90. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark) to President Reagan1


  • NSPG Meeting: Soviet Shoot-Down of KAL Airliner


The shooting down of a Korean airliner demands a serious international response. The scale of the tragedy is dramatic—surely one of the worst in civil aviation history.

The Soviets have a long history, beginning in 1946, of shooting down unarmed aircraft near their borders. Moreover, they have had a policy of electronic deception of radio air navigation aids which have lured many aircraft across their borders, only to be shot down. This is the second time they have shot down a Korean airliner.

Some will want to view this incident in a narrow context. However, it is worth considering whether the Soviets were deliberately seeking an opportunity to increase tensions in Asia in order—after events in Lebanon, Chad, Central America—to test us in multiple theaters simultaneously. It is entirely likely that the decision to attack the airliner was made at a very high level.

It is therefore important that you focus the discussion at today’s meeting on the broader ramifications of this incident. What does it say about how far the Soviets may now be prepared to go in trying to intimidate our Asian allies—who, like the Japanese, have shown some greater willingness to take new steps for effective defense—or our European allies on the verge of INF deployments? What does it say about the growing cynicism and boldness of the current Soviet leadership? And, based on the answer to this question, what does it say about the character and possibilities for our bilateral relationship in the immediate future?

The chief dilemma over the near term is how to translate the concern of the world into meaningful actions without making it appear that we are improperly capitalizing on the tragedy itself. How to devise [Page 313] measures that can be sustained? How to focus the existing rage in ways that enable us to influence domestic and international reaction of others on important issues before us; e.g., Soviet supported terrorism, use of chemical biological weapons, etc.

In past cases where the Soviets have committed egregious crimes they and their apologists have attempted through disinformation and lies to turn the focus away from their actions and somehow blame the U.S. or its allies. Unless we take the offensive they will try to put us on the defensive.

We need to think hard about an appropriate response, and we have to consider what message the Soviets may have tried to send as George Shultz prepares to meet next week with Gromyko in Madrid. If we decide that meeting should proceed, as George has announced, we need to consider very carefully the message we want to send.


Your personal statement and early return have already set the tone of our concern.2 We must now ensure that follow on actions are directed and structured to achieve recognizable and coherent objectives. These objectives must be shared by the American people, the Congress, our major allies and reflect our status as leader of the free world. We believe that our actions in the coming days and weeks must be designed to achieve the following objectives:

Reverse Soviet “Peacemaker” Image and Register an Appropriate Political Protest. The incident presents us with the opportunity to reverse the false moral and political “peacemaker” perception that the Soviets have been cultivating. Their active propaganda in this regard has cast the Soviet Union as flexible, legitimate and searching for peace. This has, in turn, created severe problems in our efforts to convince the free world of their true objectives. Actions to achieve this objective should be aimed at securing domestic and international support for your programs to strengthen western security.

Justice. We must be seen as a leader (but not alone) in the international community in calling for justice. Civilized societies demand punishment and restitution in order to deter and raise perceived costs of future egregious acts. Despite numerous incidents of this kind, the Soviets have never acceptably investigated, reported or identified their victims. We must demand that they do so now. In order to be effective, the action we take to achieve this objective must be tailored to appear proportional to the crime. We cannot be perceived as too harsh, too weak or ineffective in the sanctions we call for or endorse.

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Bolster the confidence of Intimidated States. What we do or fail to do in supporting the Koreans and Japanese in the days and weeks ahead will be a telling signal to friends and allies alike. We must be responsive and cooperative, without appearing excessive, particularly in the case of military support.


Actions to Reverse Soviet “Peacemaker” Image and Register Political Protest.

—A major Presidential speech addressing the objectives and methods of Soviet grand strategy.

—Review the degree to which our presence at negotiating tables with the Soviets reinforces the idea that the Soviets are good-faith negotiators. Consider withdrawal from various or all negotiations.

—Diplomatic effort to secure public statements and resolutions condemning the Soviet Union in relevant international fora.

—Major information campaign by USIA.

—Consider cancelling the forthcoming Shultz-Gromyko meeting. Such a meeting could be boycotted until the Soviets provide an explanation for the incident, an apology and reparations.

—Consider closing the Soviet consulate in San Francisco; it is a center for their spy network against the U.S. electronics industry.

Actions to secure justice.

—Soviets grant unimpeded Western access to crash site.

—Soviets publicly document to world-wide aviation bodies their procedures in the case of airliners crossing into Soviet airspace.

—Soviets provide specific assurances against destructive force being used again against straying airliners.

—Consider seizure or attachment of Soviet owned commercial assets in the U.S. in connection with filing an international claim against the USSR on behalf of American citizen victims.

—Soviets document that no future incidents of electronic desception of radio air navigation signals will occur.

—Soviets must provide full reparations to Korea and to the families of the dead on accepted international scales.

—Options should be prepared concerning internationally implementable procedures to impede Aeroflot activities, world-wide, and discourage flights to the Soviet Union for a specified period of time.

—Review all outstanding U.S., allied and third country equipment sales to the Soviet aviation industry and seek immediate agreement from as many countries as possible to terminate or suspend indefinitely these deliveries.

Actions to Bolster Confidence of Intimidated States

—Lease or sell AWACS to Japan to help defend regional air routes.

—Possible acceleration of F–16 deployment in Japan.

—Carrier battle group deployment to the region.

—Discussions with allies in the area to bolster regional security arrangements.

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The NSPG meeting tonight will be too brief to discuss all of these matters. This paper, however, provides you with some thoughts to guide the discussion. Most importantly, in whatever we decide to do or not to do, we should keep these objectives in mind.

  1. Source: National Security Council, Institutional Files, NSPG Meetings, Box SR 108, NSPG 0068, 2 Sep 83 Soviet Downing of Korean Airliner. Secret. Printed from an uninitialed copy. On September 2, Reagan returned to Washington from his ranch in California, arriving at the White House at 5:43 p.m. The NSPG meeting Clark discussed in this memorandum began in the Situation Room at 6 p.m. From a comment in Shultz’s memoir (see Document 84), it is clear that Clark was with Reagan in California, and likely returned with him to Washington on Air Force One. See also footnote 3, Document 88.
  2. In addition to the September 1 statement (see Document 84), Reagan spoke to the press at Point Magu Naval Air Station when he was departing from California. See Public Papers: Reagan, 1983, Book II, pp. 1223–1224.