Sylvester Stallone punches Dolph Lundgren in a scene from the film ‘Rocky IV’, 1985. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)
President Ronald Reagan was, first and foremost, an actor. “The Great Communicator” used his theatrical skills to deliver dazzling messages to the American people, and the world. Given his experience as an actor and as president of the Actors Guild, he was far more cognizant of the happenings in Hollywood than any president before or since.
He had his finger on the pulse of cinema, and took his cues from modern films, commenting frequently on two of the best-known characters in history. It may be hard to believe, but Sylvester Stallone’s ultimate soldier, John Rambo, and his heartfelt boxing champion, Rocky Balboa, seemed to have a profound effect on “The Gipper.”
Each character was complex enough to embody both the savage and compassionate nature of man, which was similar to Reagan’s foreign policy approach. According to historian Stephen E. Ambrose (you know, the guy who wrote Band of Brothers) in his book, Rise to Globalism, Reagan was “lost” during his first term in office, much like Rambo in First Blood – wandering around aimlessly, occasionally getting into fights, and wrecking enemies like a bug bomb on an anthill.
Rocky and Rambo enabled Reagan to find himself
In his first term, Reagan egregiously sold grain to the Soviets, which did nothing to change the volatile situation in Soviet-run Poland. Then, in the spring of 1985, he quietly implemented his grand strategy for peace in the Middle East and Central America. His plan: sell weapons to the enemy, Iran, and use that money to finance the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. It became known as the “Iran-Contra Affair,” and it was as illegal as Rambo in a tutu (apologies for that image).
The whole covert deal turned out in shambles and had the press bellowing for proper leadership. In July 1985, well over a month after Rambo: First Blood Part II was released, where Rambo basically re-fought and won the Vietnam War, Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune penned the article“Rambo in the White House.”
In it, he proclaimed, “Rambo has inspired America like no one since Dirty Harry or the reincarnated Elvis Presley.” He then went on to say how much he loved saying, “Rammmm-bo!” And how there were reports of “Rambo” graffitied on the Russian Embassy in Washington. Kilian also posed a comical suggestion: “Think if we had a President Rambo.”
This idea didn’t come out of nowhere, for after the film was released and prior to Kilian’s article, President Reagan caught some flack for stating: “Boy, I saw Rambo last night. I know what to do the next time this happens.” Granted, he was off-camera, talking to reporters about a hostage situation in Libya, yet the context for the comment was ill-advised.
Reagan loved Rambo II
The story, however, somewhat soured Stallone’s visit to the White House in October 1985. Prior to his arrival, President Reagan asked him to bring a signed poster of Rambo II. At the last moment, Stallone was advised to leave it at home, as administration officials feared the president receiving a signed poster of a scarred, ripped dude holding an RPG launcher with flames in the background was a bad idea. Even so, a month later, Reagan did receive the poster, and now it lives on in the Reagan Presidential Library.
Fans were quick to jump on the excitement of the meeting, and posters of “Ronbo,” (combination ‘Ronald’ and ‘Rambo’) began to appear with Rambo’s chain gun and Reagan’s face.
Just three days after meeting Stallone, hijackers took hold of an Italian cruise liner and were escaping via jet over the Mediterranean Sea. Reagan sent in the Sixth Fleet, and a flight of F-14 Tomcats “diverted” the flight to Italy, where the hijackers were promptly arrested. Reagan was flexing his Rambo-esque, chain gun firing muscles.
One month later, Rocky IV hit theaters. The highly popular installment of the Rocky franchise saw the fighter turn from reluctant champion of the world to Cold War warrior, fighting the most harrowing fake boxing match in history. Calling it fake proves difficult, however, as on the set an uppercut to Stallone’s rib cage by Dolph Lundgren, who was a former kickboxing champion, sent Stallone to the hospital for nine days.
Reagan actually commented after seeing the film, “It’s some of the greatest fight stuff I’ve ever seen filmed; so real.”
The fight was a truly barbaric grudge match. Rocky and “the Russian,” Ivan Drago (played by Lundgren), were the personification of the two heavyweight champions of the world – The United States and the Soviet Union – and were unleashing every weapon they had to annihilate each other. Reagan watched, and, wanting to win the Cold War, knew that it was going to be an all-out, knockdown brawl with the Soviets.
Rocky IV and the Berlin Wall
Rocky IV may have premiered in November 1985, but according to the Reagan Library, he didn’t watch it until Jan. 31, 1986. The next day, prior to a national address, Reagan discussed how amazing Rocky IV was.
“It has a very happy ending,” he said. “[Rocky] beats the Russian.”
Rocky IV and Rambo II’s release came at a time when Reagan was all-in for a heavyweight bout with the Soviet Union. In the mid-1980s, for the first time in decades, Reagan was conducting nuclear tests, compelling the Soviets to do the same in 1987. He was borrowing money to bulk up the US military, who, at the time, was second to the Soviets in conventional weapons.
Then, the Cold War reached a low point, when during a two-day summit in Reykjavik in Oct. 1986, Reagan refused to give up the US Strategic Defense Initiative (better known as Star Wars) and missed a huge opportunity for peace. It showed that even though Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons, he wasn’t going to give an inch to the Soviets, just like Rocky and Rambo.
But of course, Reagan knew that an all-out rumble with the Soviets would most likely lead to the end of the world. After ordering an airstrike aimed at killing Libyan Dictator Muammar Al Gaddafi two months earlier, he stepped up the rhetoric. On June 12, 1987, standing in front of the Berlin Wall, Reagan declared to the world that Gorbechev should, “tear down this wall.” It was a perfectly ridiculous thing to say, as the likelihood of that happening was equal to Rocky and Rambo fighting each other (hint, hint Mr. Stallone). Five months later, Reagan turned a corner when he negotiated the elimination of short-range nuclear weapons. Though it was mostly a symbolic gesture, it was a major milestone in the thawing of the Cold War.
Rambo III was the death knell for the Soviet Union
On Jan. 1, 1988, Rambo III was released in theaters, and this time, he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. At the time of the release of Rambo III, the Soviets had been fighting their war of aggression against Afghanistan for eight years.
Of the movie, Reagan said: “In the first Rambo movie, he took over a town, in the second, he single-handedly defeated several communist armies, and now in the third Rambo film, they say he gets really tough.”
Four months later, Reagan brokered a deal that resulted in the Soviets leaving Afghanistan for good. It was the first Soviet withdrawal from any country since 1945.
Of course, the rest is history: Reagan left office in January 1989, and the Berlin Wall, which Reagan had the audacity to promote the destruction of, was destroyed in November 1991. The fall Soviet Union followed it one month later.
Rambo and Rocky exited the Cold War around the same time Reagan did, ready to take on new enemies at home, and abroad. As for the reasons behind the end of the Cold War, there were many: Gorbachev enabled democracy to bud behind the Iron Curtain, globalism was introduced to an isolated country, and increased military spending.
But it was also Reagan’s rhetoric and the constant challenges presented to them by the United States. And, all the while, the actor-turned-president took cues from Rocky and Rambo. And from here on, the two of them will forever be recognized for doing their part as Cold War patriots; contributors to the fall of the Soviet Union.