Since 2013, The Americans has revisited the paranoia of the Cold War through the eyes of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings—two Soviet spies secretly living in 1980s America who just so happen to have an FBI agent for a neighbor. To separate itself from all the other espionage shows on TV, the series uses history as its guide: The real world of the 1980s is never far away from the on-screen drama, whether we see it through controversial presidential speeches, wars, or seminal moments in pop culture. Sometimes these moments are a direct influence on the plot; other times, they’re featured simply to tell audiences when the episode takes place. As the hit FX show readies to air its series finale, we're revisiting 11 historical events featured on The Americans.
1. RONALD REAGAN’S STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE // SEASON 1
On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced to the world his plans for a missile defense system that would shield the United States against the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons. Eventually known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the program was a system of loosely connected ideas for defense, including a web of ground-based and satellite-based anti-ballistic missile systems. The ideas were so far out there that the speech and program itself famously took on the nickname “Star Wars.”
In the first season of The Americans, which predates the president’s real-life speech, Philip and Elizabeth find out that UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Secretary of State for Defence John Nott were to meet with United States Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in his home to discuss something top-secret. What they learned from their bug was the initial planning of the SDI program, calling for a missile shield that would cover America and, at Thatcher’s insistence, Europe as well. The plan was to render the Soviet nuclear arsenal obsolete, effectively rendering the Soviet threat useless.
The threat of “Star Wars” looms over the first season, but in the finale, a rogue Air Force Intelligence Colonel informs Philip that the anti-ballistic technology proposed by the United States is “50 years from being remotely operational.” In the real world, President Bill Clinton would pare down Reagan’s lofty vision of an orbital defense system, instead organizing the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which concentrated on ground-based defense.
2. THE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN // SEASON 1, EPISODE 4
Nothing heats up a Cold War quicker than an attempt on the president’s life, and when Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, there was a real fear that the Soviets had struck. The Americans tackled the issue in the season one episode “In Control,” throwing the characters into the middle of the frenzy.
It begins when FBI agent Frank Gaad orders his team to find out if gunman John Hinckley had any Soviet ties. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is told by Claudia, her handler, that they should prepare for guerrilla warfare in the States should chaos break out. She also tells Elizabeth of rumors that the American government is up for grabs and that the Red Army is moving into Poland, which was a detail based on an actual fear at the time.
The Jenningses later find out through Stan Beeman that Hinckley was just a lone nut—information that Philip passes along to his KGB higher-ups.
3. THE NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION // SEASON 2, EPISODE 9
“Martial Eagle” is one of the most interesting blends of history and fiction in The Americans. The plot involves Philip and Elizabeth infiltrating a camp where the United States is training Nicaraguan rebels on U.S. soil to fight against the Sandinista government.
This is all based on the real Nicaraguan Revolution, where the United States supported the Contra rebels against the new Soviet-supported government until Congress put a stop to it through the Boland Amendments. This led to the Reagan Administration’s covert funding of the group through the profits it got from back-channel arms sales to Iran, culminating in the Iran-Contra scandal.
What does this have to do with The Americans? In addition to Philip and Elizabeth looking to leak photographic evidence of the United States training rebels on domestic soil, the episode itself had a very interesting person receive part of the story credit: Oliver North, the same lieutenant colonel who helped formulate the Contra funding plan, which led to him being convicted of three charges relating to the scandal (the charges were dismissed in 1991).
4. THE DEATH OF LEONID BREZHNEV // SEASON 3, EPISODE 1
The Americans typically uses important historical moments from the ‘80s as more of a backdrop for the plot than an upfront storyline. This is best exemplified with the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on November 10, 1982.
As an audience, we learn of the death during the season three premiere as Paige is flipping channels and happens across a news bulletin read by a young Tom Brokaw. There’s no real fanfare or dramatic reveal—it’s just business as usual as Brezhnev is replaced by Yuri Andropov, former KGB head, whose presence is felt intermittently over the next few seasons.
For Philip and Elizabeth—and the rest of the characters on the show—the Cold War still rages, despite who is in charge.
5. THE SALANG PASS TUNNEL FIRE // SEASON 3, EPISODE 5
Built into the Hindu Kush mountain range in the 1960s, the 1.7-mile Salang Pass Tunnel connects Northern Afghanistan with the city of Kabul, and today it’s estimated that 80 percent of the country’s commerce makes the journey through it. While years of wear and tear have destroyed the roads and ventilation system inside the tunnel and made any journey through it dangerous, one event remains the most infamous: the Salang Pass Tunnel fire of 1982.
Soviet censorship at the time attempted to downplay the severity, so details about the incident are sketchy; some reports even dispute the cause: The Soviets claimed there was a crash that involved a military convoy, which led to carbon monoxide poisoning for some soldiers due to idling truck engines. Other outlets paint the picture of a massive fuel tanker explosion that caused the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians.
There’s nothing official, but the event was important enough to get referenced on The Americans, as Philip solemnly listens to a BBC radio broadcast covering the event in the appropriately titled episode “Salang Pass.” As with much of the series’s historical context, the tunnel fire is more background noise that serves to heighten the Jenningses' anxiety rather than an active plot point.
6. THE SOVIET–AFGHAN WAR // SEASON 3, EPISODE 12
The real-life Soviet-Afghan War is a recurring plot point throughout The Americans, and Philip and Elizabeth have undertaken various missions for the cause. The most high-profile comes in the episode “I Am Abassin Zadran,” in which the Jenningses disguise themselves as CIA operatives to manipulate a mujahideen commander into killing his partners in order to dissolve their plans to secure advanced U.S. weapons in their war against the Soviets.
In reality, the United States would arm the Afghan guerrillas against the Soviets by the late ‘80s. The war was a general fiasco, with the Soviet Union incurring massive military and financial losses that would eventually contribute to its fall in 1991. The initial Soviet invasion began in December 1979 and by February 1989, the final troops were driven out. The Soviet Union would dissolve within three years.
7. RONALD REAGAN'S "EVIL EMPIRE" SPEECH // SEASON 3, EPISODE 13
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made clear his opposition to the Nuclear Freeze Movement, which was launched in the early ‘80s by Randall Forsberg, an arms controller researcher. The movement sought to halt the production and proliferation of the nuclear arsenals of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and though it had political support in the States, the president was determined to make sure the U.S. never weakened in front of the Russian threat.
In a speech made to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, Reagan used some of the boldest and most pointed words of his young presidency, calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and asserting that “we will never stop searching for a genuine peace, but we can assure none of these things America stands for through the so-called nuclear freeze solutions proposed by some.”
For Reagan’s supporters, it was a sign that the Commander-in-Chief was ready and willing to expand the country’s nuclear scope to defend its freedom. For detractors, especially those in the Soviet Union, it just fanned the flames of a Cold War that was rapidly teetering on the brink.
In The Americans episode "March 8th, 1983," coverage of the speech is witnessed by Philip and Elizabeth, who realize that this type of language—and the subsequent heightened tensions—could make their jobs, and the world, far more dangerous. Season three of the show then drew to a close, with Reagan’s voice calling the Soviets “the focus of evil in the modern world” as Philip and Elizabeth listened on—and as their daughter confessed her parents’ true identity to Pastor Tim on the phone in the room next door.
8. DAVID COPPERFIELD MAKES THE STATUE OF LIBERTY DISAPPEAR // SEASON 4, EPISODE 8
Poor Martha. One of the series’s more tragic characters gets the heave-ho to the Soviet Union in this episode, all set to the thematic stylings of David Copperfield’s real-life TV special The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears (which the episode is named after).
In the special, which aired on CBS on April 8, 1983, Copperfield used the vanishing Lady Liberty as a metaphor, saying, “I could show with magic how we take our freedom for granted.” For a show centered on a war over ideologies and differing views on freedom, Copperfield’s stunt proved the perfect symbol.
9. THE PREMIERE OF THE DAY AFTER // SEASON 4, EPISODE 9
In November 1983, director Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV movie The Day After aired on ABC, with a plot revolving around the opening salvo of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It attracted a record number of viewers, most of whom were likely left speechless by the harrowing scenes of nuclear devastation it depicted. Even President Reagan had an emotional take on the movie, saying, “My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."
Much like the 100 million people that watched in real life, The Day After left nearly every character on The Americans stunned—the Jenningses, the Beemans, even the Soviets working in the States. (While watching, one of the characters mentions another real life incident: On September 26, 1983, Soviet satellites detected a missile launch from the U.S., which should have prompted an immediate counter-attack from the Soviets. But the officer on duty that night determined it was a false alarm—and he was right: The satellites were fooled by the glint of the sun off some clouds.) The violent imagery and emotional devastation of the movie was so profound that it led Philip to doubt whether or not he should tell his KGB higher-ups about a new weaponized virus he just found out about, fearing what something like it could soon lead to.
10. “WE BEGIN BOMBING IN FIVE MINUTES” // SEASON 5, EPISODE 13
During a routine sound check for a radio speech in August 1984, President Ronald Reagan decided to have a little fun with the technicians by offering up an off-color parody of the speech he was actually set to deliver, saying: “My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Though the joke was only meant to be heard by those in the room, word of it soon leaked, and with an election right around the corner, the gaffe was a disaster for Reagan. In addition to the obvious embarrassment for the country, there were reports of the Soviet Army going on heightened alert after the information got out. The U.S. State Department, however, argued that the Soviets were blowing a mere joke out of proportion for “propaganda purposes.”
News coverage of Reagan’s joke found its way into the season five finale of The Americans, and while it never turns into a big plot point, the pained look on Paige’s face as she watches the coverage perfectly illustrated the real-world anxiety of the country at the time.
11. THE WASHINGTON SUMMIT // SEASON 6
The final season of The Americans throws the main characters right into the midst of 1987’s Washington Summit, a real-world meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that was highlighted by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. The tension during the lead-up to the Summit is woven throughout the season, with Elizabeth working night and day to put plans into motion since Philip has stepped away from the spy game.
All is not well within the Soviet Union by late 1987, though, and Elizabeth is unwittingly used in a clandestine operation devised by internal opponents of Gorbachev who wish to overthrow him. While in Mexico City, she meets up with a General Kovtun who informs her of the Soviet’s “Dead Hand" program, which is a computerized missile system that will automatically unleash the super power’s nuclear arsenal in the event their military leaders are ever wiped out in a first strike by the United States. Not only did the Dead Hand system actually exist during the Cold War, it may still be around today in some form.
"Dead Hand sounds like something made up for a James Bond movie—but that’s probably true of the Cold War in general," series creator Joe Weisberg told Vanity Fair. "If you look at a lot of the crazy things that happened during the Cold War, the more made up they seem, the more true they are."