We begin bombing in five minutes

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"We begin bombing in five minutes" is the last sentence of a controversial, off-the-record joke made by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1984, during the "second Cold War".

While preparing for a scheduled radio address from his vacation home in California, President Reagan joked with those present about outlawing and bombing Russia. This joke was not broadcast live, but was recorded and later leaked to the public. The Soviet Union denounced the president's joke, as did Reagan's then-opponent in the 1984 United States presidential election, Walter Mondale. Reagan's impromptu comments have had significant staying power, being referenced, cited, and used as literary inspiration as recently as 2017.

Speech[edit]

President Reagan speaking at a reelection campaign event (July 1984)

Live[1] at 9:06 a.m. on August 11, 1984, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made his weekly radio address from Rancho del Cielo, his vacation home near Santa Barbara, California. The actual address begins with the president announcing his signature on the Equal Access Act,[2] a key plank in his reelection campaign:[3] "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 allowed to do."[2]

It was prior to the speech itself, while the president was joking with the National Public Radio audio engineers during soundcheck, that he riffed on his own speech, 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."[1] This sort of levity was not uncommon for Reagan; he was known to inject soundchecks, outtakes, and downtime with his humor throughout his career in both show business and politics.[4]

Leak[edit]

In the minutes before the president gave his speech, a live feed from Rancho del Cielo was still being transmitted to radio stations around the United States. Many rebroadcasters were already recording the feed to be ready for the official transmission, therefore also recording the president's pre-speech joke. While many in the media heard the president's impromptu remarks as he gave them, they were not broadcast live.[5]

In October 1982, President Reagan had made similarly impolitic remarks about the Polish People's Republic. As he prepared to announce his cancellation of Poland's most favoured nation status (in retaliation for suppression of the Polish trade union Solidarity), Reagan called the military government "a bunch of no-good, lousy bums."[5] This was later aired by the American Broadcasting Company and NBC News.[6] As a result of this leak, members of the White House Correspondents' Association agreed not to publish such unprepared, off-the-record presidential remarks in the future.[5]

Both CBS News and Cable News Network recorded the 1984 joke, but kept the president's remarks under wraps in accordance with the White House agreement. However, rumors of the joke quickly spread, and by August 13 the actual quotation had been published by outlets such as Gannett. Then-White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes declined to comment on August 13, saying, "I don’t talk about off-the-record stuff."[5]

Reactions[edit]

Soviet[edit]

By August 14, the recording of Reagan's joke had become world news. On August 15, someone who the National Security Agency described to U.S. Representative Michael D. Barnes as "a wayward operator in the Soviet Far Eastern command" sent a coded message from Vladivostok that said, in part, "We now embark on military action against the U.S. forces." Japanese and US intelligence decoded the message and raised the alert state in that part of the world; Soviet naval vessels in the North Pacific, on the other hand, contacted Vladivostok in confusion. The U.S. never saw any evidence of Soviet attack preparations, and the alert status as promulgated by Vladivostok was canceled within 30 minutes.[3]

Initially, on August 13, the deputy minister of Soviet foreign affairs (Valentin Kamenev) told reporters, "I have nothing to say."[5] By the next day, though, President Reagan's leaked comments were denounced by the Soviet government, Pravda, Izvestia, and TASS as "unprecedentedly hostile," as evidence of the United States' insincerity at trying to improve Soviet Union–United States relations, and as abuse of the office of the president. "Western diplomats" described the Soviet response as over-the-top, suggesting it was an effort to give themselves more collateral at the negotiating table with the US.[7] U.S. officials were compelled to mollify the Soviet Union and assure the United States' Cold War adversary that "Reagan’s offhand remark did not reflect White House policies or U.S. military intentions."[8]

Domestic[edit]

Reagan's poll numbers took a hit from the political gaffe, temporarily raising the hopes of Walter Mondale supporters in the run-up to the 1984 United States presidential election.[8] Mondale said of Reagan's joke, "A President has to be very, very careful with his words."[5] However, in the analysis of historian Craig Shirley and Ozy author Sean Braswell, the leak of Reagan's joke was poorly utilized by the Democratic Party; "[criticism of the joke] actually worked against the Democrats and for Reagan […] as they came across as hypersensitive, and Reagan as calm, cool and collected."[4]

In 2010, Politico journalist Andrew Glass wrote, "Most commentators dismissed the joke as, at worst, poor taste. Nonetheless, it got geopolitical traction because it came at a time of heightened Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow — which largely dissolved during Reagan’s second term".[8] In 2011, the Deseret News listed Reagan's microphone gaffe as his sixth-best quote, expressing surprise that it was leaked only 87 days before the election.[1]

See also[edit]

  • Bushisms, unconventional statements, phrases, pronunciations, malapropisms, and semantic or linguistic errors in the public speaking of the 43rd President of the United States George W. Bush

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c De Groote, Michael (February 7, 2011). "Ronald Reagan's 10 best quotes". Deseret News. ISSN 0745-4724. Archived from the original on September 23, 2018. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  2. ^ a b Reagan, Ronald (August 11, 1984). Radio Address to the Nation on Congressional Inaction on Proposed Legislation (Speech). Rancho del Cielo: National Public Radio. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Maddow, Rachel (December 22, 2016). The Rachel Maddow Show. MSNBC. The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 12/22/2016.
  4. ^ a b Braswell, Sean (February 13, 2017). "The Cold War Joke that Had the Soviets on High Alert". Ozy. Archived from the original on October 14, 2017. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Because when you are president, every word matters.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Jackson, Harold (August 14, 1984). "Storm as Reagan bombing joke misfires". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Archived from the original on September 17, 2018. Retrieved October 25, 2018. An off-air joke by Ronald Reagan causes consternation as the US president announces Russia will be bombed
  6. ^ "Reagan Said to Joke Of Bombing Russia Before Radio Speech". The New York Times. Punch Sulzberger. August 13, 1984. p. A16. ISSN 0362-4331. OCLC 1645522. Archived from the original on March 18, 2020. Retrieved July 4, 2020.
  7. ^ "Soviets assail Reagan for 'monstrous' joke". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Moscow. Associated Press. August 16, 1984. pp. 1–2. ISSN 1068-624X.
  8. ^ a b c Glass, Andrew (August 11, 2010). "Reagan jokes about bombing Russia, August 11, 1984". Politico. Archived from the original on October 17, 2016. Retrieved October 22, 2018.