When KAL 007 Went Down, Reagan Rose to the Occasion

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Russian misconduct ranging from cyber-crimes to military occupations of its neighbors and veiled threats to NATO members has been a hot topic on the American campaign trail. But such aggression is not a new problem, as events on this date 33 years ago today remind us. On that day, a Korean Airlines passenger jet that originated in New York was shot out of the sky by Soviet combat pilots, with the loss of all 269 passengers and crew members. Horrifyingly, this was not a mistake.

There was, however, positive fallout from that September 1, 1983 incident, thanks to two American leaders who saw a way to step beyond a purely bellicose response.

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KAL Flight 007 – yes, it would have that iconic Cold War number, wouldn’t it -- had refueled in Anchorage, Alaska, before resuming its journey. Its intended destination was Seoul, but on final approach it veered some 200 miles off course into Soviet airspace. More ominously, the pilots unintentionally flew over the Kamchatka Peninsula, which housed secret Soviet military installations.

Two Russian fighter jets were scrambled into the air. When they couldn’t raise the Korean pilots on the radio -- they were using the wrong frequency -- one of the Russian pilots, following orders from the ground, fired a heat-seeking missile at the passenger plane.

By then, the Korean crew was in the process of correcting the plane’s course, which was probably back in international airspace. But it was too late: The missile hit the plane, causing it to crash into the sea. It must have been unmitigated terror for the passengers, 61 of whom were Americans, including a congressman from Georgia named Larry McDonald.

The primary reaction in the United States was appalled anger. The Soviet government didn’t help matters. The Russians at first denied any plane was shot down at all, then said they hadn’t done it, then finally settled on the story that KAL 007 was a spy plane.

These lies infuriated U.S. officials even further, and much of the American public, as well. President Reagan called it “a crime against humanity,” which was a pretty reasonable assessment.

Inside the Reagan administration a spirited debate erupted between hardliners and pragmatists over how to respond. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and others wanted to break off relations with Moscow. Secretary of State George P. Shultz argued that it gave the president the leverage he needed to begin arms reductions talks with the Soviet leadership.

The downing of the plane also had an impact internationally. Earlier that year some 2 million Europeans had demonstrated in favor of a nuclear freeze.  But the destruction of this plane demonstrated that Reagan’s famously dark view of the Soviets had justification.

In the end, the man whom liberals on both sides of the Atlantic had portrayed as a trigger-happy cowboy kept his gun holstered. Reagan, as he often did, took the long view. He sided with George Shultz.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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