94. Editorial Note

After the National Security Planning Group meeting on the evening of September 2, 1983, Secretary of State George Shultz and members of his staff worked to find a balance between dealing with Soviet culpability in the downing of KAL 007 and maintaining recent progress in U.S.-Soviet relations. (See Document 91.) As Shultz recalled in his memoir, by September 3: “Our approach was still evolving, but already decisions had been taken on what not to do. We were not going to cancel my meeting with Gromyko. We were not going to pull out of the INF and START talks. This was not going to be easy to manage. The knee-jerk reaction of Cap and other hardliners was to stop all contacts. Others pointed to the Nixon-Kissinger ‘linkage’ approach to US-Soviet relations to argue that we must not move forward in any area when an outrageous act is committed in another area. I regarded President Reagan’s support for Paul Nitze and Ed Rowny’s return to the arms control talks as courageous in this charged atmosphere.

“I told my staff I wanted four papers, one on financial claims against the Soviets, another on how to approach the United Nations, a third on civil aviation matters, and a fourth on the nature of potential boycotts. [See Document 100.] ‘We must bring other countries along with us,’ I instructed.

“As we sought to prove what had happened, evidence mounted against the Soviets. Public emotions escalated correspondingly. By [Page 324] noon on Sunday [September 4], we received from the Japanese the actual tape recording of the Soviet fighter pilot talking with his ground controller: the pilot had followed the airliner, assessed and reported on its position, and under orders from his ground control, shot it down. The pilot’s words, ‘The target is destroyed,’ would chill the world when it was played at the United Nations and subsequently on the news, worldwide.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 366)

According to the President’s Daily Diary, there were two meetings on the KAL incident on September 4: From 9:30 to 10 a.m. President Ronald Reagan met in the Oval Office with Vice President George Bush, Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Chief of Staff James Baker, Counselor to the President Edwin Meese, President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs William Clark, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Robert McFarlane, and other White House staff; then from 10:05 to 12:45 p.m., the President and his team met with Congressional leaders in the Cabinet room. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) Reagan wrote in his diary that evening: “To the Oval Office for a meeting with Congressional leadership—Dems. & Repubs. Met with our team at 9:30 A.M.—general meeting at 10 A.M. Meeting was very good—ran til 1 P.M. Dealt 1st & longest with Korean plane. Ran a tape of conversation between 2 Soviet pilots including the one who stated he had locked his radar guided air to air missiles, launched them & ‘target destroyed.’ I’m going on air 8 P.M. tomorrow night to tell the story & announce our plans. Strom Thurmond made a great suggestion. We know the whereabouts of many K.G.B. agents [. . .]. We’re looking into the practicality of this. [. . .] That would be shooting ourselves in the foot.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 259; brackets are in the original)

Shultz recalled in his memoir that during this meeting there was speculation over “whether Gromyko would cancel our meeting in Madrid under these circumstances. Cap argued once again that we should be the ones to cancel.

“Afterward, President Reagan telephoned to ask me about the idea of the KGB expulsions. He didn’t think much of the idea; neither did I. The Soviets would retaliate with their own expulsions, I said, and that would hurt us, as an open society, more than it would hurt them. ‘We do not want to turn this whole thing into a U.S.-Soviet issue,’ I stressed once again.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 366)

On Labor Day, September 5, Reagan wrote in his diary: “only thing scheduled for the day was lunch at the pool with the Wicks & at 8 P.M. a T.V. speech on the Korean airline massacre. Well I put on my trunks but the speech draft arrived at 9:30 A.M.—in fact 2 drafts. I didn’t like either one so I spent the day til 5:15 P.M. rewriting. It turned [Page 325] out OK & everyone seems to think it was A. O.K. I spent the day in my trunks sitting on a towel in my study but changed into a blue suit for the speech. It went well & everyone seemed pleased.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 260) A handwritten draft of this speech is in Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Subject File, Korean Airlines Shootdown (08/31/1983–November 1983) (12/22). Shultz recalled: “I made a note to check carefully the president’s upcoming speech, which would be televised nationwide Monday evening, to be sure that someone didn’t slip the KGB expulsion idea in at the last minute. Only I and a very few others knew how intent the president was on developing his relationship with the Soviets and that he had sent a personal letter to Andropov in early July.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 366) For Reagan’s letter, see Document 70.

At 8 p.m. that evening, Reagan delivered a televised address to the nation from the Oval Office on the Soviet attack on KAL Flight 007. After expressing his condolences, Reagan declared: “But despite the savagery of their crime, the universal reaction against it, and the evidence of their complicity, the Soviets still refuse to tell the truth. They have persistently refused to admit that their pilot fired on the Korean aircraft. Indeed, they have not even told their own people that a plane was shot down.” Reagan continued by presenting the available facts of the case. Then, in a dramatic moment, he played the tape of the communications between the Soviet pilot and ground control, and explained the actions of the pilot. Reagan concluded: “They deny the deed, but in their conflicting and misleading protestations, the Soviets reveal that, yes, shooting down a plane—even one with hundreds of innocent men, women, children, and babies—is a part of their normal procedure if that plane is in what they claim as their airspace.

“They owe the world an apology and an offer to join the rest of the world in working out a system to protect against this ever happening again.” For the full text of Reagan’s speech, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1983, Book II, pages 1227–1230.