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.