Chilling Cold War episodes of “Mr. Rogers” have emerged, as if to warn Donald Trump against an arms race

Back from the dead.
Back from the dead.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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Be it a vigilant citizen or purely cosmic happenstance, someone (or something) is trying to teach US president Donald Trump a lesson about recklessly inviting nuclear hostilities.

Last week, someone mysteriously uploaded a series of lost episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to YouTube. The episodes, called the “conflict series,” originally aired on PBS at the height of Cold War tensions in 1983 and sought to teach children about the dangers of stockpiling weapons.

Sound timely? The odd re-emergence of the episodes comes only a few months after Trump publicly called for another arms race, and just days after he proposed a huge increase in military spending. The Daily Beast first reported the unexplained uploads.

Universally beloved for his gentle manner, Fred Rogers was the soothing educational voice in the lives of countless American children for nearly 40 years. His PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, taught kids about important issues using songs, skits, puppets, and more.

In November 1983, as relations between the US and Russia boiled, PBS aired five episodes of the show that served as a kid-friendly allegory for the increasingly real potential of nuclear war. In them, King Friday, the puppet monarch (performed by Rogers) of the fictional “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” grows paranoid when he mistakenly believes a rival kingdom is building bombs. He orders his town to do the same, and redirects all of its funds into stockpiling weapons in case of war.

After being uploaded anonymously to YouTube, the series’ first two episodes were soon deleted. But the first has since been re-uploaded. Watch it here (while it lasts):

It turns out the rival kingdom wasn’t building “bombs”—it was building a bridge. It may seem silly to most adults, but to young children trying to understand a reality in which nuclear war was possible, Rogers’s puppet allegory was likely far more effective than other, sensationalistic programs about the ongoing arms race broadcast at the time.

The conflict series was assumed to have been lost to history. Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence, but the timing of their re-emergence is certainly fitting. Trump has made gestures toward nuclear proliferation multiple times already during his presidency, including via Twitter:

Trump went on MSNBC shortly after sending that tweet and stated, plainly, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” His statement puzzled and worried nuclear experts in equal measure.

The US president’s proposed budget, introduced on March 16, called for a 10% increase ($54 billion) to America’s already enormous defense budget. Under Trump’s plan, virtually every other federal agency would be cut—some of them entirely.

According to Neighborhood Archive, a site that logs old Mr. Rogers episodes, in the conflict series, King Friday suggests his kingdom won’t be able to pay for much of anything besides bomb-building. One of the puppets is told that, because of the weapons stockpiling, the town won’t be able to afford programs like “music for the children.”

Rogers, who died in 2003, famously defended federal funding for public broadcasting and the arts numerous times throughout his epic career, most notable in a 1969 hearing before the US Senate. They listened to him then: Funding for PBS was increased from $9 million to $22 million two years later. Will anyone listen to him now?