In 1979, the federal government published something that wasn’t true.
Don’t laugh. We don’t mean it like that.
That year — so long ago that Jimmy Carter was president, people listened to music on 8-track tapes and telephones were clunky devices that sat in your home and could only make phone calls — the Senate was gearing up for a debate on an nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union. There was still a Soviet Union then, and we were more worried about their bombs than their Twitter bots, more fearful of their missiles than their malware.
In preparation for the debate, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee commissioned a report on what would happen after a nuclear war. Specifically, it wanted something that would put the horrors of nuclear war in “more comprehensible terms.”
That task fell to the Office of Technology Assessment, then an independent arm of Congress (before it was abolished by Republicans under Newt Gingrich in 1995). That office turned to a young journalist from Florida named Nan Randall. Earlier that year, Randall had written a series of stories for the St. Petersburg Times on what would happen if two nuclear bombs fell on Tampa Bay. For the Office of Technology Assessment, she applied that background to writing a fictional account of the after-effects of nuclear exchange. Her 11-page story was published as an appendix to a larger, 154-page report blandly titled “The Effects of Nuclear War.”
It’s harder to imagine something more forgettable than an appendix to an obscure government report, yet “Appendix C” went on to have a remarkable effect on American pop culture — and world politics.
To tell the ground level story of what the aftermath of a nuclear war would look like, Randall chose “the small, gracious city of Charlottesville, Virginia.”
The story she told was both clinical and chilling.
“Most did not see the attacks on Richmond and on Washington as they huddled in their shelters,” she wrote. “But the sky to the east and north of Charlottesville glowed brilliant in the noonday sun. At first no one knew how extensive the damage was.
“Communication nationwide was interrupted as the Earth’s atmosphere shivered with the assault of the explosions. Each town, city, village, or farm was an island, forced to suffer its selected fate of death or salvation alone. Some time later it was learned that more than 4,000 megatons (Mt) had destroyed military and industrial targets, killing close to 100 million people in the United States. The U.S. counterattack on the Soviet Union had had a similar, devastating effect.”
But Charlottesville was spared. “Areas of the country such as the northeast corridor were reduced to a swath of burning rubble from north of Boston to south of Norfolk. Still, there were some sections of the nation that were spared the direct effects of blast and fire. Inland in Virginia, only the town of Radford, west of Roanoke, received a direct hit.”
That much is based on a certain strategic reality: Radford is home to the Radford Army Ammunition Plant.
Her story goes on to describe the chaos that would ensue. First, people huddled inside, hoping to avoid radiation. Then the refugees started pouring in, many of them already the walking dead. Hospitals were overwhelmed: “Many still clustered around the middle of town near the two major hospitals, taking up residence in the houses abandoned by local residents several days before. With minimal protection from fallout and no medical treatment for other trauma, many died, their bodies left unburied for several weeks.”
Her account gets more gruesome from there — and might even be understated. Not to pick on Charlottesville, but we saw last summer how unprepared that city was to handle 1,000 or so protestors. The idea that any local government could handle 70,000 terrified refugees — the figure Randall supposed — in the aftermath of a nuclear war strains the imagination. In her account, though, local government still attempted to function, after a fashion. The local government became more dictatorial, trying to impose order. In time, though, there were riots and general lawlessness, as food and other supplies ran short, and armed gangs took the law into their own hands.
The only semblance of state government were radio broadcasts from the lieutenant governor from a shelter somewhere in Roanoke — the governor had been killed in the nuclear attack on Richmond. The president was somewhere in the Midwest, but federal authority was little noticed. People were basically on their own, as society broke down around them.
“Residents hunted game as the last of the food stocks disappeared, but the fallout had killed most animals that were in the open,” she wrote. “Refugees were reduced to stealing. A number of people managed to fill their gas tanks with contraband gasoline and set out to forage in the mountains to the west.” Others simply “roamed the countryside, hijacking supply trucks and raiding farms and villages.”
Her account ended on a decidedly pessimistic note: It was unclear whether the United States could ever rebuild itself. She envisions a fictional conference of experts that convenes in Charlottesville, with one saying: “We will have survived biologically, but our way of life is going to be unrecognizable. In several generations, the United States is going to resemble a late medieval society.”
Randall’s story, “Charlottesville,” was little-noticed at the time, but had a surprising effect. In 1985, ABC-TV created a made-for-TV movie on the after-effects of a nuclear war. As the director and writer started work on the project, they came across her story, which helped form the basis for the show. “The Day After” was a huge hit. Some 100 million people tuned in, making it the second most-watched show of all time. President Reagan watched and was moved. “Powerfully done,” he wrote in his diary. “My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.”
Two years later, when the United States signed an arms treaty with the Soviet Union, Reagan sent a telegram to the director: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
Still, “Charlottesville” remained an appendix to an obscure government report — until recently, when the Atlantic Monthly reprinted it. Go read it — and think about it the next time President Trump blusters about “fire and fury.”