An interview with Ted Koppel on the meaning of The Day After

By John Mecklin | December 13, 2018

Ted Koppel interview card

In 1983, Ted Koppel was fairly early in what became a 25-year run as the anchor and managing editor of Nightline, the storied ABC News public affairs program, when the network asked him to host a different kind of show. ABC was planning to air a television movie named The Day After that presented such an unvarnished depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union as to have become a cause célèbre, even before it was aired. Other movies might be more frightening or gruesome, the New York TimesJohn Corry wrote in a pre-broadcast review, but “[a]s a primer on the horror of thermonuclear war, this is effective, a graphic rendering of the pit.” The special quality of The Day After, Corry noted, “is its feeling of despair.”

For more on The Day After, the people who helped make it happen, and the lessons it still holds for addressing nuclear weapons today, don’t miss the Bulletin’s special feature: Facing nuclear reality, 35 years after The Day After.

The power of its depiction made the decision to broadcast The Day After into a political controversy, a battle waged largely along left-right lines. ABC hoped a Koppel-moderated edition of Viewpoint, the network’s forum ”for criticism and analysis of television news,” would help calm the uproar. As Koppel explains in the following interview with Bulletin editor in chief John Mecklin, this hour-and-20-minute-long panel discussion was extraordinary, not just for its participants—former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, famed astronomer Carl Sagan, Holocaust scholar and soon to be Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and then-Secretary of State George Shultz—but for its civility. Koppel also discusses how the international security situation has and has not changed in the decades since The Day After aired, and why it is difficult to imagine a Viewpoint-like discussion of the multiple military technologies that threaten the world today being aired on a major network.

Ted Koppel: I have to confess to you, I didn’t really remember much about the [Viewpoint] program. But I have access to the files up at Syracuse University, so I watched it again, and I’m really grateful to you for giving me that chance. It never would have occurred to me to watch it again, but it was an interesting experience.

John Mecklin: While I was getting ready to talk to you about this, I was looking at, for random reasons, the Bulletin‘s analytics. And just about half our readers are 34 or younger, meaning they weren’t even born when The Day After aired. So if you can—I don’t want to make you into a setup man—but what was the atmosphere like, and why was The Day After such a big deal?

Ted Koppel: For one thing, in the anticipation of the event, it was enormously controversial. So controversial, in fact, that ABC, the network, came to the news division and said, “We need to do something after the movie.” And that’s why they came to me, then, and said, “Would you do that Viewpoint?” The point of it being, there were too many people in the country, and Bill Buckley was sort of emblematic of that group, who felt that this was a defeatist film to put out there, that the very act of showing that film would cause the United States to move in the wrong direction, as far as nuclear preparedness was concerned. It might cause people to just sort of throw up their hands in dismay and say, “All is lost, all is lost, it’s going to be a total disaster, we have to get rid of all nuclear weapons.”

That’s why the program was scheduled after the movie in the first place.

John Mecklin: It was a really extraordinary panel discussion. I watched it last night, again; it’s an hour and 20 minutes. It’s such a different level from news you watch today. Did it seem extraordinary to you at the time?

Ted Koppel: It really did, and in a sense, John, I’m very grateful to you because I wouldn’t have gone back and watched it otherwise. A, I’d forgotten all the people who were on the panel, and what a panel it was, my god. And B, just the level of discussion, as you suggest, was … it was … it was a civil conversation. Nobody was interrupting anybody else, people were giving their point of view and taking two, three, four minutes even, to express a point of view. Where, other than PBS these days, would you even see a conversation like that? And then the level of conversation was at a—it presumed a certain intelligence among the viewership. I don’t remember what the ratings were for the program, but with a lead in of 100 million people, we surely had 10, 15 million people watching that program, even late at night.

John Mecklin: And just to remind people, the lineup was Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Carl Sagan, Elie Wiesel, Bob McNamara, George Shultz; it was the kind of thing that most think tanks couldn’t put together, and it actually was very high-level discussion. Do you think it had any effect? Was it worth doing? Did it have any lasting effect?

Ted Koppel: I don’t know. What struck me about it (and I’ll be interested whether you had the same sense), of all the people, the one who was least expert on the subject was the one who made, what, in retrospect, 30 years later, was the smartest point, and that was Elie Wiesel. And it was Elie who spoke of the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran. Look at what it is we are concerned about today, 30 years later. It’s not so much the extraordinary number of nuclear weapons that reside in the hands of the Russians and ourselves; rather, it’s the danger of nuclear weapons in the hands of, potentially Iran, and in reality, North Korea. And what is rarely discussed these days, but in fact is a significant reason for the existence of US troops in Afghanistan to this day, is that Afghanistan sits cheek by jowl with one of the larger independent nuclear powers in the world. There you’ve got Pakistan, with well over 100 nuclear warheads and the capacity to deliver them around the world, and it is a nation that is rife with Islamic fundamentalism.

You want to talk about a nuclear danger—the danger today is far more what Elie suggested, that nuclear weapons will end up in the hands, not of the United States and the Soviet Union, where mutually assured destruction has maintained an equilibrium over these past 50, 60 years, but rather in the hands of a nation, or in the hands of those, potentially, who would think nothing about using a nuclear weapon.

John Mecklin: It struck me several times, people talked about how unthinkable and unlikely it was that the US and Russia would reduce the levels of their arsenals by 50 percent. That was impossible, that would never happen; it was remarkable to me that, just less than a decade before the fall of the Soviet Union, it was so completely unforeseen.

Ted Koppel: But ironically, the great danger, back then, as evidenced by the film, the fear was nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. And these days, a much greater fear is that some third power, or even worse, some terrorist organization, some ultra-nationalist organization, will get its hands on one nuclear weapon, and have absolutely no restraints against using it. That’s a far greater danger today, and I think is far more on the minds of people today, when we look at North Korea, when we look at Iran, when we look at the possibility of nuclear weapon falling into the hands of some independent group. That’s a far greater danger than the likelihood of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia.

John Mecklin: The Bulletin‘s experts think we’ve come sort of full circle here, that there was this period of really unrestrained nuclear buildup, then there was sort of an era of arms control that started in The Day After times and continued through the fall of the Soviet Union. But now, there’s a nuclear modernization craze, and actually the danger is higher than it was in the 1980s, both from the area you’re talking about, of terrorists or a new nuclear state, but also sort of an accidental confrontation between Russia and the United States, some of this hybrid war kind of thing. Why do you think the nuclear situation is less salient now, than it was in the 80s? With a few exceptions, it really isn’t on the front pages, it isn’t leading the news.

Ted Koppel: I must say, I disagree a little with your analysis of where we stand today. I think the danger today, and I’ve actually written a book on the subject, I believe cyber warfare is a far greater danger today than the likelihood of nuclear war. Nuclear war still carries with it all the aspects of mutually assured destruction; I mean the danger of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia is still inhibited by the knowledge on both of those great powers that the use of a nuclear weapon by one side would result in the use of many nuclear weapons by one side, would inevitably result in catastrophic casualties on the other, also. What is so, in my view, much more dangerous, is the fact that cyber warfare can be and is being used already, with far greater impunity, and because we are so dependent on the internet in this country—more dependent, arguably, than any other nation on Earth—we are therefore also more vulnerable than any other nation on Earth, and less equipped to deal with the consequences of a cyberattack against our infrastructure, for example, than any other country on Earth.

I think the likelihood of nuclear war—and you represent an organization that has far more expertise than I do in this area—but my view is the likelihood of nuclear war is less than it was in the ‘80s, in large measure because there are … more utilitarian weapons systems available to our adversaries today than there were back then, and they can do almost as much damage to the United States, to our infrastructure, to our body politic, with the use of cyber weaponry, than arguably could have been done with nuclear. Nuclear weapons, yes, obviously, it represents the prospect of an almost unimaginable holocaust, which is why, ultimately, it hasn’t been used. But I am far more concerned about a weapons system that can be and is being used on a daily basis.

John Mecklin: Obviously, as David Sanger wrote in The Perfect Weapon, it is a growing danger, [one] that the Bulletin covers, and particularly the intersections of newer technologies with older technologies. As, for instance, if there were a concerted [cyber]attack on the United States, say, electrical system, could that not implicate the possibility of a US military response?

Ted Koppel: Only if we’re capable of assessing with absolute accuracy where the attack came from, and that’s a problem in cyber warfare. You can’t, by the time you establish beyond any shadow of a doubt that it came from country X, weeks will have passed, maybe months. Are you still going be in a position to launch, or will there be a political appetite by then to launch, a nuclear counterstrike? Hard to say; I don’t know. It’s a whole new warfare scenario, unlike anything we have ever known in the history of mankind, because the ability to launch attacks in such a way that it becomes all but impossible to state with absolute certainty where the attack came from, that, paradoxically was not a concern when there were missiles headed our way from the Soviet Union. We knew exactly where they were coming from.

John Mecklin: I actually agree with what you’re saying; there is an entirely new threat matrix, with our many military systems, nuclear and hypersonics and whatever, combined with the cyber situation, [that creates] what is often called hybrid warfare, where there’s a state of near-war going on all around the world that includes cyber.

Ted Koppel: And remember, John, the capacity of cyber warfare also includes the capacity to take out many of the systems that we need to launch a nuclear war. It would knock out many of our satellites, if not all of them. Knock out our capacity to communicate with one another, command and control. I don’t think there’s really been—and again, you would know more about this than I do—I don’t think there’s really been the proper analysis, the study, and certainly not a public airing of that kind of issue. If we could reconstitute the kind of panel that we had 30 years ago, to discuss the new reality of warfare, nuclear, cyber, and all the other kinds, it would be terrific. But where are you going to put it, who’s going to watch it, and who’s going come on?

John Mecklin: That was sort of my second to the last question. If we were to do such a thing, who would host it, and who should be on the panel, nowadays?

Ted Koppel: I don’t know. I really don’t. I despair at our inability, these days, to have really deep, meaningful, and civil conversations about crucial issues. What you have now, whether it’s on Fox or MSNBC, or CNN, is largely panels constituted of experts defined as people with an opinion, not necessarily people who know anything much about the subject that they’re discussing and yelling at each other, that’s sort of the fun of it all.

John Mecklin: I agree, and we could talk about that for quite a while and probably depress one another…

Ted Koppel: I think we’re sufficiently depressed already. We don’t need to work on that.

John Mecklin: I’ve taken about 20 minutes out of your life already, so I’m going to turn a question on you, one that you asked your panel [in 1983]. What would you tell young people, today, about how they should be confronting and dealing with, not just nuclear, but the package of issues you just talked about. The new sort of threat matrix. Should young people be depressed, like we old folks are? How should they approach this?

Ted Koppel: Well, I think it might be helpful to know something about the subject, and unfortunately, I think in many respects, the most damaging entity, with respect to civil discourse in the country today, is the internet. You’ll forgive me, this is a subject you don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time on, but I don’t think you can separate the issue from what you’ve asked me. Thirty years ago, we still lived in a nation where, for the most part, information was unidirectional. It was the experts, as represented by that panel, putting out their opinions to an audience of however many millions of individuals, many millions of small groups of two and three, perhaps. But that was it. The information went from the experts to the individuals out there, who numbered in the millions, but who really were disconnected from one another.

These days, by virtue of the internet, we have created these opinion silos out there. We have created these affinity groups, and the affinity groups are capable, not only of communicating back to the folks, who in the old days used to be called the opinion makers, or as Wilbur Schramm called them in those days, the gatekeepers. What you have these days are people who communicate with one another and create their own affinity groups, and tragically, the people who are able, quite often, to create the largest of those groups, are the ones who put out the most outrageous points of view. So they’re the ones that get the most clicks, and therefore, the notion of a national conversation, a national dialogue on the subject that you and I have been talking about, becomes far more difficult today than it ever was in the past, in large measure because each of these affinity groups is basically batting the ball back and forth among themselves and totally not only uninterested in, but antagonized by the opinions of other affinity groups. And the notion of having gatekeepers or opinion leaders, as was once the case, with network anchors or with columnists and the great newspapers or magazines like Time and Newsweek, that influence is hugely diminished from what it once was.

John Mecklin: That is true, and let’s hope that some of those young people figure out how to at least make the system a little bit better. I’m sort of concerned about, and this may not make it into this particular interview, but: What do you tell young journalists who want to have a career in public interest journalism, as you have had? Now what do they do?

Ted Koppel: You’ll forgive me if I point you toward, I have a piece on Sunday morning, the CBS Sunday Morning show, do you ever watch that?

John Mecklin: Now and again, yeah.

Ted Koppel: Now and again. Well this is a piece on, curiously, on combat photographers. And at the end of the piece, several of these guys talk about—and really, we’re talking about two combat photographers in particular who were killed, but one of the photographers ends up speaking about the many colleagues that he has lost. And the kind of ethic that exists, even in this age of Photoshopping, among combat photographers. And their point is, we deal in facts, and if we caught another photographer tinkering with a picture, changing the nature of the picture to sort of change the impact of it, he’d be finished, or she’d be finished. They wouldn’t be able to work in our business again.

All I can say is that journalism, if it survives, in any form recognizable to you or to me, it will survive only because young journalists are raised in that same kind of ethic, with that same notion: That’s what we’re about, if we don’t deal in facts, if we don’t at least seek the truth—often we can’t find it on the first go around or even the fifth—but if we don’t spend our lives seeking it and searching for facts, then really, I think, our way of life is finished in this country. You can’t have a nation, you can’t have a system of government that is oblivious to facts, that in fact disparages facts. It doesn’t work, that way.

Forgive me if I go on for another minute, but it just occurs to me that we would laugh at the notion of any other profession operating under the same kind of perception. Would you accept a roofer who doesn’t know anything about roofing, a lawyer who never went to law school, a doctor who never went to medical school, a plumber who doesn’t know anything about plumbing? And yet, we are perfectly content these days with the concept of journalism being practiced by anyone with access to a laptop computer, who may or may not know anything about the gathering of facts, the marshaling of facts, the sifting of facts from nonsense. For some reason, we live in an age in which that is considered trivial, secondary.

That’s it. I’m done.

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Jenny Agutter fan
Jenny Agutter fan
5 years ago

By that point, Henry Kissinger should’ve been facing a war crimes tribunal. As for Elie Wiesel, he labeled Iran the threat, while perfectly OK with his beloved Israel possessing nuclear weapons.

Too bad Carl Sagan isn’t around to shut down all these anti-intellectual wackos who currently dominate the government.

Joseph Gretsch
Joseph Gretsch
5 years ago

“Fail-Safe” should also received accolades, and so should “Dr. Strangelove”…”The Day After” was horrifying, similar to “Night of the Living Dead” or “Blair Witch Project” in that suspension of disbelief was effectively accomplished within the real community who lived in the community illustrated by the film. “Fail-Safe” and “Strangelove” on the other hand, illustrated and centered on the military community, the government and military persons who, so to speak, actually pull the trigger. Their denoument was soul-chilling either with or without suspension of disbelief: Everybody knows about Dr. Strangelove’s story, but most have probably forgotten “Fail Safe”: as a consequence… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  Joseph Gretsch

Fail-Safe is legitimately the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, since I saw it as a middle teenager in the early 90s. I tell everyone I know to watch it.

That sound the phone makes as it melts haunts me.


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