Ronald Reagan jokes about the USSR | 28 March 1988
In late March 1988, President Ronald Reagan, then in his final year in office, visited the Reynolds Metals Company in Richmond, Virginia to tour its operations. Afterward, he spoke from the main lobby of the headquarters building to a crowd of employees about the impressive industrial production he had witnessed. He waxed about the factory’s role in the eventual triumph of capitalism over the planned economy of the Soviet Union. At the end of his speech, Reagan went to one of his most common routines as president: he told a joke about the harshness of life in the Soviet Union. With a punchline that made fun of the overworked and inefficient communist system, Reagan leveraged his performance background in Hollywood to drive the same point home about the superiority of American services. As often was the case, the crowd reacted more enthusiastically to his humor than to anything else Reagan said.
By 1988, the Cold War was into its fifth decade. The U.S. maintained a sizeable military advantage over the USSR, helped along by Reagan’s willingness to drastically increase military spending in the 1980s (including deficit spending). Reagan had campaigned for the presidency in 1980 as a staunch Cold Warrior and in 1983 he had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” It would not be until the beginning of his second term in 1985 that he began to seriously pursue diplomatic negotiations with the Soviet Union, convinced that he had successfully established U.S. military superiority to pursue a strategy of “peace through strength.”
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s economy was lagging, its military reeling from a war in Afghanistan, and many of its client Eastern European regimes struggling with democratic protest movements. From 1980-85, three elderly General Secretaries of the Central Committee (the most powerful position in the Soviet Union) died in office. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, representing a younger generation of Soviet leaders, came to power on a platform of reform. Gorbachev’s emphases on perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“public openness”) were an acknowledgement of the USSR’s shortcomings. Part of Gorbachev’s reform was also to engage the US in an attempt to diplomatically end the arms race between the two countries. These reforms would eventually contribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Reagan’s use of jokes as part of his broader Cold War strategy pointed to his skill as a communicator and politician. They also revealed his basic optimism about the appeal of American-style capitalism and democracy to peoples in non-democratic countries. Early in his presidency he had tasked the State Department with compiling jokes about life in the Soviet Union. By 1988, Paul Goble, head of the Balkan states desk, had come across more than 15,000 jokes which he passed along to the president in weekly memos. In his office, Reagan kept index cards for reference with these jokes and one-liners. The genre of contrasting U.S. and Soviet economic success, which Reagan’s jokes often belonged to, were part of a tradition in American Cold War diplomacy that dated to the “Kitchen Debate” in 1959.
The jokes were intended for an American audience to elicit ongoing domestic support for Reagan’s Cold War policies, as well as support for the Republican Party. It is no coincidence that Reagan’s visit to the Reynolds Metals Company was part of fundraising trip for the upcoming 1988 elections. The plain-folk style of Reagan and the 1980s GOP appealed to its white, middle-class, Sunbelt base of support. Though the Soviet Union was a favorite target for Reagan, it was certainly not alone. He told jokes about U.S. government waste, taxes, and his own foibles including his age and Irish ancestry. These jokes both disarmed criticisms of his views and often reinforced his core political arguments. In the case of the Soviet Union, the jokes highlighted the substandard quality of life, the lack of accountability of Soviet leadership, and the superiority of American economic and political freedoms. On occasion, the jokes reached the ears of Soviet leadership. In private, Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders expressed distaste for Reagan’s willingness to openly mock the Soviet system.
As a proponent of free markets and American-style capitalism, Reagan saw much of the Cold War contest between the US and USSR in terms of the quality of life of the two peoples. Contrary to his often-biting criticisms of Soviet leadership, he believed that the Soviet people – the masses of workers, farmers, and children – shared the same basic desires as Americans. Reagan refined this view of the Russian people through reading and speaking with author Suzanne Massie, who became an unofficial messenger between Reagan and Gorbachev. Massie’s celebration of pre-Soviet Russian society in her book Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia (1980) was especially influential on Reagan. His conviction about the desire of the Russian people to have the same material benefits as Americans led him to emphasize jokes that compared the advances of American consumerism and economic efficiency to the Soviet Union’s lagging economy.
Mann, James. The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. New York: Viking Press, 2009.
Matlock, Jack. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004.
Troy, Gil. The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.