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Ronald Reagan and the Day the Earth Stood Still

Hollywood’s current sci-fi thriller, The Day the Earth Stood Still, features Keanu Reeves as a visitor from outer space who warns earthlings about impending ecological disaster and senses he must destroy mankind to save the earth. The movie is drawing a lot of young patrons to the theaters to enjoy the special effects along with popcorn and drinks. Can this Hollywood flick arouse viewers’ thinking about substantive issues while also entertaining them? It is too early to judge the movie’s influence, but it is clear that the original 1951 production of The Day the Earth Stood Still made a significant impact on one important fan. Ronald Reagan was deeply impressed with the earlier picture’s messages about war and peace. Later, as President, he sometimes referred to ideas from The Day the Earth Stood Still when talking about the danger of nuclear confrontation between the superpowers.

In the 1951 production a figure from outer space, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands in Washington, D.C. for a special mission. He aims to promote peace and good will and seeks to meet with representatives of all nations of the earth to convey an important message. A frightened soldier fires at him, but Klaatu recovers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The alien manages to slip away, where he meets a pretty war widow (Patricia Neal) and her young son. Eventually Klaatu finds a brilliant scholar, an Albert Einstein-type, who agrees to convene other leading scientists from around the world to consider Klaatu’s message. The alien reports that he comes from a highly advanced civilization that managed to bring its violent tendencies under control. Powerful robots such as Gort, who has accompanied him, are designed to destroy societies that resort to war. Since earthlings have unraveled the secrets of the atom and now are building nuclear weapons and spreading radiation, they are a threat to peace in the universe. Earthlings may soon participate in space travel and take their national quarrels and lethal weapons into the galaxy. Klaatu’s society will have none of that. Join us in peace, Klaatu urges, or you will be obliterated. “We shall be waiting for your decision.”

Ronald Reagan, an avid fan of movies and sci-fi flicks in particular, liked the film’s suggestion that an outside threat could inspire leaders of the world’s nations to put aside their differences and band together in a common cause for security and peace. The ideal of worldwide cooperation was familiar to Reagan, for in the immediate post-World War II years he had joined the United World Federalists, a peace-oriented society, and Reagan described his sentiments of the time as “liberal.” He said he “bled for causes.” Julian Blaustein, producer of the 1951 picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still, had related interests. Blaustein told the news media that his movie implied support for a “strong United Nations.”

In his second term in the White House, when Reagan began moving away from bellicosity and toward negotiations with the Russians, he referenced the message of Blaustein’s movie in diplomatic discussions. In his first face-to-face meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985 the President expressed confidence that the Americans and Soviets would cooperate if they were threatened by aliens from outer space. After the meeting, Reagan returned to the U.S, where he repeated the idea in a speech to high school students in Maryland. As biographer Lou Cannon points out, later Reagan inserted a reference to the idea in a 1987 address to the United Nations. The President knew that some of his advisers disapproved of the example, but he sensed that the story provided a simple and memorable way to express hope for understanding among the superpowers. He applied the movie’s example to real-life problems, saying, “I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?”

Several key figures on the Reagan team were uncomfortable with the President’s frequent references to The Day the Earth Stood Still. National Security Adviser, Colin Powell reportedly rolled his eyes when he heard several comments about the movie, dismissing Reagan’s interest as an obsession with “little green men.” Secretary of State George Schultz thought the President’s references to the Hollywood film were naïve. When news about Reagan’s fascination with a science fiction movie came to light in the 1980s, a Washington Post writer sarcastically headlined his column, “Jumping Jupiter! Reagan and the Space-Invader Hypothesis.”

Journalists and historians often raise questions about Reagan’s efforts to draw political messages from Hollywood productions, noting that the President frequently confused fantasy with reality. They point out that Reagan sometimes assumed an event in a movie occurred in real life, as when he told attendees at a Congressional Medal of Honor Society meeting about a commander of a B-17 bomber in World War II who chose to go down with his crewmen rather than bail out. Reagan evidently got the idea from a Hollywood production, A Wing and a Prayer, or from a Reader’s Digest article.

The President was deeply touched, however, by films about warfare, since movie scenes struck him emotionally and remained strong in his memory. Reagan watched a videotape of ABC’s 1983 television movie, The Day After, and recorded in his diary that the production was “very effective & left me greatly depressed.” The Day After, which depicted a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, showed the horrible suffering of American victims of radiation. At the time of its release, Reagan worried that the TV film’s popularity might embolden the “anti-nukes,” but in the longer run The Day After seems to have impressed him with the importance of reversing a dangerous course in the cold war. During his second term, Reagan became less attentive to the advice of hawks and more receptive to advisers who recommended arms agreements with the Soviets. The Day After is one among many factors that may have inspired Reagan’s evolution from a cold warrior to a more open-minded negotiator.

As historian John Patrick Diggins points out, Reagan thought about movies, too, when he contemplated the dangers associated with Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD, the idea that opposing nations could threaten each other with annihilation, a frightening prospect that would likely keep the superpowers in a tense but necessary peace). To Reagan, Americans and Russians were engaged in a risky nuclear standoff, much like two gunslingers in the old western films. Those Hollywood pictures usually showed the good guy defeating the villain in the end with a quick draw. But in nuclear warfare no winner would be standing, and the much of the world could be left in rubble.

Sometimes the President’s comments about movies were superficial or mistaken, but at other times they were pertinent and insightful. In those better moments of drawing lessons from cinema, Reagan exhibited a modern approach to popular culture that some of his detractors failed to appreciate. Those critics preferred references to ideas in print; they looked suspiciously on examples drawn from Hollywood pictures. Reagan, who spent much of his life in Hollywood, believed cinema could do more than just entertain. He cited examples from the movies as useful points-of-reference for thinking about life and making judgments about social and political questions. In our time lots of Americans are comfortable with Reagan’s approach to film.