Dear Yuri: I think there are some things you should know. People are seething. They are mad at you and your country for the downing of the Korean airliner. They are mad at the loss of life and the senselessness of the action and even in cynical, blase' Washington, people are shocked at what has happened.
People are talking about it on elevators. The telephone operator mentioned it. People stand across the street from your embassy and just look at it. Their eyes ask: "How could you?" It is a fair enough question: How could you?
I am using this format, this letter to you, because you are supposed to be a man who knows something about America. When you first succeeded Leonid Brezhnev it was said that you spoke English, even that you are a jazz buff.
But if you ordered the plane shot down, even if you so much as just went along with the decision (pressured by the military?), then you know nothing about America. That is dangerous for us, also dangerous for you.
At the moment, not much is known about who ordered the plane downed. What is known is that your warplanes were responsible and that your country lied about it. You said the plane had left your airspace when, of course, it had not. You later said it did not respond to warnings, but so what? It was still unarmed, you still had it surrounded, it was still a commercial plane on a scheduled flight (Surely your people know the schedules) and there was no need to shoot it down.
Planes have been downed before--and ships, too. But I do not think it is too much to say that this is something my country could not have done. You cannot imagine American fighter planes shooting down a commercial airliner.
We are not perfect people and God knows we have our faults, but this is something we could not have done.
And because we do not do these sorts of things, we are horrified when others do it. The sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 by the Germans with the loss of 794 passengers, 128 of them Americans, surely influenced America's entry into World War I on the side of the Allies. The sinking solidified the image of Germans as barbarians--the caricature of the Hun.
An incident such as the recent one with the Korean plane does the same for your country. The world is too dangerous a place now for people to think in caricatures. You should not act like a caricature.
If the decision to down the plane was made high in your government, then we all have plenty to worry about. It means that you do not know the American people--do not know the lesson of the Lusitania--and you can, because of your ignorance of us, blunder into war.
If the decision to down the plane was made at low levels, then we still have plenty to worry about. It conjures up one of those doomsday scenarios in which "the system" substitutes for rational thinking.
It means that there is a book somewhere that tells low-level people what to do when something happens--like when a plane intrudes into your airspace. It says do this and then do that and then, if a certain response is not received, do something else--like shoot.
The orders are probably written in triplicate, locked in a safe. All governments have them. They mean "no thinking." Military people love them; politicians abhor them. Maybe someone did what the book said. Books like that can blunder us all into war.
So Yuri, think of what your country has done. Think of what is at stake and what is on the table--arms control, for instance. Think of the consequences of your action, if it was yours, and think of it also if it was not yours but merely that of someone "going by the book." Consider how you have horrified our country and the world with the ease with which you kill and think further how you have offended us with your lies.
There is one more thing, Yuri. In time, the incident will fade and our two nations will, because we have no choice, continue to do business together. You might conclude then, because you think you know America, that the incident has been forgotten. But I know America better.
Some things we never forget.