263. Editorial Note

On the morning of August 11, 1984, while vacationing at his ranch in California, President Ronald Reagan prepared to record his weekly Saturday radio address. During the sound check, Reagan joked: “‘My [Page 928] fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’” According to a Washington Post article reporting on the incident, unbeknownst to the President, at least two networks had already started recording and picked up his remarks during the sound check. The President’s comments were widely reported in the international media. (“Tapes Pick Up Reagan Joke About Soviets,” Washington Post, August 13, 1984, page A6) In his diary, Reagan wrote: “my Sat. radio tapings. On one of them I gave the press an opening to display their irresponsibility which they did. Doing a voice level with no thought that anyone other than the few people in the room would hear I ad libbed jokingly something about the Soviets. The networks had a line open & recorded it and of course made it public—hence an international incident.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 372)

The Soviets seized on Reagan’s joke, releasing an official TASS statement on August 15: “This episode is being perceived, and with every justification, as a manifestation of the same frame of mind that earlier was officially formulated in calls for a ‘crusade,’ in the doctrines of limited and protracted nuclear war, and in military-political plans for gaining a dominant position in the world for the US. Now, the US administration prefers to keep silent about all this, but its practical actions speak for themselves.” (“Reagan ‘Bombing Joke’ Irks Moscow: TASS Calls it ‘Unprecedentedly Hostile,’” Current Digest of the Soviet Press, volume XXXVI, No. 33 (September 12, 1984), page 5)

In an August 15 memorandum to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Robert McFarlane, National Security Council Staff member John Lenczowski suggested: “If public discussion and press attention to the President’s joke about bombing Russia persists, one way we can handle it is by explaining the real nature of the joke: the President was merely making a parody of Soviet propaganda attempts to portray him as a trigger-happy warmonger. The joke, therefore, was designed to illuminate how ludicrous that propaganda is. Such an explanation can put the President on the offensive rather than remaining on the defensive with the explanations of how it was an ‘unfortunate comment.’” (Reagan Library, John Lenczowski Files, NSC Files, Chron File August 1984)