87. Memorandum From Donald Fortier of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark)1


  • Responding to the Soviet Attack on a Korean Airliner

The shooting down of a Korean airliner demands a serious Western response. The scale of the tragedy is dramatic—surely one of the worst in civil aviation history. We cannot know for sure at this moment whether the action was the result of an authorization by Moscow or [Page 300] merely the work of a local commander. Neither answer should give us much encouragement. If the latter proves true, it suggests that Soviet decision making routines are so rigid that war could ignite as a result of inflexibility; if the former is correct, it suggests that the Soviet leadership has decided to issue a major provocation to our allies. It is also possible that the action was authorized by Soviet military officers as a signal to Andropov of their independence, or to influence the succession struggle.

While there will be a tendency on the part of some to want to view this incident in a narrow context it is worth noting that, in addition to turbulence in Central America, Chad and Lebanon, the Soviets have now decided to create a serious incident in Asia. This means that for the first time in a long while serious trends are unfolding in every principal theater. We have to soberly consider whether this may in fact be a deliberate message from the Soviets on the eve of the talks in Madrid: Do business with us or we can make things infinitely worse for you. By the way, given what we know about the Soviet system, it is hard to believe that a decision of this type was not—in the two-and-a-half hours the plane was being hounded by Soviet fighters—referred at least as high as the Chairman of the General Staff.

We need to think hard about an appropriate response. One of the things that seemed to me unfortunate about the Secretary’s immediate decision to go to Madrid—before all the relevant information on the incident was even at hand—is that it removed an important tool for trying to leverage an effective allied response. My sense is that the allies want us at Madrid so badly that they would be prepared to join in some serious response if they felt the alternative would be the cancellation of our appearance.

Words alone are not enough, but words can be important and we must choose them carefully. Instead of an unfocused outrage, we need—at the moment—to crystallize our rage into certain compelling themes:

The first is to note that this sort of behavior is completely uncivilized. Not only is this true, it also strikes the Soviets in a very vulnerable area: the need of the regime to establish its legitimacy domestically by demonstrating that the Soviet Union is no longer an outcast but rather the equal of any other state.

—Second, we should note, sadly, that the incident again forces us to make a critical distinction between what the Soviets do and what they say. This has relevance for many things, not least of which is INF.

Third, we need to make people understand that this is not an isolated and inexplicable incident but seems rather part of a pattern of Soviet intimidation through force. We have seen in recent days continuing Soviet threats [Page 301] against Japan,2 Soviet advisors in Chad to assist with Libya’s aggression (a fact that, curiously enough, has still not been publicized), and Soviet unwillingness to calm the situation in Lebanon.

It seems to me that the President should himself communicate these themes. Indeed, nothing could more dramatically illustrate the contrast between the President’s concern for humanity and the Soviet Union’s persistent callousness—in short, a Presidential appearance at this moment would tellingly demonstrate that it is the Soviet Union—and not the President—that “militarizes” everything it touches.

There are concrete actions we should consider as well. Rather than accepting a pro forma Soviet “regret,” we might ask for an internal investigation with the results reported to the world. This, after all, is what civilized nations do. It is what we did after Klaus Barbie;3 and what the Israelis did after the tragedy at the Lebanese refugee camps. Other examples abound. Moreover, the Soviets recently held a widely publicized investigation of a Volga boating accident in which a hundred people were killed on a pleasure cruise. In a rare break with precedent, a Politburo member led the investigation and a number of responsible officials were publicly fired for negligence. We could make the point: Is the Soviet Union so callous toward the outside world that it is unwilling to do the same when over two hundred innocent people are killed as a result of Soviet actions.

There are other steps we should consider, though each has its pros and cons, such as 1) collective Western prohibition on Aeroflot flights until either such an investigation is held or—somewhat softer—until the Soviets apologize and agree to full compensation; 2) accelerating the planned deployment of F–16s to Japan (so that we look like we are responding prudently to violence and uncertainty rather than initiating an arms buildup); and 3) discouraging the Japanese from further work with the Soviets on oil drilling in the Sakhalin Island area. There are other forms of cooperation we should urgently reconsider and suspend—not as a sanction, since the feebleness of each gesture would [Page 302] make us look weak—but rather as an inevitable consequence of our disgust.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Donald Fortier Files, Subject File, KAL Shoot Down 09/01/1983; NLR–195–6–57–1–6. Secret. Sent for information. Clark’s stamp appears on the memorandum, indicating he saw it.
  2. In telegram 17066 from Tokyo, September 1, the Embassy reported: “an official of the Japan Defense Agency (JDA) announced in a press conference on August 30 that the Soviet Union deployed more than 10 MIG–23 aircraft to an existing military airfield on Etorofu Island in the Soviet-occupied northern territories just north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido.” The JDA seemed unsure if this was a temporary or permanent deployment by the Soviets. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830505–0453)
  3. Klaus Barbie was the Nazi Gestapo chief in Lyon, France during World War II. After the war, he was employed by U.S. Army intelligence, which later helped him evade capture and flee to South America. In August the Department of Justice released a report admitting that the Nazi war criminal had been in the employ of U.S. Army intelligence and apologized to France for helping him escape.