Peace groups hope for a boost from TV's 'The Day After'

Thousands of grass-roots peace groups in the United States are rallying around a TV movie depicting the grisly effects of a nuclear strike against the US.

The groups - ranging from small community groups to national antinuclear organizations - are preparing public forums, seminars, teach-ins, rallies, and town meetings in response to ''The Day After,'' a two-hour, $7million movie being aired this Sunday by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

The movie graphically and grimly depicts a nuclear attack on Kansas City and the suffering of doomed survivors in nearby Lawrence, Kan.

While ABC claims the film is without political bias, a storm of controversy has been brewing in advance of its showing.

The conservative National Review has called the movie ''a $7 million contribution to the faltering Soviet campaign against the deployment of the Pershing II.'' A New York Post editorial asked: ''Why is ABC doing Yuri Andropov's job?''

Leaders of antinuclear groups say they expect the film to give the peace movement a powerful boost - especially against the backdrop of cruise missiles now arriving for deployment in Europe.

''We're using it as a centerpiece for a massive educational project, a vehicle for all concerned citizens - and it's available to everyone at no cost, '' says Joshua Baran, a Berkeley, Calif., publicist who has worked on the nuclear freeze campaign and now is planning a series of events in Kansas City and Lawrence to coincide with the showing of the movie.

''It's obviously an incredible opportunity to wake people up. If it doesn't wake people up, it's going to be a preview of coming attractions,'' Mr. Baran says.

While meetings in churches, schools, and other forums are being organized on the local level, preparations are being made at the national level as well. They include:

* Some 200,000 free ''Day After'' viewing guides put out by Ground Zero in Washington, D.C. The guides have been sent out to churches, local peace groups, and distributed in shopping centers.

* The Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based defense policy research group, is selling to ABC affiliate stations a 60-second announcement in which actor Paul Newman offers a ''citizens guide to what you can do to help prevent nuclear war.''

* A toll-free number - 800-NUCLEAR - has been set up by the Campaign Against Nuclear War. Callers will be given lists of peace groups and the national antinuclear movement.

* Cultural Information Service has also produced a viewer's guide to the movie for ABC TV. The guide has been sent to schools and community groups as well.

* The Union of Concerned Scientists, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., while having just completed a national ''week of education'' about the nuclear arms race, has made its members in the scientific community available for discussions about the accuracy of the film.

* And the Student/Teacher Organization to Prevent Nuclear War, in Northfield, Mass., is urging people to send letters to the White House and all elected officials, saying: ''I'm watching the Day After: I hope you do the same.''

One group, known as the Day Before Project, was organized by a social worker in Emeryville, Calif., after hearing about the film from Mr. Baran. A spokeswoman for the group says it has organized and trained people to lead discussions in some 200 community meetings around the country the Monday and Tuesday nights after the film is aired, to help ''avoid mass national depression.''

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