Mr. Rogers, WarGames, and the intersection of culture and technology

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

On September 1, 1983 at 3:26am Tokyo time, Korean Airlines flight number 007 flying from New York City to Seoul after stopping in Anchorage was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet after it entered Soviet air space.

A Soviet Su-15 interceptor fired two air-to-air missiles at the Boeing 747, destroying the commercial airliner and killing 269 people. There were twenty-two children under 12 years old aboard. And the generally accepted theory for why the plane entered Soviet airspace is that the autopilot malfunctioned, unintentionally placing the plane inside Soviet airspace.

Larry McDonald was one of the 62 Americans on that flight. He was a politician and member of the US House of Representatives representing Georgia. A trained doctor and flight surgeon who served in the US Navy, McDonald consistently introduced legislation that was anti-communist:

  • He wanted to award honorary US citizenship to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident, most famous for writing a book titled the Gulag Archipelago which described the horrible conditions inside the Soviet Gulag system. McDonald also invited Solzhenitsyn to address a joint session of Congress.
  • McDonald introduced legislation to prohibit communist countries from using US federal funds to finance the purchase of American agricultural products.
  • He created a committee in Congress to conduct an investigation of human rights abuses by communists in Southeast Asia.

In 1979, a few years before his death, McDonald founded the Western Goals Foundation. According to news reports, the Foundation was created in order to “blunt subversion, terrorism, and communism” by filling the gap “created by the disbanding of the House Un-American Activities Committee and what [McDonald] considered to be the crippling of the FBI during the 1970s”.

So, to be plain, Larry McDonald hated communism. And now he was dead, shot down by the Soviets in a commercial, civilian airliner. A sitting US Congressman and 61 other Americans dead at the hands of the Soviets.

Four days later, President Reagan took to the airwaves in an evening address to the American people:

I was nine years old in 1983 and I don’t remember any of this. At the time I was obsessed with Sally Ride and her flight aboard the Space Shuttle as the first American woman in space. Mario Brothers was released in Japan. We invaded Grenada, and Reagan pitched his “star-wars” initiative. Many of us remember the US embassy bombing in Beirut, where 63 people, including 17 Americans, were killed.

But I don’t remember the shooting down of KAL 007.

What makes my forgetfulness more concerning is that the threat of nuclear war was palpable. It was what everyone was talking about. In fact there was a made-for-TV movie released in 1983 called The Day After. It told the story of the lead up and aftermath of a hypothetical nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union. One hundred million people in 39 million households saw it. At the time, it set a record as the highest-rated television film in history.

Even Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, released five episodes of his show over the course of a week in 1983 that in Rogers’ words “gives us a chance to talk about war, and about how it’s essential that people learn to deal with their feelings and to talk about things and resolve conflicts”.

As author Jake Rossen writes:

“In the five-part series titled “Conflict,” Rogers again turned to the puppets that populated his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Provincial ruler King Friday (voiced by Rogers) is handed a “computer read-out” that tips him off to some counterintelligence: Cornflake S. Pecially, ruler of the neighboring land of Southwood, is allegedly making bombs. In a panic, King Friday orders his underlings to do the same, mobilizing efforts to make certain they can match Southwood’s fiery super weapons — even if it means not having the financial resources to care for his people in other ways.

Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Lady Aberlin aren’t quite convinced. Rather than succumb to paranoia, they decide to travel to Southwood to see for themselves. They find its citizens building a bridge, not a bomb. A misunderstanding had almost led to unnecessary violence.”

My point is that the downing of KAL 007 is something I should remember. The threat of nuclear war with the Soviets was everywhere. Hollywood was releasing movies about it, Mr. Rogers was educating us about it, Reagan even specifically told us in his address to the nation that the destruction of KAL 007 by the Soviets was something we should never forget.

What I remember most about 1983, what sticks out in my mind as being the most important thing happening in 1983, was the release of the movie WarGames.

As IMDB explains it, the film is about a: “young man who finds a back door into a military central computer in which reality is confused with game-playing, possibly starting World War III.” The computer, the artificial intelligence that Matthew Broderick’s character hacks into, plays a game of nuclear war with the Soviets, with real nuclear weapons. Not entirely dissimilar from the autopilot that caused KAL 007 to veer into Soviet airspace, it seems when we put machines in control, there’s the potential for seriously bad things to happen.

WarGames Trailer (1983)

What’s really important about the movie however is its lasting impact on society. In very real ways, WarGames:

  • Introduced hacking and artificial intelligence to the mainstream public,
  • Highlighted and reflected the nuclear obsession we shared with the Soviets in the ‘80s,
  • And in 2020, it gives us an optic through which to view and understand current technologies and events.

As an example (and we’ll cover more in upcoming articles), fifteen months after the release of the film, President Reagan as a direct result of seeing the movie and perceiving a direct threat from the Soviet Union, signed National Security Decision Directive 145 (NSDD145). It established a “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security”, that addressed the cyber security weaknesses of the US government at the time.

NSDD145 fundamentally altered the cybersecurity posture of the United States. And there’s a direct path from KAL700 to WarGames to Reagan to you and me. Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring the intersection of culture, technology, and current events. Interspersed with other articles, I hope to begin a conversation with you about where we were, where we are, and where we’re going.

Shall we play a game?

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