By: Scott RossPublished: August 11, 2022

Ronald Wilson Reagan

Your average Gen-Xer might nod approvingly while watching Stranger Things, recognizing that the Russkies being the baddies is historically accurate. And their kids might snort and make some crack about “I love how in everything in movie and TV shows from the ‘80s, they just make the Russians the bad guys.”

There's really no explaining to them that, no, really, the Russians were the bad guys. You can’t explain to them how legitimately scary Ronald Reagan’s “Bear” commercial from the 1980 presidential campaign was, or how the entire country was just shitting its collective pants in 1983 over The Day After, a crappy made-for-TV movie starring Steve Gutenberg, about the breakout of nuclear war that was watched by more than 100 million people--back when there were fewer than 240 million Americans.

Red Dawn, released on August 10, 1984, in which a group of plucky high school jocks (“Wolverines!”) turn back an invading Russian army, wasn’t simply awesome, it was, like, totally possible, dude. That’s the mindset under which America was operating when Reagan, by then campaigning for a second term as president of the United States, made perhaps the biggest hot-mic gaffe in the history of microphones.

Reagan was at his vacation home near Santa Barbara on August 11, 1984--the day after the release of Red Dawn--where he was preparing to record his weekly address, which was to open with him announcing the signing the Equal Access Act, which would allow religious student groups to meet in high schools during non-school hours. But during the soundcheck, he did a little riff on his opening:

"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."

Though the president was not yet on the air, the quip was broadcast to radio stations around the country who were preparing to host the presidential address, and so was recorded by untold numbers of sound technicians at radio stations across the country. Eventually, word got out and Walter Mondale tried to make hay out of the joke. "A President has to be very, very careful with his words, telling the assembled press. “I am willing to accept he saw it as a joke...but others will think it is serious...I don’t think it is very funny…”

A few days after Reagan's joke, a rogue Soviet tried to return fire by sending a coded message across the Pacific that read "We now embark on military action against U.S. forces," which, frankly, just isn't funny, not even rising to the level of "I know you are but what am I?" It did, however, cause confusion among fellow Soviet soldiers and lead to speculation among US officials that a drunk Russian may have been to blame.

Reagan would win the 1984 election in an absolute ball-stomping, taking 58.8% of the popular vote and 525 of 538 electoral votes.


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