This generation has its KAL 007. The stunning downing of Malaysian flight 17 is strikingly similar to the shock of September 1, 1983, when the Russians downed a Korean passenger airliner, flight 007, which had left New York City for Seoul via Alaska. In both cases, the Russian government vehemently denied any involvement, disparaging anyone who dared to accuse it of prior knowledge.
Both planes were Asian with similar numbers of dead. KAL had 269 passengers; the Malaysian flight nearly 300. They were mostly Asian passengers but also Americans—61 Americans in KAL 007 and a much smaller (still unconfirmed) number in the Malaysian flight. In both cases, questions arise over why the planes were flying where they were flying. Exactly what happened with KAL still isn’t entirely clear, but it seems the computer on the plane’s guidance system was set incorrectly, allowing it to stray into Soviet airspace. Russian fighter planes stalked KAL 007 before blasting it out of the sky.
In 1983, Moscow initially denied the dirty deed, with Yuri Andropov, Vladimir Putin’s former boss at the KGB, insisting on his country’s innocence. The denials were shattered when the Reagan administration produced audio of the two Russian pilots communicating as they excitedly shot the plane. The audio was secured via the National Security Agency’s exceptional electronic surveillance technology.
But a major difference between September 1983 and July 2014 is the initial reaction of the two presidents.
Obama’s initial response to MH17 has been dissected at length, including my own earlier analysis. He even offended diehard liberals like CNN’s Piers Morgan, and prompted his deep admirer, Chris Matthews, to long for Ronald Reagan. It was extremely disappointing, even as he redeemed himself somewhat with a much stronger assessment the following day.
I will not belabor the point here. Rather, I’d like to underscore another presidential response that I know especially well, and that’s worth remembering—notably, Ronald Reagan’s reaction to a similar situation.
President Reagan was informed of the KAL catastrophe by his closest aide, national security adviser Bill Clark. As Clark’s biographer, I discussed this with him many times.
Reagan was at his ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains north of Santa Barbara when he received the news via telephone from Clark. “I told him Bill Casey [CIA director] just relayed an unsubstantiated report that the Soviets may have shot down an airliner, possibly Korean,” Clark told me. Reagan replied to Clark: “Bill, let’s pray it’s not true.”
They prayed, but it was true. The Soviets never let prayer get in the way of their work.
As Clark recalled, “He [Reagan] said, ‘Bill, round table it,’ which meant bring it to the decision-making process to get the opinions and recommendations of all the principals in the NSC: Shultz, Weinberger, Kirkpatrick, Casey….”
Clark called Reagan twice that evening with preliminary information, first at 7:30 p.m., California time. Clark was in the “Western Situation Room” at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, only a few miles from Reagan. They were not able to confirm the details until 7:10 a.m. the next morning.
Reagan was furious. John Barletta, his riding companion at the ranch, overheard Reagan shout: “Those were innocent civilians. Damn those Russians!”
Clark told the press that he personally expected the Soviets to perpetuate the “big lie” technique. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians claimed that the commercial airliner was on an American espionage mission.
Reagan immediately helicoptered to Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California to board Air Force One for Washington. At 12:35 p.m., from the tarmac, he spoke to the press, excoriating the Soviets for committing a “brutal,” “callous,” and “heinous act”—a “barbaric act,” a “terrorist act.” It was all made worse, he said, by the fact that the Russians “so flagrantly lie.”
Back in Washington, Reagan immediately met with Clark and the National Security Council. He publicly lit up the Soviets with more statements, including a radio address on September 3 and a nationally televised Oval Office speech on September 5, in which he repeatedly denounced Moscow’s “crime” and “massacre.” And there were more statements to come.
In a speech on September 15 to the Air Force Association, Clark accused Moscow of “mass murder” and a “twisted mentality.” “The sickening display of Soviet barbarism in the Korean Air Lines massacre shocked all of us,” Clark said. “But at the same time, this dramatically brutal act must be deemed consistent with the behavior of a Soviet government that continues to terrorize and murder the Afghan people, using chemical weapons on Afghan villages; a Soviet government that sponsors the repression of the entire Polish nation.”
As evidence that Clark’s words had been pre-approved, the White House press office distributed the text as an expression of administration policy. The media didn’t miss it. “Clark Accuses Soviets of ‘Mass Murder,’” read the headline in the Washington Post.
And yet, while Ronald Reagan was steamed, he was also very careful. He told Clark flatly: “[L]et’s be careful not to overreact to this. We have too much going on with the Soviets…. Bill, we’ve got to protect against overreaction.”
Reagan did not want to start a war over the KAL downing, nor derail the substantial progress they had made toward cutting nuclear arsenals. Besides, he was already hammering the Soviets with the economic sledgehammer (read: economic warfare) and recently announced initiatives like SDI.
How best to react? Reagan decided to respond primarily with words rather than yet more sanctions or a military response (which was out of the question). He deployed one of his favorite weapons against the Kremlin: the verbal cruise missile. Recall that earlier that year, in March, Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” a choice name that dramatically affected Moscow.
So, throughout September 1983, Reagan torched the Soviets in harsh terms, even when delivering speeches on other topics or areas of the world.
On September 25, for instance, Reagan spoke in New York City at the annual Pulaski Day Banquet. There, he linked the KAL 007 “crime” to the same Soviet totalitarian evil responsible for the World War II butchery of Polish military officers in the Katyn forest. “You know that downing a passenger airliner is totally consistent with a government that murdered 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest,” he averred. “We cannot let the world forget that crime, and we will not.”
He did not. Ronald Reagan’s reaction to the Russian downing of an Asian airliner was one of strength, character, and leadership. It’s worth knowing and emulating.