This week we’ve seen American President Donald Trump warning of “fire and fury” as he squares up to North Korea over its threat to fire four ballistic missiles near the US territory of Guam.
Thirty-three years ago today, on August 11th, 1984, it was US President Ronald Reagan who was in hot water for talk of bombing Russia. In international politics, it seems, nothing much changes.
Thankfully, Reagan’s threat was made only in jest, though his opponents were quick to seize on it. The US President, campaigning for re-election, was due to make his weekly Saturday radio address on National Public Radio when he was asked to say a few words for a sound check before the broadcast began.
Known for his sense of humour, the former Hollywood actor responded: “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.”
Everyone present, including several leading members of the press, laughed at the obvious joke, and of course it was not broadcast on air. But it was soon leaked outside the room and, when featured on national news programmes, provided obvious ammunition for political opponents looking to damage the President’s election campaign.
Many dismissed it as just being in poor taste, coming as it did at a time of increased tension between the USA and the USSR, but others said it betrayed Reagan’s true feelings and was no joking matter for a man in his position.
Criticism wasn’t limited to the USA either, with a leading French newspaper expressing dismay that the President could treat such a serious matter in such a flippant way. A Dutch news agency, branding the joke as ill-advised, remarked: “Hopefully, the man tests his missiles more carefully”. A Japanese newspaper later claimed the Soviet Far East Army had been placed on high alert when the leak first got out, and wasn’t stood down for a full 30 minutes.
In Russia itself, the official Soviet news agency TASS – mouthpiece of the Communist Party – condemned the joke, calling it an “unprecedented and hostile attack by the US President”. It added that: “this kind of behaviour is incompatible with the great responsibility borne by heads of nuclear states for the destinies of their own people and mankind”.
Meanwhile, the President’s aides shrugged off the international criticism, saying their boss had clearly been making a joke for a small group of people and that it had been blown out of all proportion just to make political capital. It briefly seemed to work, as Reagan’s approval rating dipped, boosting the presidential hopes of his Democrat rival in the election race, Walter Mondale.
Reagan, however, quickly recovered and beat Mondale at the polls, beginning his second term of office in 1984. Ironically, the man portrayed as a trigger-happy cowboy by his opponents, went on to forge a close working relationship with the Soviet Union after reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The two superpower leaders jointly signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, eliminating and entire class of nuclear missiles.