A quarter century ago this week, on April 22, 1994, U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., was in hot water with our neighbors to the north over a nuke 'em joke they did not find funny.
It all started during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing where lawmakers were discussing a trade dispute with Canada. American farmers had claimed that Canadian wheat and barley, which was jamming grain elevators all over the Midwest, was unfairly subsidized - a claim Canada denied. Senators were discouraged that Canadian officials did not seem interested in even discussing the topic.
That's when Conrad made his ill-fated remark: "We've got 200 Minuteman III's in North Dakota that we're ready to re-target, and maybe that would get their attention."
The comment became fodder for Canadian media and politicians who said they were "shocked" by the "thoughtless" statement. Conrad went into damage control, even calling the Canadian ambassador and appearing on Canadian talk radio.
"Some of the press up there reported it as if it were a serious suggestion," Conrad said. "Everyone in the committee room laughed. Everyone understood it was a joking reference. The mood had been kind of heavy to that point. I was just trying to break the tension. Little did I know people would take it like this."
An editorial the next day in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead called Conrad's remark "clumsy and ill-advised," but claimed the Canadians were "a humorless lot" who were "feigning outrage" over the remark for their own benefit. It said Canadians saw an "opportunity to divert attention from the grain dispute by doing their best self-righteous indignation act." The editorial went on to say that wouldn't work.
"The obstinate refusal of the Canadians to even talk about grain shipments to the United States suggests they know an honest negotiation would reveal the unfairness and possible illegality of what they're doing," said the editorial.
The United States eventually filed a complaint about Canada with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. By August 1994, long after "Jokegate" blew over, the two nations signed a trade agreement limiting Canadian exports to the U.S.
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