After “The Day After”

Seth Lipsky tells a great story about George Shultz in his editorial tribute to him. Harking back to Shultz’s tenure in the Nixon administration, Seth recalled:

Shultz was then, as best we recall, President Nixon’s budget director. He was in town on such business and called a press conference at the federal building, which was across the street from the [Wall Street] Journal’s news bureau. So we tucked a notebook in our pocket and went over at the appointed hour. There were an astonishing number of reporters present.

Nixon was by then in the heavy seas of Watergate, and various members of his administration were starting to decamp. At some point, a television reporter, with a camera crew, stands up and says to Shultz. “Mr. Secretary, a lot of people are starting to quit the administration; are you yourself going to leave, sir?” Something like that. To which Shultz replied: “Well, I am a Marine, and a Marine sticks to his post.”

The scrum of reporters was digesting this when the television guy, who had sat down, maneuvered himself back up into an upright position and said, “Well, sir. I’m a Marine, too, and when I was in the Marines, we were told, ‘A thinking Marine is a dead Marine.’” The reporters swiveled back in Shultz’s direction, where, without missing a beat, Shultz says: “I see why you survived.”

For the big picture, see National Review’s editorial tribute here and Tevi Troy’s City Journal column “Secretary for America.”

Shultz’s service as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration must be deemed the summit of his incredible public career. When Ronald Reagan set out to bring down the Soviet Union, he built up America’s nuclear arsenal while deploying short-range nuclear warheads in Europe and undertaking a widely derided missile defense program. Reagan’s build-up took place over the massive worldwide opposition of the left, much of it orchestrated by the Soviet Union under the auspices of one or another of its “peace offensives.”

Reagan’s efforts induced a now familiar kind of mass hysteria. ABC brought us The Day After, the documentary-style film portraying a fictional nuclear war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact that rapidly escalated into a full-scale exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film graphically displayed the effects of the war on Lawrence, Kansas. Nuclear war was a bitch, of course, and the film served as a timely warning against the nightmare toward which Reagan’s policies would deliver us.

The mainstream media as a whole was on the side of the Soviet Union in its “peace offensive.” In Useful Idiots Mona Charen also recalled that public television brought us Testament (1983), “a moving film about a family in Washington State slowly dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear war.” Not to be outdone, Charen added, NBC “broadcast its own scaremongering documentary called Facing Up To the Bomb (1982).”

Steve Hayward zooms in on The Day After at pages 333-335 of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989, the second volume of his two-volume history. Steve recounts:

Controversy over the movie raged for weeks before its air date of November 20 (it was theatrically released in Europe shortly after)…A nine-year-old girl in Kansas City sent a letter to Reagan suggesting that the United States and the Soviet Union exchange workers who would dismantle the nuclear arsenal of the other nation. Somehow the Associated Press thought this frivolous missive was worthy of a national wire story.

And so on. See what I mean about the mainstream media?

Steve recounts that “[t]he White House was deeply concerned about The Day After.” In the event, it dispatched George Shultz to participate in the discussions following ABC’s broadcast of the movie. In her book, Mona Charen adds:

When questioning Secretary Shultz, Ted Koppel, an exquisitely tuned instrument of the conventional wisdom, asked, “With so many of them [nuclear weapons] is it not inevitable that at some point they will be used? And if not, why do we need them?”

See what I mean about the mainstream media?

Shultz responded in measured tones that reduction in the levels of nuclear weapons was administration policy. Koppel was a bit impatient with this, demanding, “Isn’t this business as usual in the most lamentable way — the Soviets are pointing fingers at us, and we are pointing fingers at them, and somehow the moral imperative of arms control is going nowhere. Why?”

Mona comments:

That is how it seemed to the conventional wisdom in 1983, the “moral imperative” was not to defend freedom or to contain Communism, but rather to push arms control.

We supported the United States against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. We supported Reagan in 1980 and 1984. We are grateful for Shultz’s service in the Reagan administration in the closing years of the Cold War.

I thought that students of ancient history might find the discussion following The Day After of interest (video below). I remember it well. Included on a panel following Shultz’s appearance are William F. Buckley, Jr., Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, and others. Having tracked it down on YouTube, I thought some readers might find it of interest.

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