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Context of 'Mid-September 1983 and After: KAL 007 Incident Causes Further Rift between US, USSR'

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President Reagan gives his famous “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. The speech is designed to dissuade Christian evangelicals from supporting a freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear weapons, as the Conference of Catholic Bishops had already done. The speech, written by Anthony Dolan, a follower of hard-line conservative philosopher William F. Buckley, is what author J. Peter Scoblic calls “a model conservative blend of religious traditionalism and anticommunism [that makes] explicit the link between Manicheanism and nuclear war fighting.” The cause is not merely peaceful co-existence, but an apocalyptic battle between good (the West) and evil (the Soviet empire), one that must be won no matter the costs. “We must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man,” Reagan tells his listeners. “We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we are enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” Supporting the nuclear freeze movement would be to commit the sin of moral relativism, Reagan says, putting moral strictures aside for temporal, even political concerns. “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride,” he warns, “the temptation of blithely declaring yourself above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 117]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Anthony Dolan, J. Peter Scoblic, Conference of Catholic Bishops

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

The Reagan administration ignores the recommendations of a panel of experts named, at Congress’s behest, to provide alternatives to the stalled START arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union (see January 1983-April 1983). Spurred by hardliners in the administration, President Reagan instead instructs his negotiators to offer, not one unacceptable alternative, as initially offered to the Soviets (see May 1982 and After), but two unacceptable alternatives: either accept drastic limits on “throw weights,” or payloads, of their nuclear missiles, or accept harsh reductions in the number of ICBMs they can deploy, which will also reduce Soviet throw weight. The Soviets retort that the US is again trying to force them to disarm without agreeing to any reductions in their own nuclear arsenal. One Soviet official observes, “Your idea of ‘flexibility’ is to give a condemned man the choice between the rope and the ax.”
'Firing' the Executive Branch - Congressional leaders have had enough of the administration’s obstructionism, and brings in panel leader Brent Scowcroft to craft an alternative. In his 1984 book Deadly Gambits, future State Department official Strobe Talbott will write, “The Legislative Branch had, in effect, fired the Executive Branch for gross incompetence in arms control.” Scowcroft writes a proposal that enables both the US and USSR to reduce their nuclear arsenals with a measure of equivalence, taking into account the disparities between the two.
Misrepresenting the Proposal - The administration accepts Scowcroft’s proposal with some minor amendments, but the Soviets balk at the agreement, in part because chief US negotiator Edward Rowny, a hardliner who opposes arms negotiations on ideological grounds, misrepresents the proposal to his Soviet colleagues. The “basic position of this administration has not changed,” Rowny declares. In turn, the Soviets declare, “Ambassador Rowny is not a serious man.” When the talks come to their scheduled end in December 1983, the Soviets depart without setting a date for resumption.
More 'Sophisticated' Obstructionism - In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write of the negotiations: “The conservative position had by now become far more sophisticated. By never rejecting negotiations outright, the administration could always claim that it was pursuing them with vigor, and if critics complained that its proposals were nonnegotiable, it could simply, if disingenuously, claim that it wanted to substantively reduce nuclear arsenals, not just perpetuate the status quo.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 124-125]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Ronald Reagan, Strobe Talbott, Brent Scowcroft, Edward Rowny, J. Peter Scoblic

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Korean Airlines Flight 007 before takeoff.Korean Airlines Flight 007 before takeoff. [Source: Check-Six (.org)]A Soviet Su-15 fighter plane fires two missiles into a Korean Airlines 747 passenger plane, KAL 007. The plane, en route from Alaska to Seoul, South Korea, had strayed into Soviet air space, had not responded to radio communications, and had either ignored or not seen warning shots fired at it. The 747 crashes into the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 passengers, including conservative House Representative Larry McDonald (D-GA) and 62 other Americans. The Soviets insist that the passenger plane was deliberately sent into their airspace to test their military readiness; later investigation shows that a US spy plane had just left the area, agitating Soviet radar units, and, according to their own radio transmissions, the Soviets had honestly believed the 747 was another spy plane, most likely an American RC-135. Though it has definitely strayed into Soviet airspace at least twice, and flown over a sensitive Soviet airbase on the Kamchatka Peninsula, it is most likely shot down in international airspace. [Fischer, 3/19/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 131]
Angry White House Officials Respond - Reagan administration officials are furious. Secretary of State George Shultz, dubbed “The Sphinx” by journalists for his remote demeanor, rails at the Soviets in a press conference called just four hours after the White House learns of the incident. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 131] Four days later, Reagan will denounce the Soviets in a primetime televised speech (see September 5, 1983).
Massive PR Campaign against USSR - The US will use the shootdown to mount a tremendous public relations campaign against the Soviets, focusing on the Soviet civilian leadership as well as Soviet international business interests; for example, the US will demand a global boycott of the Soviet airline Aeroflot. According to a memo issued to the Politburo by the Defense Ministry and the KGB, the Soviets well understood the political ramifications of the shootdown: “We are dealing with a major, dual-purpose political provocation carefully organized by the US special services. The first purpose was to use the incursion of the intruder aircraft into Soviet airspace to create a favorable situation for the gathering of defense data on our air defense system in the Far East, involving the most diverse systems including the Ferret satellite. Second, they envisaged, if this flight were terminated by us, [the US would use] that fact to mount a global anti-Soviet campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.” In its own counter-propaganda efforts, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov will say that an “outrageous military psychosis” has taken over US foreign policy. He adds, “[T]he Reagan administration, in its imperial ambitions, goes so far that one begins to doubt whether Washington has any brakes at all preventing it from crossing the point at which any sober-minded person must stop.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]
Exacerbating Tensions - After the shootdown and its aftermath, according to the Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, both sides go “a little crazy.” The shootdown gives the US hard evidence of its worst-case assumptions about the Soviets. For the Soviets, the US reaction gives them hard evidence of their own assumptions about the US’s attempts to provoke the USSR into some sort of confrontation (see 1981-1983) and to embarrass the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world. Reagan’s use of the KAL 007 incident to ask Congress for more defense funding is, in the Soviets’ eyes, proof that the entire incident was engineered by the Americans for just such an outcome. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]
Alternative Accounts - A number of alternative accounts about the incident spring up, in particular concerning McDonald. [Insight, 4/16/2001]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Anatoly Dobrynin, Larry McDonald, Yuri Andropov, Steven Symms, George Shultz

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Four days after the Soviet shootdown of a Korean Airlines passenger jet (see September 1, 1983), President Reagan delivers a televised speech from the Oval Office calling the incident a “massacre,” a “crime against humanity,” and “an atrocity.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 131] The shootdown is, Reagan says, “an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

A week after President Reagan publicly denounced the Soviet Union for shooting down a Korean Airlines passenger jet (see September 1, 1983 and September 5, 1983), Secretary of State George Shultz meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Gromyko later recalls the conversation as “the sharpest exchange I ever had with an American secretary of state, and I have had talks with 14 of them.” The Reagan administration will deny Gromyko permission to fly into New York City, where he is scheduled to attend the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 131]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Andrei Gromyko, George Shultz

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov gives a press conference regarding the KAL 007 shootdown.Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov gives a press conference regarding the KAL 007 shootdown. [Source: Central Intelligence Agency]The Soviet Union, flustered and angry at the harsh denunciations heaped on it by the US after their shootdown of a Korean Airlines passenger jet (see September 1, 1983, September 5, 1983, and Mid-September, 1983), reacts badly to the US’s response. Between the KAL incident and other episodes—President Reagan’s terming the USSR an “evil empire” (see March 8, 1983), the refusal of the US to negotiate on arms reduction (see April 1983-December 1983), and the US’s launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program (see April 1983-December 1983), the Soviets are not prepared to accept the US’s position on the shootdown, nor are they prepared to accept responsibility for shooting down a passenger plane full of civilians. Instead, the KAL incident provides what Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the US, will later call “a catalyst for the angry trends that were already inherent in relations during the Reagan presidency.” Newly installed Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov issues a statement saying that US-Soviet relations cannot improve so long as Reagan is president: “If anybody ever had any illusions about the possibility of an evolution to the better in the policy of the present American administration, these illusions are completely dispelled now.” Soviet statements begin referring to the danger of war and US nuclear first strikes. The Soviet press calls Reagan a “madman” and compares him to Adolf Hitler. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko worries that “the world situation is now slipping towards a very dangerous precipice.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 132]

Entity Tags: Yuri Andropov, Adolf Hitler, Ronald Reagan, Andrei Gromyko

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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