In late July of 1914 when the governments of Europe’s major powers made their respective mobilization announcements, public reactions in each nation was strikingly similar. An atmosphere of celebration descended upon the national capitals. Jubilant crowds streamed into public squares, waving flags and banners. Emotional embraces and bottles of wine and were shared between strangers and friends alike. Patriotic songs and national anthems were sung with passionate zeal, and unbridled emotion. Tears of joy were shed, and talk of glorious victories in the days ahead washed through the crowds with breathtaking speed. In 1914 mobilization meant war, and the coming war was generally viewed as an adventure. The horror, misery, and destruction which would ultimately define the First World War existed in minds of only a handful of influential people in Europe. They wisely kept their opinions to themselves, choosing to mourn silently as the masses frolicked in blissful ignorance of what the future truly held. After all, this was the people’s moment and they were not to be denied.
It was noon in the eastern United States, and 9 AM on the west coast when special report bulletins preempted regularly scheduled television programs. News anchors, some visibly fighting to keep their composure, informed the American public that the NATO nations were all ordering their armed forces to mobilize and begin moving to wartime staging areas and positions. President Reagan was expected to address the nation for the second time in less than 48 hours later in the afternoon. Speculation ran high in media circles that Reagan would announce a full-scale US mobilization.
The response of the average American citizen to the news from Brussels was a stark contrast to how Europeans responded to similar news on the eve of World War I. Collectively, Americans were fully aware of how dangerous the situation was in Europe. For the last two days, peace marches and protests had taken place in a number of major cities. The marches mirrored the fears many people had concerning the possibility of this crisis leading to eventual nuclear war. This possibility had a sobering effect on almost everyone in North America and it was evident in the absence of pomp and circumstance surrounding the addresses of national leaders and announcements of mobilization.
Public opinion polls indicated a large amount of support for President Reagan’s actions and the US position thus far. Americans realized this was not a crisis of their own government’s making, and the overwhelming majority of people polled laid responsibility square on the shoulders of the Soviets. Ironically enough for the Reagan administration, the heightening tensions in the past two months had served to deflate the growing cauldron of public interest and concern in the Iran-Contra matter. The Reagan administration had allegedly sold arms to Iran in violation of an embargo then in place, and subsequently funneled the money from the sales to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. News had broken in November of 1986 and following the release of the Tower Report, joint House-Senate hearings were scheduled and got underway in May. Public interest in the crisis had waned as the international situation worsened. On the previous day the Senate announced the postponement of the hearings underway, effectively erasing the Iran-Contra affair from the American psyche.