Inside the Situation Room When Reagan Was Shot

President Reagan waves, then looks up before being shoved into Presidential limousine by Secret Service agents after being shot outside a Washington hotel. (AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Thirty-five years ago today, on March 30, 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Of the six bullets fired by Hinckley, one hit the president in the chest. Here’s ABC News first airing the dramatic footage that day:

When news reached the White House, Reagan’s crisis-management team met in the Situation Room. National Security Advisor Richard V. Allen recorded audio of that meeting on his personal tape recorder. The “previously undisclosed transcripts of the deliberations” were published in the April 2001 issue of The Atlantic. Here’s Allen:

All we knew in the first hour was that the President had been shot. We had virtually no information about the assailant or his motives, or about whether he had acted alone. Vice President Bush was in the air over Texas. … The first assessments by the Pentagon revealed that more Soviet submarines than usual were off the East Coast.


In the transcript, various members of the president’s security team discuss the location of the “football” (“a briefcase containing the nuclear release-code sequences that is always at the President's side”), the location of a Soviet submarine (“two minutes closer than normal”), and infamous line-of-succession gaffe by Secretary of State Alexander Haig (“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State, in that order...”—nope, the #3 spot is for the House Speaker).

Allen concludes by reflecting on a job well done:

It is important to point out that, despite brief flare-ups and distractions, the crisis-management team in the Situation Room worked together well. The congressional leadership was kept informed, and governments around the world were notified and reassured.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic archive, just months before the assassination attempt, James Conaway profiled then-candidate Reagan and his wife Nancy for our October 1980 issue, in which Conaway wondered, “Why can’t an actor be as good a President as a peanut warehouseman, a hustling attorney, a schoolteacher? It all depends upon the quality of his fantasies between takes …”

Speaking of Reagan’s acting career, check out the fascinating footage seen below, published for the first time by The Atlantic in 2010. It shows Reagan in an episode of General Electric Theater that aired live on December 12, 1954. This time, Reagan has a (fake) gun pointed at him—by James Dean:

Reagan eventually passed away of natural causes in 2004 at the ripe old age of 93. (Marina covered his wife’s death earlier this month.) James Brady—the White House press secretary shot during the attack and the subsequent namesake of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act—died in 2014 of complications reportedly related to the 1981 shooting; his death was ruled a homicide.

Finally, did you know that in 2012, someone tried to auction a vial of blood allegedly taken from Reagan in the aftermath of the shooting? Creepy. But the auction was cancelled and the vial was donated to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.