Reagan was furious. John Barletta, his riding companion at the ranch, overheard Reagan shout: “Those were innocent civilians. Damn those Russians!”
Clark told the press that he personally expected the Soviets to perpetuate the “big lie” technique. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians claimed that the commercial airliner was on an American espionage mission.
Reagan immediately helicoptered to Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California to board Air Force One for Washington. At 12:35 p.m., from the tarmac, he spoke to the press, excoriating the Soviets for committing a “brutal,” “callous,” and “heinous act”—a “barbaric act,” a “terrorist act.” It was all made worse, he said, by the fact that the Russians “so flagrantly lie.”
Back in Washington, Reagan immediately met with Clark and the National Security Council. He publicly lit up the Soviets with more statements, including a radio address on September 3 and a nationally televised Oval Office speech on September 5, in which he repeatedly denounced Moscow’s “crime” and “massacre.” And there were more statements to come.
In a speech on September 15 to the Air Force Association, Clark accused Moscow of “mass murder” and a “twisted mentality.” “The sickening display of Soviet barbarism in the Korean Air Lines massacre shocked all of us,” Clark said. “But at the same time, this dramatically brutal act must be deemed consistent with the behavior of a Soviet government that continues to terrorize and murder the Afghan people, using chemical weapons on Afghan villages; a Soviet government that sponsors the repression of the entire Polish nation.”
As evidence that Clark’s words had been pre-approved, the White House press office distributed the text as an expression of administration policy. The media didn’t miss it. “Clark Accuses Soviets of ‘Mass Murder,’” read the headline in the Washington Post.
And yet, while Ronald Reagan was steamed, he was also very careful. He told Clark flatly: “[L]et’s be careful not to overreact to this. We have too much going on with the Soviets…. Bill, we’ve got to protect against overreaction.”
Reagan did not want to start a war over the KAL downing, nor derail the substantial progress they had made toward cutting nuclear arsenals. Besides, he was already hammering the Soviets with the economic sledgehammer (read: economic warfare) and recently announced initiatives like SDI.
How best to react? Reagan decided to respond primarily with words rather than yet more sanctions or a military response (which was out of the question). He deployed one of his favorite weapons against the Kremlin: the verbal cruise missile. Recall that earlier that year, in March, Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” a choice name that dramatically affected Moscow.
So, throughout September 1983, Reagan torched the Soviets in harsh terms, even when delivering speeches on other topics or areas of the world.
On September 25, for instance, Reagan spoke in New York City at the annual Pulaski Day Banquet. There, he linked the KAL 007 “crime” to the same Soviet totalitarian evil responsible for the World War II butchery of Polish military officers in the Katyn forest. “You know that downing a passenger airliner is totally consistent with a government that murdered 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest,” he averred. “We cannot let the world forget that crime, and we will not.”
He did not. Ronald Reagan’s reaction to the Russian downing of an Asian airliner was one of strength, character, and leadership. It’s worth knowing and emulating.