A joke about “outlawing” the Soviet Union by President Ronald Reagan turns into an international embarrassment. The president’s flippant remarks caused consternation among America’s allies and provided grist for the Soviet propaganda mill.
As he prepared for his weekly radio address on August 11, 1984, President Reagan was asked to make a voice check. Reagan obliged, declaring, “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.” Since the voice check was not actually broadcast, it was not until after he delivered his radio address that news of his “joke” began to leak out. In Paris, a leading newspaper expressed its dismay, and stated that only trained psychologists could know whether Reagan’s remarks were “a statement of repressed desire or the exorcism of a dreaded phantom.” A Dutch news service remarked, “Hopefully, the man tests his missiles more carefully.” Other foreign newspapers and news services called Reagan “an irresponsible old man,” and declared that his comments were “totally unbecoming” for a man in his position. In the Soviet Union, commentators had a field day with Reagan’s joke. One stated, “It is said that a person’s level of humor reflects the level of his thinking. If so, aren’t one and the other too low for the president of a great country?” Another said, “We would not be wasting time on this unfortunate joke if it did not reflect once again the fixed idea that haunts the master of the White House.”
Reagan’s tasteless joke provided additional ammunition for commentators at home and abroad who believed that the anticommunist crusader was a reckless “cowboy” intent on provoking a conflict with the Soviet Union. Ironically, the man who also referred to Russia as an “evil empire” went on to establish a close personal relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after the latter came to power in 1985. The two men later signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons.