The Arms Control Association resurfaces an artifact from an influential moment in its long history: a 1979 newspaper story that laid out a doomsday scenario— and may have fueled a historic TV event.
Sometimes, a little digging in your vault creates a great opportunity to tell an important story that might not be on the front page anymore but remains deeply influential.
Recently, the Arms Control Association (ACA) had such a moment when the organization’s monthly journal, Arms Control Today, reflected on a story from 40 years ago that showcased the influence of the organization, whose mission is to promote effective arms control policy.
In the late 1970s, the St. Petersburg Times—the iconic Florida newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times—wanted to detail the potential impact of a nuclear attack on St. Petersburg. It reached out to the association’s then-executive director, William Kincade, for help. ACA offered technical knowledge that helped the paper create detailed graphics and worked with editors to put together a fictional version of what a nuclear attack might look and feel like. The four-day series was published in February 1979.
“We had no idea how large the mountains of information he described were until we contacted government agencies for the background material,” longtime Times editor John Costa wrote in a story explaining the research that Kincade helped his team get access to.
Kincade was so interested in the concept that he helped write the story himself, along with freelance writer Nan Randall.
The series had ripple effects—both in the halls of power and in pop culture. According to Arms Control Today, the Office of Technology Assessment, a government agency that has since been disbanded, had Randall write a similar piece as part of a report titled The Effects of Nuclear Weapons.
On the recommendation of an ACA director, the OTA report was reworked into a book, The Day After Midnight, published in 1982. It was well-reviewed and a fast seller.
The year after that, ABC aired a made-for-television movie titled The Day After. It became the most-watched TV movie ever, with more than 100 million estimated viewers. While it’s not clear whether the book directly influenced the movie, there are signs it may have. According to The Atlantic, the film’s makers had come upon the OTA report in their research.
The film, at turns gripping and harrowing, was believed to help turn public opinion against nuclear weapons. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer, received a note from President Ronald Reagan after he signed a 1987 nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this—because it did.”
Forty years later, ACA is celebrating the foundational work the association did with the St. Petersburg Times in 1979 that seems to have had ripple effects all the way to an arms treaty. To mark the anniversary, the association has unearthed the Times‘ series from its archives and republished it in full on its website.
Makes you wonder what you might find in your own vault.