84. Editorial Note

On September 1, 1983, a Soviet jet fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace near Sakhalin Island, killing all 269 people on board. In his memoir, Secretary of State George Shultz noted that he received a call at 6:30 a.m. informing him that the airliner had “‘disappeared’ over Soviet territory: it had probably been shot down by the Soviets.” He further recalled that “at 8:20 a.m. [EST], I called Bill Clark, who was with the president in California. [Reagan was on holiday, scheduled to return to Washington on September 4.] President Reagan already had been notified. We exchanged information, as yet somewhat sketchy. I told Larry Eagleburger to call in Oleg Sokolov, the Soviet chargé. Within an hour, much more information was coming in: the CIA had a transcript, I was told, of the Soviet pilot’s conversation with his ground control, who ordered him to shoot the aircraft down, the pilot’s acknowledgement, and then his confirmation that he had been successful.

“A heated internal debate bubbled up over whether we could use such intelligence without dangerously compromising the means by which we got it. I told Eagleburger to work on the CIA, and he convinced them that the stakes were so high and that they must agree I could use it, both with the Soviets and in public. The debate now shifted, with even greater intensity, to what our public statement should be and who should make it. The president agreed that I should hold a press conference and get the facts out quickly. How should we characterize them? A decision had to be made now about how the United States would treat this disaster. What was said in the next hour or so would shape our reaction in a fundamental way. People began to give me drafts of what I should say. I found them all dangerously overdrawn, couched in an ominous tone that might suggest some form of U.S. military reaction or retaliation. I rejected the confrontational rhetoric.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 361)

At 10:45 a.m. EST, Shultz held a press conference at the Department of State and outlined the available facts as follows: “At 1400 hours Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) yesterday, a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747, en route from New York to Seoul, Korea, departed Anchorage, Alaska. Two hundred and sixty-nine passengers and crew were on board, including Congressman Lawrence P. McDonald [D–Georgia].

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“At approximately 1600 hours Greenwich Mean Time, the aircraft came to the attention of Soviet radar. It was tracked constantly by the Soviets from that time.

“The aircraft strayed into Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula and over the Sea of Okhotsk and over the Sakhalin Island. The Soviets tracked the commercial airliner for some 2½ hours.

“A Soviet pilot reported visual contact with the aircraft at 1812 hours. The Soviet plane was, we know, in constant contact with its ground control.

“At 1821 hours, the Korean aircraft was reported by the Soviet pilot at 10,000 meters. At 1826 hours, the Soviet pilot reported that he fired a missile, and the target was destroyed.

“At 1830 hours, the Korean aircraft was reported by radar at 5,000 meters. At 1838 hours, the Korean plane disappeared from the radar screen.

“We know that at least eight Soviet fighters reacted at one time or another to the airliner. The pilot who shot the aircraft down reported after the attack that he had, in fact, fired a missile, that he had destroyed the target, and that he was breaking away.

“About an hour later, Soviet controllers ordered a number of their search aircraft to conduct search-and-rescue activity in the vicinity of the last position of the Korean airliner reflected by Soviet tracking. One of these aircraft reported finding kerosene on the surface of the seas in that area.

“During Wednesday night, U.S. State Department officials, particularly Assistant Secretary [for European Affairs Richard R.] Burt, were in contact with Soviet officials, seeking information concerning the airliner’s fate. The Soviets offered no information.

“As soon as U.S. sources had confirmed the shooting down of the aircraft, the United States, on its own behalf and on behalf of the Republic of Korea, called in the Soviet Charge d’Affaires in Washington this morning to express our grave concern over the shooting down of an unarmed civilian plane carrying passengers of a number of nationalities. We also urgently demanded an explanation from the Soviet Union.

“The United States reacts with revulsion to this attack. Loss of life appears to be heavy. We can see no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act.” (Department of State Bulletin, October 1983, page 1; brackets are in the original) A brief question-and-answer session followed. According to Shultz, Roger Mudd, co-anchor of NBC Nightly News, characterized his press conference as “controlled fury.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 362)

At 1:07 p.m. EST, the Soviet Union issued the following statement via TASS: “An unidentified plane entered the airspace of the Soviet [Page 293] Union over the Kamchatka Peninsula from the direction of the Pacific Ocean and then for the second time violated the airspace of the U.S.S.R. over Sakhalin Island on the night from August 31 to September 1. The plane did not have navigation lights, did not respond to queries, and did not enter into contact with the dispatcher service.

“Fighters of the antiaircraft defense, which were sent aloft toward the intruder plane, tried to give it assistance in directing it to the nearest airfield. But the intruder plane did not react to the signals and warnings from the Soviet fighters and continued its flight in the direction of the Sea of Japan.” (John F. Burns, “Moscow Confirms Tracking of Plane,” New York Times, September 2, 1983, page A1; Department of State Bulletin, October 1983, page 2)

At 2:33 p.m. on September 1, White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes read the following statement on behalf of President Ronald Reagan at the Sheraton Hotel in Santa Barbara, California: “I speak for all Americans and for the people everywhere who cherish civilized values in protesting the Soviet attack on an unarmed civilian passenger plane. Words can scarcely express our revulsion at this horrifying act of violence.

“The United States joins with other members of the international community in demanding a full explanation for this appalling and wanton misdeed. The Soviet statements to this moment have totally failed to explain how or why this tragedy has occurred. Indeed, the whole incident appears to be inexplicable to civilized people everywhere.

“Mrs. Reagan and I want to express our deepest sympathy to the families of the victims. Our prayers are with them in this time of bereavement, and they have my personal assurance that I will make every effort to get to the bottom of this tragedy.

“I have ordered flags of the United States flown at half staff at all Federal installations and U.S. military bases around the world.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1983, Book II, page 1221)