While we’re all bemoan- ing the “gaffes” of Donald Trump, and wringing our hands
about all of the ruin that they portend for our country, I thought that it might do some good to mark the anniversary of another celebrated “gaffe” made by a U.S. President which left a lot of people in fits of anger, which wound up doing no real harm whatsoever. For it was today’s date, August 11 in 1984 that President Ronald Reagan made his (in)famous joke about “Outlawing Russia” and “we begin bombing in five minutes.”
Reagan’s Actual Speech and What He MEANT to Say…
Reagan was making a regularly scheduled radio address, and he was being checked for sound levels before he began. He had already silently read the first line of his speech which went this way:
“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they’ve too long been denied: the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are all owed to do.”
Having already seen this line, Reagan decided to engage in what was to him a bit of levity. So during his few seconds of sound checking, he said: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Although Reagan’s press aides, as well as technicians and pool reporters in the room chuckled, a tape soon leaked. According
to Gannett News Service and the Associated Press, the joke was made in a ”voice check,” in which technicians make adjustments to their recording equipment to the level of the President’s voice. There were two networks present who elected not to report it, those being CBS, and CNN. The president of CNN, Burt Reinhardt (above), remarked: ”We thought about it a great deal, talked about it a lot. But anything talked about before the radio broadcast would be off the record.”
The “Joke” Gets Out and Causes a Furor
But as usually happens in campaigns, word of the “joke” did get out and raised a furor. Reagan was at the time running for re-election against former vice president Walter Mondale (below). His get tough policies visa-vie the Soviet Union were making a lot of people nervous at what seemed like the new level of confrontation. Reagan’s joke gave
even more fuel to those commentators and pundits both in the U.S. and abroad who believed that Reagan was a senile old man who simply didn’t understand the forces he was dealing with in his pursuit of his “Cowboy Diplomacy” In fact, “russiapedia.com” has since recorded this very dark reaction:
“The moment the president’s flippant remark was released, it immediately caused a stir both in the United States and abroad. Most international media responded with outrage, fearing that the joke about “outlawing” the Soviet Union had once again put the two superpowers on the verge of a third world war.
Upon hearing the news, a leading Parisian newspaper, suggested in dismay that Reagan’s jest be tested by a trained psychologists to determine whether it was “a statement of repressed desire or the exorcism of a dreaded phantom.” As the imminent danger of such a comment was obvious, a Dutch news service ironically remarked, “Hopefully, the man tests his missiles more carefully,” referring to the possibility of the Soviets turning their weapons toward the US after hearing such a threat.”
But the fact is that White House officials quickly assured Russian officials what was the fairly obvious fact that it had all been a minor joke, although to some a tasteless one and that no attack was forthcoming. There were reports in some papers that the Soviet Far East Army was placed on alert and that the alert was not withdrawn until 30 minutes later. But nothing came of that. 30 minutes later everything was fine. In the words of CNN Vice President, Ed Turner, “The President is a guy who drops one-liners. In this case it was a little careless of him, considering he’s hardly a neophyte.”
The careless joke that had so many pundits crowing resulted in a minor jump in the polls for Walter Mondale for a short time. But then Reagan regained the lead which he carried to a land slide win taking every state except Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, and the District of Columbia. And during his second term, Reagan went on to establish the friendliest relations with the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev (above) that had ever been seen between two such leaders before. The U.S. Arms build up coupled with the close relationship wound up bringing the “Cold War” to a victorious end for the West. And in all of those world changing events, the “gaffe” about “bombing in five minutes” was little more than a foot note to be discussed by Bloggers like me!