Today is Presidential Joke Day. On August 11, 1984, while preparing to give a weekly radio address from his ranch in California, Ronald Reagan was asked to do a routine sound check.
Although the president enjoyed telling jokes about Russia, on that morning his remark was meant only for the sound engineers getting ready for the National Public Radio broadcast. Instead of counting “one, two, three” and so on, the president said:
My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation which will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.
The comment was captured on tape and leaked to the media, then the world. NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw reported that on August 15, 1984, a coded message sent from Soviet headquarters placed troops on wartime alert, stating, “We now embark on military action against the U.S. forces.”
The alert was withdrawn 30 minutes later, after ships in the North Pacific contacted headquarters to question their orders. The official word from the Kremlin claimed that someone in the Far Eastern Command had declared a state of war without authorization.
Some U.S. officials believed the Soviet government had sanctioned the action to retaliate against Reagan’s offensive words. Others thought it was a joke. One speculated the culprit had been drunk. We’ll never know because the guilty party was never revealed.
Setting aside its questionable humor value, we must conclude that Ronald Reagan’s joke is the most powerful ever told because the hard feelings it engendered could have caused a nuclear war.
Hear the quip here. Have a happy Presidential Joke Day and remember: Always, always, always assume the mic is live and don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to hear on the six o’clock news!