Twenty years before his death, then-President Ronald Reagan accidentally sent Soviet forces in Vladivostok into high alert thanks to another bit of leaked audio. Specifically, he told an ill-advised joke about outlawing Russia.
The joke came on Aug. 11, 1984. Reagan was in the middle of a re-election campaign, and so he had a big announcement planned for his weekly radio address to America. He was going to be at his ranch in California, and so he asked National Public Radio engineers to do the address from there. They agreed.
So, the engineers came out and set up. As they were going through the mic checks, they asked him to say a few words to make sure they had all the levels right. Reagan agreed and went off on a quick riff:
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 engineers in the room got that it was a joke, and they were part of a deal not to release informal or off-the-record audio. So they chuckled, got the levels right, and let the president give his actual, scheduled address.
But they weren’t the only ones who had heard the remarks. The audio was already being sent to some of the radio stations that would broadcast the remarks, and those stations were recording the feed in case they missed the start of the presidential address.
And not all of them were part of the agreement to hold recordings not meant for broadcast. Someone leaked the audio.
Most of the world got that it was a joke and the punditry class took on its typical role of either condemning or praising the remarks. Most condemned, especially in those countries in Europe that Russia’s missiles could reach. The Soviet Union was also predictably, not a fan.
But one group of Soviet soldiers weren’t entirely sure that it was a joke. There were reports of a low-level Soviet commander putting his troops in Vladivostok on a wartime footing on August 13, in the belief that America really was going to war with the Soviet Union.
The story is disputed, but it says the troops were told to stand down about 30 minutes later as the Soviet officer wasn’t actually allowed to issue that level of alert. Also, obviously, if the August 11 remarks about bombing the Soviet Union in five minutes were real, there wouldn’t be an undamaged Soviet Union on August 13.
Reagan was overwhelmingly re-elected despite the blowback from the joke, and he actually established a productive relationship with Soviet Mikhail Gorbachev in the late ’80s.