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Ukraine war gives Gen Xers flashbacks to 1980s nuclear war songs and movies

An image from “The Day After,” a 1983 film about the effects of a nuclear holocaust on small-town residents of eastern Kansas. (ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images)
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For Gen Xers who grew up listening to songs like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (“When two tribes go to war / A point is all you can score”) and watching movies like the U.S.-Soviet nuclear war film “The Day After,” 1980s Cold War pop culture is suddenly feeling uncomfortably timely again.

In his 1985 song “Russians,” Sting asks, “How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” referring to the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb. In an Instagram post last week, Sting performed the song again. In an accompanying post, he said he has rarely sung “Russians” since it came out, because he never thought it would be relevant again.

“But, in the light of one man’s bloody and woefully misguided decision to invade a peaceful, unthreatening neighbor, the song is, once again, a plea for our common humanity,” Sting wrote of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Today, Gen Xers, who grew up worried that a nuclear war between the two superpowers would destroy the planet are experiencing a combination of deja vu and PTSD.

When Russia was the villain: How this moment echoes the era of Cold War spy novels and ‘Rocky IV’

“I remember as a kid crying myself to sleep, thinking that I wasn’t going to make it to adulthood,” recalled CNN international correspondent Matthew Chance, who is covering the war in Ukraine, in an interview with the Playbook Deep Dive podcast. “The ‘mutual assured destruction’ idea, that if we get into a confrontation, that could escalate, was something that is really a deep-seated fear in people of my age.”

Americans are once again hearing about threats to use nuclear weapons and the possibility of World War III, which were themes of many ’80s songs and films.

In “Russians,” Sting sings that what might “save us, me and you / Is if the Russians love their children too.” The song challenges leaders from both sides, including President Ronald Reagan, who forcefully confronted the Soviet Union from 1981 to 1989 — and was a popular target for many of the apocalyptic songs of that decade.

Reagan labeled the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” and he once joked on a hot mic, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” That of course only heightened fears — especially on the left — that Reagan was a trigger-happy leader ill-suited for an era when the two Cold War adversaries had thousands of nuclear weapons.

In the 1984 hit “Two Tribes,” the British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood mocks Reagan as “Cowboy number one / A born-again poor man’s son.” On the 12-inch mix, the pulsating song begins with an air raid siren and a narrator ominously instructing listeners, “When you hear the air attack warning, you and your family must take cover,” before the band sings its oft-repeated line about two tribes going to war.

In case anyone missed the message, the song’s music video shows actors playing Reagan and Soviet leader Konstantin U. Chernenko engaging in a bloody WWF-style brawl, culminating with the Earth being blown to smithereens.

(A recent episode of “South Park,” which makes fun of ‘80s Cold War nostalgia, depicts Russian President Vladimir Putin dancing shirtless as “Two Tribes” blares from a boombox on his desk.)

The video for pop band Genesis’s 1986 song “Land of Confusion” ends with a senile puppet Reagan reaching from his bed to press a button labeled “nurse,” but accidentally pressing “nuke” instead. A mushroom cloud explodes, and Reagan quips, “That’s one heck of a nurse!”

The punk group Dead Kennedys also imagined an unstable Reagan threatening world annihilation. Their song “Gone With My Wind,” off the 1986 album “Bedtime for Democracy,” envisions a drunk Reagan, who yells in the band’s trademark rapid-fire style:

So c’mon John, whadya say? / It’s been dancing in my head for years
What’ll happen if I push this button / Let’s start World War III for fun

Some songs from that era painted an evocative image of nuclear war, such as U2’s 1983 song “Seconds”:

Lightning flashes across the sky / East to west, do or die
Like a thief in the night / See the world by candlelight

Not all Cold War songs from that era were so serious. In the 1983 song “So Afraid of the Russians,” by the D.C. band Made for TV, singer Tom Lyon starts by reeling off a list of all the great things he wants to do for society: feed the children, cure disease, clean up rivers and lakes, plant trees. “But,” he sings in a deadpan voice:

I’m afraid of the Russians / I can’t sleep at night
So afraid of the Russians / Afraid we’ve got to fight

The Clash, meanwhile, poke fun at both sides in their 1980 song about World War III, “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” sung to a disco beat.

Another source for Americans’ nuclear neuroses was movies such as the 1983 film “War Games,” in which a teenager played by Matthew Broderick hacks into a U.S. military supercomputer and nearly starts World War III with the Soviet Union. Catastrophe is avoided when the supercomputer, War Operation Plan Response, or WOPR, learns the futility of nuclear war by playing a series of games of tic-tac-toe, which all end in stalemate.

But there’s no happy ending in the ABC made-for-TV movie “The Day After,” which came out the same year, starring Jason Robards and John Lithgow. Promoted as “Perhaps the Most Important Film Ever Made,” the movie shows a full-scale U.S.-Soviet nuclear war and its horrific impacts on survivors in Lawrence, Kan.

A hundred million people tuned in to watch the movie. If they weren’t depressed enough as the last scene shows a weeping, dying Robards in the rubble of what had been his home, the movie ends by displaying this message on the screen:

The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States. It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert the fateful day.

And in fact, the filmmakers may have succeeded with that goal.

After watching the movie at Camp David, Reagan wrote in his diary that the film is “very effective & left me greatly depressed ... 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.”

“The Day After” was first shown on Soviet TV in 1987, and that year, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this,” Reagan wrote in a telegram to the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer, “because it did.”