The United Nations was the primary arena where the PR duel between the USSR and the USA was being fought out.
In September 1983 when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air 747 suspected of taking part in an American intelligence gathering operation, the United States immediately launched a high-pitched propaganda assault aimed at isolating Moscow as an international pariah. While the Ronald Reagan administration would not have missed any opportunity to embarrass the Russians, the downing of KAL 007 also brought the fundamentalist Republicans into the picture.
Reagan had been elected president with vital support from the radical right, which included fundamentalist Christians of the lily white Republican Party. These evangelists were in a frenzy because one of the dead passengers was Congressman Larry McDonald, the president of the John Birch Society, a radical right-wing political advocacy group.
According to Donald E. Wilkes of the University of Georgia’s School of Law, McDonald was conservative to a psychopathic degree. Not only did he vote against making Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday a holiday, he also attempted to nominate convicted Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize. McDonald’s backers were now urging Reagan to step up the pressure on the Russians. Reagan, ever eager to cater to baser instincts, obliged. Big mistake.
Truth vs lies
The United Nations was the primary arena where the PR duel was being fought out. The US was hoping that its diplomats – especially Jeane Kirkpatrick – had done enough damage to rally around the world to condemn the downing of the jet.
But Washington was in for a major disappointment. Firstly, the leading powers did not want the crisis to escalate. Also, despite the Cold War polarisation, in many countries, including close allies of the United States, there was growing disbelief that a modern aircraft could “accidentally” stray off its course by 587 km without the pilots noticing.
Initially, there were few takers for the Russian claim that KAL 007 was taking part in an American espionage programme to probe their latest radars. But over the subsequent days many in the West were veering around to the view that the Americans weren’t above suspicion either.
Friends turn away
Japan, for instance, initially refused to condemn the Russians or slap any sanctions, saying it was a “temporary problem.” The Chinese only expressed “shock and regret.” Saudi Arabia actually criticised the US for its “relentless” attack on the USSR.
To the disbelief of the Americans, Margaret Thatcher, Reagan’s most fervent supporter, waited 17 days before even referring to the incident. This had a significant consequence – many European leaders now believed Thatcher’s silence implied there was another side to the story.
Oxford political scientist R.W. Johnson writes in Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007: “As one Labour backbencher remarked of Thatcher’s silence: ‘Why did it take her 17 days to comment? What has prevented such a voluble, talkative woman from commenting during this period? It seems completely out of character unless there is some other reason’.”
Greece took the lead and killed any discussion of the matter at a meeting of the European Economic Community. When the US Embassy in Athens protested, the Greeks upped the ante. To the fury of the Americans, the Greek Prime Minister declared he was convinced KAL 007 had been on a surveillance mission.
Trouble at the UN
The huge domestic – read radical right – turmoil in the United States over the shooting clashed with the largely balanced reactions around the world. According to Johnson, this led to a near disaster for the Americans at the UN. “Many states began to resist quite strongly the US attempt to steamroller through a motion which denounced the Soviet Union explicitly,” he says.
India called for caution, given the many uncertainties still surrounding the affair, while Guyana publicly complained the US had broken with previous Security Council practice by failing to negotiate the terms of its resolution with other members.
At this point as Kirkpatrick – described by Noam Chomsky as the “chief sadist-in-residence in the Reagan administration” – pressed her motion for an outright condemnation, the Americans suddenly realised to their horror they were on the brink of defeat, with only seven of the 15 Security Council members willing to support the US.
The US backtracked and postponed the vote. A highly watered down motion – which merely deplored the destruction of the aircraft – was presented which predictably the Russians vetoed.
Being red faced at the UN was nothing compared to the anxiety felt by the Reaganites at how they would face their redneck supporters at home.
Confused, the Americans now did something really foolish. On September 16, 1983 they announced Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s aircraft would not be allowed to land at the international airport in New York. The Russians were furious and cancelled the visit altogether, alleging the US had failed to guarantee Gromyko’s safety.
According to Johnson, “As the UN Secretary-General’s office speedily made clear, this meant the US was breaking the terms of the 1947 treaty sitting the UN in New York, which explicitly stated no US Federal, State or local authority should enforce any impediments to travel to or from UN headquarters by the representatives of any member nation. The US had, moreover, also agreed in the treaty that this provision should apply whatever the state of relations between the governments involved.”
Get out of the USA
The Russians now brought a complaint before the UN’s Host Country Committee, accusing the US of breaking the 1947 treaty. Writes Johnson: “The US representative Charles Lichenstein apparently maddened by a situation in which the US, not the USSR, would end up getting condemned by name, furiously announced he would be quite happy to see the UN get out of New York and America.”
Reagan then caused an international uproar by announcing he endorsed Lichenstein and the UN was welcome to leave New York. Worse, the very next day the US Senate voted to cut the American contribution to the UN by 21 percent immediately and then 10 percent in each of the three following years – a $500 million cut in four years. The United States was behaving like North Korea.
Sorry, please stay
Predictably, such reckless acts and statements had the potential to cause a collapse of the UN and to its removal from America. In fact, the United States would have lost its membership in two years. And that was if the UN didn’t pack up its bags and leave earlier.
However, the US didn’t want New York to lose its world capital status. There was also the possibility that with a much diminished international status, the city's position as a financial hotspot would be gone too.
Clearly embarrassed, Reagan said the Senate vote had to be reversed, and told foreign diplomats the US was “proud to be the home” of the UN.
Learning a lesson
Days after the downing of KAL 007, the New York Times sanctimoniously wrote: “There is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner ... and no circumstance whatever justifies attacking an innocent plane.”
On July 3, 1988, less than five years after the KAL 007 disaster, a US Navy vessel in the Persian Gulf fired a ground to air missile at an innocent commercial airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, which in broad daylight was flying within its approved flight path over international waters and had not strayed into any unauthorised airspace. All 290 persons aboard were killed.
Wilkes writes: “The Flight 655 incident forever ended America’s previous confident assumption that military attacks destroying civilian airliners were in all cases outrageous, barbaric, and uncivilised.”
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