaginations of the RAND team to the limits of human horror in a way that the Cold War generations would become accustomed to, living through the Cuban Missile Crisis and watching films like On the Beach, Threads and The Day After. The RAND analysts were the first people to plot the course of thermonuclear apocalypse in numbers and to think about and therefore imagine what this kind of war would mean and look like. It took a psychological toll, as it would do for everybody who worried about how the Cold War would eventually end. As Brodie noted, the A-bomb, for all of its horrors, still needed a degree of accuracy to destroy its targets, but the H-bomb could miss by miles and still destroy everything it needed to. “We no longer need to argue whether the conduct of war is an art or a science — it is neither,” Brodie wrote, “the art or science comes in only finding out, if you’re interested, what not to hit” (16). 

Herman Kahn was the megastar of thermonuclear apocalypse and made the work of this first RAND research group his raison d’être. As a physicist, he had little time for social scientists or what they did (“I read the New York Times,” he said, “what the hell should I read Nathan Leites for?”) but he was also easily bored and intellectually omnivorous, stalking the halls of RAND’s Santa Monica offices to find out what was going on in the other departments. In the years before he was a famous, bestselling author, Kahn took RAND on the road, delivering a series of lectures on how to fight and survive a nuclear war to packed halls and theatres across America. His gripping presentations with their grim subject matter were, surprisingly, wildly popular. The objective was to change strategic reality: to replace the rigid and suicidal policy of massive retaliation with the RAND menu of flexible response, controlled escalation, counterforce and civil defence. He once told the Strategic Air Command generals, “Gentlemen, you don’t have a war plan, you have a war orgasm”, and despite his reputation, he was not an enthusiast for mass destruction, although his critics accused him of increasing the chances of nuclear war happening by talking about it in rational terms. The apparent nonchalance with which he threw around horrifying statistics was, in fact, distinct from the barbarism of Curtis LeMay and Tommy Powers. Facing facts, as he saw it, was a way to reduce reliance on massive retaliation and preserve as much as possible for postwar reconstruction. For Kahn, just assuming there would be nothing left to reconstruct after a nuclear exchange and therefore not bothering to think about it at all was not only a dereliction of duty, it was immoral. 

Despite pioneering the idea, Bernard Brodie had eventually concluded that trying to plan for “controlled escalation” was futile because even if a nuclear war could be controlled millions of people would die anyway. But, for Kahn, this did not end the argument. “It was difficult for people to distinguish in the early 1950s between 2 million deaths and 100 million deaths,” he wrote, in direct reference to Brodie, “today, after a decade pondering these problems, we can make such distinctions perhaps all too clearly” (17). This was not simply a case of brutalisation, but a function of post-war planning, where saving as many people as possible would be essential in order to rebuild a society. In Kahn’s system, civil defence was not only a practical and moral imperative, it also made the nuclear arsenal a more credible threat: if the Soviets thought that America had made plans to survive a retaliatory strike then the first strike capability suddenly looked a lot more menacing. It is easy to see why Kahn’s logic drove people crazy but also why his thought processes proved so compelling. As Podhoretz recognised, he was gleefully crossing into territory everybody else stepped back from; his provincial audiences may have felt they were doing their civic duty by attending his lectures, but the experience was very similar to going to see a horror movie. Kahn, with his sense of theatre, gory set pieces and Gothic imagination, satisfied a compulsion to look horror in the face, to feel and overcome the sensation of fear: his talks were like a Grand Guignol for the nuclear apocalypse.

The content of these lectures would eventually be published in the form of On Thermonuclear War, a 650-page tome that, incredibly, sold 30,000 first edition copies. As Kahn wrote, clearly speaking about himself again, “It takes an act of iron will or an unpleasant degree of detachment or callousness to go about the task of distinguishing among possible degrees of awfulness” (18) — a task he nevertheless took on with relish. On Thermonuclear War was the book that looked beyond deterrence towards Kahn’s two central themes: war and survival. In Lecture 1 — on ‘The Nature and Feasibility of Thermonuclear War’ — Kahn asked, “Will the survivors envy the dead?” and decided that, on balance, they probably wouldn’t. After considering the effects and longevity of nuclear radiation and the protective qualities of fallout shelters, he briskly concluded that “even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in the postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendents” (19).

For Kahn, the most important thing any government could do to prepare for this world was to hand out radiation meters. This would, he claimed, help to maintain the morale and risk-taking capacity of war survivors, thereby allowing governments to coordinate and implement postwar reconstruction more effectively, or at all. “Assume…a man gets sick from a cause other than radiation,” Kahn mused, “Not believing this, his morale begins to drop. You look at his meter and say, “You have received only ten roentgens, why are you vomiting? Pull yourself together and get to work”” (20). Kahn had composed a guide to the realities of a postwar world, or so he claimed — in fact, the entire book was a sustained act of imagination, a relentless and clinical epic of invention and speculative thinking. Kahn’s performance, in front of an audience or on the page, was not really as factual or realistic as he liked to pretend, and seemed to many to be hopelessly, even callously, optimistic. He was simply riffing on catastrophe, “making up scenarios” which, after all, “is not really very hard if one puts one’s imagination to work” (21). The resulting work was, in its own exhausting way, a classic of apocalypse literature: a Book of Revelation illustrated with graphs and statistical tables. 

Ronald Reagan would later dismiss “the macabre jargon” of those who believed that a nuclear war could be “won”, yet this kind of thinking would find its place in his own administration. In 1981, Thomas K. Jones, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theatre Nuclear Forces, took inspiration from Russian civil defence measures, telling the L.A. Times that millions would survive a nuclear war if they simply went out to the countryside, dug a hole and covered it with dirt. “The dirt really is the thing that protects you from the blast as well as the radiation, if there’s radiation. It protects you from the heat. You know dirt is just great stuff…Turns out with the Russian approach, if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it…” (22). During the first Reagan administration, the pressure to move away from détente and containment came from those who maintained that the Soviet regime had an advanced civil defence system which gave them the confidence to fight a nuclear war  — the mirror image of Kahn’s case for shelters and radiation meters in 1960. This was the argument made by Reagan’s Russia expert Richard Pipes, who claimed that the Soviet Union had already built a civil defence infrastructure capable of protecting their “essential cadres” and possessed the psychological ability to sustain massive casualties. “In other words”, he speculated, “all of the USSR’s multimillion cities could be destroyed without traces or survivors, and, provided that its essential cadres had been saved, it would emerge less hurt in terms of casualties than it was in 1945…clearly a country that since 1914 has lost, as a result of two world wars, a civil war, famine, and various ‘purges,’ perhaps up to sixty million citizens, must define ‘unacceptable damage’ differently from the United States” (23).

Reagan’s nuclear hawks, like T.K. Jones and Pipes, stalked the fringes of his administration, with their spiritual home centered on Weinberger’s defence department. They used the language and the imagery that Kahn had canonised in his masterpiece of the apocalyptic imagination, On Thermonuclear War. Like Kahn, they took a creative delight in thinking about the unthinkable. Kahn was not unaware of this and found the atmosphere conducive, reemerging from the world of futurology to engage with nuclear war once again. During the last year of his life he was busy organising Breakfast Group meetings in Washington that put military and civilian strategists in touch with Defence Department and White House policy planners. To the bitter end he was trying his best to shape a U.S. nuclear posture that terrified the whole world. He did not live to see all of his work undone by the President he most admired, but perhaps this would have pleased him after all. “For the past twenty years I have been concerned with how best to reduce this potential for nuclear war,” he wrote in 1983 (24). One year later, this is what Reagan would begin to do. 

III: Macabre Jargon

Imagination, not mendacity, was the key to Dutch’s mind. He believed both true and untrue things if they suited his moral purpose — and because he believed in belief.
Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

Lately I’ve been wondering about some older prophecies – those having to do with Armageddon. Things that are new today sound an awful lot like what was predicted would take place just prior to ‘A’ day. Don’t quote me.
Ronald Reagan

In November 1983, ABC broadcast The Day After, a drama that portrayed the destruction of Lawrence, Kansas, following a full-scale nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. The movie was trailed by frenzied publicity partly generated by ABC’s own marketing department but also by genuine public concern. The New York City School Board sent out a memo instructing parents not to let their children watch the film: “this is not just one more horror film,” it warned, “adults can confidently tell youngsters that ghosts and vampires do not exist. But the threat of nuclear war is real” (25).  In the hours following broadcast, the White House switchboard was flooded with telephone calls from concerned citizens asking what the president was doing to stop the events shown in the film from actually happening. What they did not know is that Reagan had also watched the film at a private screening the month before and had been deeply disturbed by it. “It is powerfully done,” he wrote in his diary, “It is very effective and left me greatly depressed” (26). Reagan’s most exhaustive and unorthodox biographer, Edmund Morris, would later note that this was “the first and only admission I have been able to find in his papers that he was “greatly depressed”” (27). 

The Day After is often dismissed as an inferior precursor to the BBC’s own nuclear war drama, Threads, which traumatised the British public one year later. The two films shared an almost identical premise and a basic narrative technique: in each case, viewers spent time getting to know the faces, hopes and dreams of a group of extended families before watching the destruction of their lives by nuclear bombs. But in other ways, the films were completely different. Threads now has the greater critical reputation because of its brutal neorealist approach to the apocalypse: the Ken Loach-style drama of Jimmy and his family gives way to a pitiless portrayal of environmental collapse and social degeneration, a world in which compassion, empathy and love have all been removed from the human experience. The bleakness of Mick Jackson’s vision of postwar Yorkshire was, in effect, a ferocious application of Carl Sagan’s then-fresh theory of nuclear winter, and lingered in the memory even longer than the imagery of Sheffield’s thermonuclear incineration. In contrast, The Day After used the techniques of mainstream American soap opera in order to create a comforting portrait of provincial America that was burnished with familiar screen faces like Jason Robards and Steve Guttenberg (one year after this apocalypse Guttenberg would be chasing Kim Cattral around the Police Academy campus). The movie didn’t exactly flinch from the gory details of nuclear war – medical facilities collapsed as staff died and casualties mounted, central characters succumbed to radiation or were picked off by feral scavengers – but did suffer from too little Sagan: after the war, blue skies opened up again over the radioactive ruins of Kansas. Nevertheless, the soft focus melodrama served its purpose just as effectively as the bleak realism of Threads did. It was, in its own way, just as unsettling to watch and to think about. Because, while Sheffield was reduced to mass panic by a four minute warning, The Day After was able to show something different and equally chilling: crowds watching passively as the ICBMs arced out of their silos and over the hospitals and parks of Kansas, followed by an eery moment of pause — partly shock, partly awe — before those same crowds remembered that in thirty minutes time Soviet missiles would pay them back. Although it had a completely different aesthetic sensibility, this sequence was as powerful and haunting as anything in Threads.

It was also better timed. By the time Threads was broadcast in October 1984 it was slightly behind the curve: the crisis of the previous year was history and tensions had begun to ease. The Day After, on the other hand, was shown in the middle of some of the most dangerous moments of 1983 and therefore the entire Cold War; it was, in fact, a key component in that crucial year and contributed to its safe conclusion. Reagan, in his diary entry after the screening, continued: “My own reaction: we have to do all we can…to see that there is never a nuclear war.” Only weeks later, the President sat through his first SIOP briefing, an experience he’d managed to avoid until that point, and was further chastened and horrified by what he was told: with a few tweaks and extra attack options, this was essentially the same “horror strategy” that all previous presidents had abhorred but failed to revoke. The briefing reaffirmed what Reagan felt watching The Day After: “In several ways, the sequence of events described in the briefings parallel those in the ABC movie. Simply put, it was a scenario for a sequence of events that could lead to the end of civilization as we know it” (28). The film provided a dramatic framework that helped him to understand the reality of what he was being told in the SIOP briefing: it made the experience even more immediate and vivid for him. As Beth Fischer argued in The Reagan Reversal, The Day After was more important in Reagan’s case than it might have been otherwise because of his own way of understanding the world. “The film’s format and style were perfect for impressing upon the president the reality and horrors of nuclear war, ” she wrote, “It spoke to his fear about a nuclear Armageddon; it was narrative in style; and, like most of Reagan’s own stories, if focused on the lives of ordinary Americans. The movie also presented the concept of nuclear annihilation in visual images that would stay with Reagan far longer than jargon-laden statistics” (29).

Both Threads and The Day After, like their forerunners The War Game and On the Beach, were attempts to imagine the nuclear apocalypse and to dramatise its reality. In different ways and for all their visual flaws (and maybe because of them), the horror on offer was the ultimate one: the spectacle of everyday life being stripped of all illusions and comforts as humanity destroyed itself. It is not so fanciful to say that for Reagan – the former Hollywood actor, film fan and compulsive storyteller – watching this vision of nuclear apocalypse unfold on screen affected his subsequent policy decisions and actions. Reagan was an imaginative thinker rather than an academic analyst and understood the global and historical issues he faced in narrative terms. He was once mocked for asking Gorbachev during one of their fireside chats whether or not the Soviet Union would side with the United States in the event of an alien invasion; Gorbachev, rather taken aback, said yes, it probably would. The question was unorthodox but in the context of an arms control summit it wasn’t really stupid at all. Reagan was actually asking: what are the limits of ideology in the context of our common humanity? In the year of KAL-007, Able Archer 83, The Day After and his SIOP briefing, Reagan had been given a powerful reminder that nuclear weapons menaced all mankind. 

So, on January 16, 1984, in the brittle aftermath of the year of fear, the President delivered one of the most important speeches of his career. Andropov was still reeling from the events of the previous autumn and Reagan, having finally learnt of Kremlin paranoia, knew that any wrong move could still trigger a precipitous nuclear response. He decided, then, to make public the true scope of his ambition, reiterating as clearly as he could that “my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth.” On his own side, nobody else was really very keen on this. His aides and advisers tended to ignore this kind of talk until the 1986 Reykjavik arms summit shocked them all with the depth of his convictions and his determination to act on them. Kenneth Adelman had to exorcise this horrible memory in his memoir: “Reagan is a man of instinct and vision, not logic” he wrote, but “to propose that we usher in a nuclear-free world would be to abdicate our postwar responsibilities. We could kiss NATO goodbye and leave Western Europe far less secure” (30). Thatcher was equally dismayed, telling Richard Perle, “It is inconceivable that the Soviets would turn over their last nuclear weapon. They would cheat. I would cheat” (31). In a letter she told Reagan that “while nuclear weapons themselves might in theory be abolished, the knowledge of how to make them never will be. But the risk lies above all in undermining public support for our agreed strategy of deterrence and flexible response” (32). The problem was, as Adelman attested, Reagan would politely listen to such objections and then just carry on talking about abolishing nuclear weapons anyway. In his memoir, Reagan sounded tired, even exasperated, by his nuclear strategists: “Some of my advisers, including a number at the Pentagon…said a nuclear-free world was unattainable and it would be dangerous for us even if it were possible; some even claimed nuclear war was “inevitable” and we had to prepare for this reality. They tossed around macabre jargon about “throw weights” and “kill ratios” as if they were talking about baseball scores” (33)

John Patrick Diggins described Reagan as “a romantic when it came to the arms race, a leader who believed that…a world without nuclear weapons could be possible because it could be imagined” (34). But Reagan’s imagination was not simply romantic, it was also religious, shaped by the evangelical influence of his youth. Like Kahn and the RAND strategists, Reagan had a moral perspective on nuclear weapons, but this disposed him towards abolition rather than control. Thatcher tried in vain to explain that peace in Europe – and the security of her country – had been maintained by NATO’s nuclear threat. This made no difference to Reagan: as far as he was concerned, the “balance of terror” was an immoral proposition that had to be changed. As he wrote in his memoir:

Advocates of the MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] policy believed it had served a purpose: The balance of terror it created, they said, had prevented nuclear war for decades. But as far as I was concerned, the MAD policy was madness. For the first time in history, man had the power to destroy mankind itself. A war between the superpowers would incinerate much of the world and leave what was left of it uninhabitable forever. There had to be some way to remove this threat of annihilation and give the world a greater chance of survival. (35)

He was never reconciled to this reality: it offended his moral conscience. It also haunted his imagination – in particular his apocalyptic imagination. At the age of 11, influenced by his mother, Reagan had been baptised into the church of the Disciples of Christ and adopted their tradition of Biblical literalism. He believed in the reality of Armageddon and, when he was President, occasionally unnerved his advisers by noting signs of its imminence. In a Wall Street Journal interview in 1985, he mused aloud, “I don’t know whether you know, but a great many theologians over a number of years…have been struck by the fact that in recent years, as in no other time in history, most of the prophecies have been coming together” (36). Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane would late explain to Beth Fischer that “the President had fairly strong views about the parable of Armageddon…he believed that a nuclear exchange would be the fulfillment of that prophecy and that the world would end through a nuclear catastrophe” (37). 

If Reagan believed that nuclear war was destined to be the fulfillment of scripture, he was also determined to prevent it. The theological implications of this did not concern him, because he was capable of holding two conflicting ideas in his head at the same time with total — and equal — commitment and belief. He found it easy to live with contradictions and did not feel the need to explain them away. Rearmament was required to give America the leverage it needed to negotiate disarmament. SDI was necessary to thwart the Biblical prophecy of Armageddon. In On Thermonuclear War, Herman Kahn had noted that “history has a habit of being richer and more ingenious than the limited imaginations of most scholars or laymen” (38), and the history of the Reagan era turned out, in the end, to be both richer and more ingenious than anybody had expected it to be in 1983. This was largely to do with the imagination of Ronald Reagan, which did not concern itself with limitations, as such. It was an imagination that was surprisingly subtle and universally confounding. (Edmund Morris, the writer given the most access to Reagan during his lifetime, was almost driven to madness trying to explain his subject – Dutch, the resulting biography, was an act of creative despair as much as anything else.) It was an imagination partly defined by a pure hatred of nuclear weapons — a hatred that eclipsed all of the subtleties of nuclear strategy and Soviet policy formulated by Herman Kahn or Caspar Weinberger and aggravated allies and advisers like Thatcher and Adelman. Haunted by Armageddon, it was Reagan, more than Gorbachev or anybody else, who finally saved the world from thermonuclear suicide. 

  1. Quoted in Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p.387
  2. Ronald Reagan, An American Life (Simon and Schuster, 1990), p.554
  3. Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (Simon and Schuster, 1984), p.52
  4. Arthur Herzog, ‘Report on a Think Factory’, New York Times Magazine, November 10, 1963
  5. Quoted in Kaplan, p.228
  6. Norman Podhoretz, ‘Herman Kahn and the Unthinkable’ in Doings and Undoings: The Fifties and After in American Writing (Noonday Press, 1964), p.315
  7. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, p.87
  8. Leslie Gelb, ‘Who Won the Cold War?’, New York Times, August 20, 1992
  9. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, p.51
  10. Ibid., p.35
  11. Ibid., p.156
  12. Quoted in Beth A. Fischer, The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War (University of Missouri Press, 1997), pps.127-8
  13. Quoted in Kaplan, p.32
  14. Ibid., p.268
  15. Ibid., p.78
  16. Ibid., p.79
  17. Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Routledge, 2017), p.169
  18. Ibid., p.19
  19. Ibid., p.21
  20. Ibid., p.86
  21. Ibid., p.137
  22. Quoted in Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (Secker & Warburg, 1982), pps.23-4
  23. Richard Pipes, ‘Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War’, Commentary, July, 1977
  24. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, p.221
  25. Quoted in Fischer, p.116
  26. Reagan, p.585
  27. Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (HarperCollins, 1999), p.498
  28. Reagan, p.585
  29. Fischer, pp.118-9
  30. Kenneth L. Adelman, The Great Universal Embrace: Arms Summitry — A Skeptic’s Account (Simon & Schuster, 1989), pps.66-8
  31. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher – The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants (Allen Lane, 2015), p.588
  32. Ibid., p.589
  33. Reagan, p.550
  34. John Patrick Diggins, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), p.226
  35. Reagan, p.258
  36. Quoted in Fischer, p.107
  37. Ibid.
  38. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, p.137
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