On August 11, 1984, at the height of the Cold War, the President made his weekly public address from Rancho del Cielo – his holiday home in California. The radio transmission was supposed to start with Reagan announcing his signature on the Equal Access Act, a key part of his re-election campaign. However, prior to his address, the President was joking with the National Public Radio (NPR) audio engineers during a soundcheck.
He joked: “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.”
However, a live feed from his home was already being transmitted to radio stations around the US, in preparation for the real thing.
Many broadcasters were already recording the feed and therefore the President’s light-hearted jibe was interpreted by some to be the official transmission.
Following a swift White House agreement, both CBS News and Cable News Network (CNN) agreed to keep the remarks under wraps.
However, rumours of the joke quickly spread, and by August 13 the actual quotation had been published by several other outlets.
Three days after the original remarks, the joke had become world news and a coded message was uncovered from the Soviet Union that declared: “We now embark on military action against US forces,” in a move that was thought to be a retaliation.
This put NATO forces on high-alert, but an attack never came.
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Andropov announced the KGB would begin Operation RYaN (Nuclear Missile Attack) – the largest, most comprehensive intelligence operation in Soviet history.
Consequently, mass paranoia set in among Soviet leaders regarding the US plans, as memories of Nazi Germany’s surprise invasion of the USSR still haunted them.
These fears were not helped by the actions and rhetoric of Reagan.
He announced a new medium-range nuclear missile to be introduced into Europe – the Pershing II – which could reach the Soviet Union from West Germany in six minutes.
He also famously dubbed the USSR an “evil empire” sparking fury in the Kremlin.
Several false nuclear alarms were raised on both sides over nuclear missile launches in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1985 – to name just a few.
These occurred for various reasons, including individual incompetence, training exercises, faulty computers and blocked sensors.
Thankfully, the crisis was averted after Reagan and Gorbachev came face-to-face on November 21, 1985, at a summit in Geneva and agreed to three more meetings.
The pair realised they were just one more computer mistake away from obliterating each other.
Two years later, on December 8, the INF Treaty was signed, banning either nation possessing missiles with range capabilities between 310 and 3,400 miles.