Today, on August 11, but 32 years ago, in 1984, United States President Ronald Reagan, while running for re-election, was preparing to make his weekly Saturday radio address on National Public Radio. Throughout a sound check prior to the speech, Reagan made the following joke to the radio service technicians: “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.” The joke was a parody of the opening line of that day’s speech: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they’ve too long been denied — the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are allowed to do.”
Contrary to mistaken popular belief, this microphone gaffe was not transmitted over the air, however rather leaked later to the general people. However the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported in October 1984 that the Soviet Far East Army was placed on alert after word of the declaration got out and that the alert was not withdrawn until 30 minutes later. An unnamed aide to US Representative Michael Barnes validated that the Pentagon was aware of the warning. There was no report of any change in the DEFCON level for the United States. The Soviet response and moderate confusion it produced was covered by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.
This was not the very first time Reagan had actually joked prior to giving a speech or address. The Soviet official news agency, TASS, condemned the prank, stating that “The USSR condemns this unprecedented and hostile attack by the US President” and that “this kind of behavior is incompatible with the great responsibility borne by heads of nuclear states for the destinies of their own people and mankind.”
The quip ended up being the basis for a song titled “Five Minutes”, as well as “A is for Atom (B is for Bomb)” by Monte Cazazza’s band The Atom Smashers, both of which started with a clip of the recording.