86. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Burt) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • US-Soviet Relations after the Korean Plane: The Near Term

Over the next hours and days, we will be concentrating on making sure the Soviets pay an international price for an act that was stupid at best, malicious at worst, and barbarous in any case.2 Here we are proceeding on two main tracks:

—We are calling a UN Security Council meeting to put them before the tribunal of international opinion.3

—We are seeking an emergency session of the ICAO Council to mobilize the world civil aviation community,4 and we are examining ways to penalize Aeroflot. Neither the US nor South Korea has direct flights with the Soviet Union, of course, so broad international support will be required. The international pilots’ association is already engaged, and we support NSC staff suggestions that we lobby in international meetings for the following actions:

1. Immediate allied and third country agreement to refuse to accept Aeroflot flight plans for a specified period. This will be particularly attractive as a signal of international solidarity, and appears to be the most achievable of these steps.

2. Review all outstanding discussions between the USSR and international civil aviation bodies with a view to interrupting arrangements such as routing awards, requests for waiver of landing fees, etc. This is likely to be harder to get, but might be possible in tandem with refusal to accept Aeroflot flight plans.

3. Review all outstanding US, allied and third country equipment sales to the Soviet aviation industry and seek agreement to terminate [Page 296] or suspend these deliveries. This may well be hardest to achieve, both because it is a pocketbook issue and because it would raise the ghost of oil and gas sanctions, but could be worth a try.

We are working to put these issues in decision form preparatory to a possible NSC meeting Saturday.5

Bilaterally, in addition to our demands for an explanation, we are taking or have proposed to you the following actions:

—We are instructing our delegation to the international communications conference in Tashkent this week to spotlight the shootdown in its interventions, and not to accept any invitation from the Soviets. We considered withdrawing the delegation, but most members have already left, and we think it unwise to use international meetings of this kind for sanctions.

—As you are aware, we have proposed to withdraw the note given the Soviet Foreign Ministry August 31 proposing an 18-month extension of the bilateral Transportation Agreement that expired in June, subject to negotiation of amendments.6 In this case, we hesitated to recommend a step further dismantling the structure of the bilateral relationship, but the practical effect will be small, at least at the outset, and the political signal unmistakable.

How we choose to reflect our outrage in US-Soviet bilateral relations beyond these steps will depend importantly on two factors:

—1. The Soviet response. The TASS report and Gromyko’s very slight expansion on it in his message to you were not only inadequate, but incomplete: they note that a plane violated Soviet airspace over both Kamchatka and Sakhalin; and claim it did not have navigational lights, did not respond to queries and did not enter into contact with the “dispatcher service”; and did not react to signals and warnings from Soviet fighters trying to direct it to the nearest airfield, but continued on.7 The denouement is not described. The Soviets know they have a problem, but have not yet decided how to handle it.

—2. Our own intelligence analysis. We are currently sifting and collating the data to determine what did and did not happen, relative to [Page 297] internationally accepted procedures. There are still very important uncertainties, e.g. communications capabilities, attempts and failures, degree of daylight, degree of Soviet ground command and control. [5½ lines not declassified]

The TASS report and Gromyko message have made it harder for the Soviets to admit wrong-doing, so we should not be optimistic. At the very best, the Soviets could admit obliquely that they made a mistake, and we may determine that they either made appropriate efforts to warn and force down the plane, or were unable for technical reasons to do so. In that case, the impact on our relations will be serious—since no conceivable rationale could justify the act—but not fundamental. If, on the other hand, the Soviets present no frank and conciliatory explanation of their action, and we determine that the claims of good-faith efforts in the TASS and subsequent statements are lies, the effects will be deep and long-lasting.

However, important uncertainties concerning both the facts and Soviet intentions are likely to subsist. In that gray type of situation, public and political opinion in the West will be united in condemning the Soviet action, but divided as to whether it was a blunder or a crime. Both publicly and privately, we should handle the issue in a way that stresses Soviet irresponsibility and callousness. We have a policy framework vis-a-vis the Soviet Union which accommodates this approach.

Both in public and in private, we should put the emphasis on the loss of human life and on Soviet willingness to resort to force; explain (along the lines of your suggested CSCE speech for Madrid) that the incident shows once again the interrelationship between security and human rights issues, since excessive security-mindedness in contravention of normal international practice appears to have led to tragic loss of human life; and note that this point has been and will continue to be at the center of all our discussions with the Soviets under this Administration.

I have three specific recommendations for action vis-a-vis the Soviets over the next week, in line with this general approach:

—1. We should tell the Soviets that the working lunch/working session format agreed to for your Madrid meeting with Gromyko would not be appropriate under these circumstances. We must face the possibility that the Soviets will respond by cancelling the whole meeting.8 In that case, however, we would be on the high ground of being willing to continue talking but not to socialize, while they would [Page 298] be insisting unreasonably on socializing too, and they will probably grumble but assent to this proposal. You will recall that Khrushchev used the U–2 shootdown to cancel the Paris Summit,9 with widespread sympathy from others; we would in fact have implemented a similar step, but on a more modest scale and on purely humanitarian grounds.

—2. You should feature this incident both in your CSCE remarks and in your opening presentation to Gromyko on the same grounds we will be taking in public: the Soviet penchant for force, Soviet callousness and the interrelationship between human rights and international security. Jack Matlock has suggested, and I agree, that you identify three conceptual problem areas to Gromyko in your opening remarks: use of force to settle disputes, the cost of armaments, and bilateral trust and confidence. This is a perfect example of what has gone wrong in relations, and who is at fault, and should serve to exemplify these three themes.

—3. We should explain publicly that we are taking these steps in the bilateral dialogue to register our extreme unhappiness and concern; that the United States, South Korea, and others will continue to pursue the issue in international fora to make the Soviets realize the gravity of what they have done; and that while we are aware of our responsibility to work with the Soviet Union as well as other countries to find peaceful solutions to international issues, the irresponsibility the Soviets have shown in this instance will inevitably make this work more difficult in the period ahead.

Finally, there is one step in US-Soviet relations I believe we should not take in the immediate near term because of the shootdown: telling the Soviets about adjustments in our position in INF. This will require a decision over the weekend. I continue to believe that the substantive proposals we have made are correct, and that the US position should be developed along those lines this fall. There is no better bulwark of American strength vis-a-vis the USSR than Alliance unity behind the 1979 dual decision, and to maintain it through a difficult autumn we must demonstrate our vigorous pursuit of the Geneva negotiations. We should use this argument to press for a decision this weekend in favor of our proposals. But I also believe the scenario we initially envisaged is no longer viable after today, and that we should delay our presentation of new proposals to the Soviets. It would be incongruous for you to present them to Gromyko in Madrid September 8 [Page 299] under present circumstances. Rather, I would recommend that after the President sees Paul Nitze Sunday, we hold the new position until the following week. This would permit us to consult on it in the Alliance at the SCG meeting now scheduled for London September 12,10 and allow Paul to present it in Geneva later in the week and you to follow up on it with Gromyko in New York.

Otherwise, I think we should hold off deciding what further steps we should take in bilateral relations and in arms control until after the Madrid meeting. At this point I suspect we will find it inappropriate to invite Gromyko to Washington after our UNGA sessions, but there are still so many uncertainties that we need to see how things develop before proceeding further. Clearly, the tenor of our relations with the Soviets will be even more sober than before the shootdown; what cannot be clear is how the incident should affect the specifics of our discussions across the spectrum of the agenda.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S, Special Handling Restrictions Memos, 1979–1983, Lot 96D262, ES Sensitive, September 1–8 1983. Secret; Sensitive. Forwarded through Eagleburger. Drafted by Simons and John Hawes (EUR/RPM); cleared by Hartman and Palmer. Simons initialed for Hartman and Palmer.
  2. See Document 84.
  3. See footnote 5, Document 89.
  4. According to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) website, the ICAO is a “specialized agency of the United Nations. . . created in 1944 to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation.” The organization “sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and regularity. . .” The ICAO met later in September to review the KAL incident. See the official website of the ICAO. See footnote 2, Document 112.
  5. The meeting to discuss the KAL shootdown was an NSPG meeting that took place on Friday, September 2, from 6 to 7:57 p.m. in the White House Situation Room. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) No formal record of this meeting was found; however, see Document 91 for a transcription of Weinberger’s handwritten notes from the meeting.
  6. See Document 63.
  7. The message from Gromyko is attached but not printed. The TASS statement was issued 22½ hours after the plane disappeared, and merely confirmed that “its jet fighters in the Far East had intercepted and warned an ‘unidentified plane’ intruding into Soviet airspace. But it made no mention of any attack on the plane.” (John F. Burns, “Moscow Confirms Tracking of Plane But TASS Statement is Silent About an Attack on Airliner,” New York Times, September 2, 1983, pg. A1) See Document 84.
  8. Shultz and Gromyko met as scheduled in Madrid on September 7 and 8. See Documents 104 and 105.
  9. Khrushchev and President Eisenhower were scheduled to meet in Paris shortly after Frances Gary Powers’s U–2 plane was shot down and crashed in the Soviet Union. See Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. X, Eastern Europe Region; Soviet Union; Cyprus, Part 1, Document 147 and Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. X, Eastern Europe; Finland; Greece; Turkey, Part 2, Document 27.
  10. The NATO Special Consultative Group met in London on September 12. The Embassy summarized the meeting in telegram 19405 from London, September 12, and forwarded the text of Burt’s public statement after the meeting in telegram 19374 from London, September 12. (Both in Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, [no D number])