Not, perhaps, since Teddy Roosevelt tongue-lashed "the bandits in Bogota," has the world heard a president speak as harshly of another regime as did Ronald Reagan in his first reaction to the destruction of the Korean airliner. It was, he said, "a terrorist act" about which the Soviet government had "flagrantly" lied.
I checked my reaction with a former high national security official. He agreed that the presidential language was exceptionally harsh--"the way you talk about someone you're at war with," he said.
And yet both of us guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the Reagan administration would take no action to match its tough rhetoric.
I don't question the wisdom of restraint. It must seem to Reagan and his advisers, after sober analysis, that the Soviet Union isn't likely to be pressured out of its barbarous air defense rules, and that it would be unprofitable to derail arms talks to make a point.
But the discrepancy between Reagan's fiery talk and his failure to take equivalent action raises fundamental questions. What, exactly, does the president think he's accomplishing?
His reaction to the airliner incident seemed, not for the first time, to involve a good bit of conscious role-playing, at which Ronald Reagan is very good. But there was little spontaneity. Indeed, it took the Western White House about 24 hours to decide to interrupt the horseback riding at the ranch for the exercise in concern that culminated in Friday's National Security Council meeting and the Monday evening speech.
There is something to be said for casualness and forethought, especially when effective action follows. According to legend, Sir Francis Drake lingered coolly at his game of bowls even as the sails of the Spanish Armada hove over English horizons in 1588.
But Reagan frequently seems to reverse the order. He is not "suave in manner, strong in substance," but often strident in manner and weak in substance. He can read a speech or play a presidential scene as well as any chief executive since FDR. But is he sufficiently engaged in events to make any real difference?
I couldn't say. And again, presidential restraint is usually the safest bet for the long haul. But the alibis get a bit thick for my taste when the president's lackeys have the ill grace to try to justify inconsistency by attacking the Carter record.
It has become a habit. After all, they were saying this week, Reagan, unlike Carter, isn't all that shocked by beastly Soviet behavior. Since his own distrust is on record, he has no need to prove himself. The reference, of course, is to Carter's unfortunate admission that the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan had suddenly opened his eyes to its real nature--a confession of seeming naivet,e from which Reagan and other self-styled conservatives have reaped no end of benefit.
What goes against my grain is the sneering insinuation that Carter's really quite strong sanctions against the Soviet Union, after Afghanistan, were ill-conceived. Carter occasionally said silly things, but his actions were often strong.
I am still waiting for real evidence that Ronald Reagan has added anything of substance to U.S. strength or security. Reagan is against the draft. He has obtained neither the deployment of a new strategic missile nor an arms control agreement to replace SALT II, which he denounced in 1980 as "fatally flawed" but has found it convenient to observe.
He has taken no sanction, in response to the plane incident or before, remotely comparable to the Carter grain embargo (which, in fact, he lifted as it was beginning to pinch) or the boycott of the Olympics. When the truth emerges about sales of grain and high technology to the Soviet Union, I suspect that the Reagan administration will be found to have set a new benchmark for laxity and accommodationism.
Where, then, is the tough talk leading us, except to the conclusion--by both the American public and the Soviet Union--that when we talk, nobody needs to listen?
Walter Lippmann used to say that a certain right-wing newspaper chain belonged to the "war whoop party." The spirit of the war whoop party still echoes through the corridors of the Reagan administration. As one disillusioned editorialist wrote, "He did no more than pelt the swaggering offender with the adjectives of pious outrage."
Adjectives break no bones.