20. Editorial Note

On October 21, 1970, as President Richard Nixon prepared for his upcoming meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, an incident took place on the Soviet-Turkish border that threatened to complicate the course of Soviet-American relations. That afternoon, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Alexander Haig received the following memorandum from David McManis in the White House Situation Room:

“Two U.S. Army generals aboard a U–8 Utility aircraft in Northeastern Turkey may be lost and may have strayed into Soviet territory. The generals are Major General [Edward] Scherrer, Chief, JUSMAT [Joint U.S. Military Mission for Aid to Turkey]; and Brigadier General [Claude] McQuarrie, Chief of the Army Section. We will inform you of any developments as they occur.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 713, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. IX)

Rear Admiral Daniel J. Murphy (USN), Military Assistant to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, subsequently informed Haig that the pilot, Major James P. Russell, had “encountered cross-winds and dense clouds” en route from Erzurum to Kars before landing the airplane in Leninakan in Soviet Armenia. After examining the available evidence, Murphy concluded that the “apparent accidental and voluntary landing of the U–8 in the Soviet Union resulted from the pilot’s disorientation after climbing above the clouds and his reported reliance on an as yet unidentified beacon signal.” (Memorandum from Murphy to Haig, November 2; ibid.)

Ronald Ziegler, White House Press Secretary, reported during his press briefing on October 22 that Nixon and Gromyko had discussed the incident. “[T]hey did not have the details to discuss it in any depth,” Ziegler noted. “But it was brought to their attention.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, Ziegler, Numerical Subject File, Foreign Affairs and Defense, Box 28, 03.3—Europe, Sov. Union) No evidence has been found, however, that the issue was raised during the meeting. Secretary of State William Rogers in New York called Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger at 11:30 a.m. on October 23 to review the situation:

“R: I called to see if there was anything more to this flight of the Generals that I should know.

K: I just asked that—and independently. To the best of my knowledge, it was a routine inspection flight. They may have been lured over by electronic means—they have done that once.

“R: I will see Gromyko later tonight and wanted to be sure there was nothing I should know. I don’t think I will say anything.

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K: Except to say we would be eager to have them released.

“R: That’s what I wanted to know.” (Ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 7, Chronological File)

Later that evening, U.N. Secretary General U. Thant hosted a dinner for the Foreign Ministers involved in the four-power talks on the Middle East. (Telegram Secto 66, October 24; ibid., RG 59, Executive Secretariat, Conference Files, 1966–1972, Box 520, CF 471, 1970 UNGA Memcons, Vol. III of VI) No evidence has been found, however, that Rogers and Gromyko discussed the detention of the American officers.

When the Soviets failed to resolve the matter, Acting Secretary of State John Irwin summoned Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to the Department of State on October 29 to deliver a formal protest. The American statement charged that Soviet treatment of the detainees—including failure to grant consular access for five days—constituted a “clear violation” of the Soviet-American Consular Convention. (Department of State Bulletin, November 23, 1970, pages 653–654) The next morning, Winston Lord of the National Security Council staff called Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., Executive Secretary of the Department of State. According to Eliot, Lord reported that Kissinger “had no problems with the substance of the note” but was “unhappy that we had not cleared the note with him.” Eliot reminded Lord that it was the Department’s “practice not to bother the White House with matters on which policy is established.” (Memorandum for the Record; National Archives, RG 59, Executive Secretariat, Briefing Books, 1958–1976, Box 112, Lot 72 D 317, S/S Memos, Oct.–Nov. 1970)

Rogers, meanwhile, sought to formulate a new policy on such accidental incursions. In a letter to Laird on October 28, Rogers addressed the implications of recent events in Soviet Armenia: “I am struck by the fact that incidents of our aircraft straying across East-West lines seem to be all too frequent but never seem to happen to Soviet or other Communist aircraft (at least we never catch them at it). I need not tell you that no matter how innocent the intent of our personnel, the Communists make sure that we pay the maximum political price in each case.” Although he promised to “do our best” to resolve the current crisis, Rogers wondered whether anything could be done to “enable us to do better” in the future. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 330–76–067, Box 47, 360) When the Secretary of Defense replied in a November 7 letter, the American officers were still in Soviet custody. Laird assured Rogers that the Pentagon shared his concerns. “We certainly need to assure ourselves that we are taking every reasonable precaution against repetitions of this sort of incident,” Laird stated, “and I am looking into this.” (Ibid.) Laird subsequently reported to the President that that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had instituted a review of current procedures in “an ongoing effort to avoid unfortunate incidents.” (Memorandum from Laird to Nixon, December 10; ibid.)