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Reagan and KAL 007

Pres. Ronald Reagan address the nation from the Oval Office. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) President Ronald Reagan address the nation from the Oval Office. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

On Sept. 1, 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines passenger airliner traveling from New York to Seoul, killing 269 people. The chilling exchange between the Soviet pilot and his air traffic controller was broadcast around the world: “The target is destroyed.”

The parallels to Thursday’s murder of 298 people on a Malaysian Air flight over Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile are chilling. And not surprisingly, it took only a few hours for pundits to make the connection, largely for the purpose of drawing comparisons between President Reagan’s response and that of President Obama. Fox News kicked things off with a segment attacking Obama for attending a fundraiser last night rather than “leading.”  Noting his brief reaction to the tragedy Thursday, another site trumpeted “Obama a disgrace!”

It is too early to judge the U.S. response in full, of course – Obama is apparently planning a national address — but it is worth recalling that Reagan’s own response in 1983 did not get good reviews from the Fox News of the day. According to Richard Reeves’s “President Reagan,” (see p167-70), the administration was seen as far too weak.

True, the president’s nationally televised address on Sept. 5 was full of strong rhetorical condemnation: Reagan called the Soviet action “monstrous,” “murderous,” and “born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life.”

But little action followed. Reagan demanded an apology to the world and continued a number of sanctions — but he decided not to end grain sales to the USSR or to suspend arms control talks. George Will argued that “the administration is pathetic…. We didn’t elect a dictionary. We elected a President and it’s time for him to act.”  The Manchester Union-Leader editorialized that “if someone had told us three years ago that the Russians could blow a civilian airliner out of the skies – and not face one whit of retaliation from a Ronald Reagan administration, we would have called that crazy. It is crazy. It is insane. It is exactly what happened.”

Even at the height of the Cold War, however — and keeping in mind that the flight had departed from the U.S., with dozens of American passengers, including a sitting member of Congress — Reagan told a National Security Meeting that “we’ve got to protect against overreaction. Vengeance isn’t the name of the game.”

Presidential analogies are notoriously tricky. But if anything, this history pays higher tribute to Reagan’s leadership than do his ostensible disciples.


Andrew Rudalevige is Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. He specializes in the study of American political institutions, primarily the presidency and the interbranch relations, with a recent focus on presidential management of the executive branch.



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