Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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KAL Flight 007 (1 September 1983)

Title: Search for Korean Airlines Flight 007 by submersible
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Downing of a civilian Korean Airlines (KAL) jetliner by Soviet air defenses that killed 269 people and heightened Cold War tensions. U.S. President Ronald Reagan condemned the Soviet destruction of KAL Flight 007 in September 1983, pointing to the incident as further proof for his claim that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." U.S. officials exploited the tragedy to gain leverage in the Soviet-American Cold War confrontation that had been rekindled in the early 1980s. For a decade, bitter accusations and indignant rebuttals only added to the mystery of why a civilian aircraft strayed into sensitive Soviet airspace.

Shortly before 3:30 a.m. on 31 August 1983, KAL 007 departed Anchorage, Alaska, after refueling on the final leg of its New York to Seoul route. On board the Boeing 747 were 269 people. Several minutes after takeoff, the jet deviated from its assigned course, straying twice over the Kamchatka Peninsula and then Sakhalin Island, the location of a major Soviet military installation. Five hours after the flight left Alaska and with the plane approximately 11 miles off Moneron Island, which itself is 30 miles southwest of Sakhalin's southern tip, Soviet Air Defense Force Colonel Gennady N. Osipovich fired two missiles from his SU-15 fighter that struck KAL 007. Minutes later, the jumbo jet plunged into the sea. All aboard perished, including 61 U.S. citizens, among them U.S. Representative Larry P. McDonald, a Georgia Democrat.

President Reagan immediately decried the downing as an "act of barbarism" directed "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere." Soviet leader Yuri Andropov insisted that the KAL 007 flight was a deliberate attempt to spy on or provoke the Soviet Union. Reagan ordered the U.S. Eighth Army in the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) on full alert, and its commander advised the press that nations of the northern and western Pacific area should prepare for the possibility of war.

Meanwhile, conflicting explanations for the tragedy were emerging. Because an American RC-135 spy plane had flown near Sakhalin earlier on the night of the attack, the incident likely was a case of mistaken identity. But KAL also shared the blame. In 1983, KAL was combating its negative reputation for flight delays with an unusual policy that paid pilots a bonus to arrive on time "any way they can." But uncertainty persisted because the Soviet government, denying any culpability, waged a campaign to keep U.S. investigators away from the crash site.

In 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ended speculation about the doomed flight when he released the in-flight data recordings that the Soviets had discovered amid KAL 007's wreckage. A series of navigational errors shortly after takeoff had taken the airliner some 300 miles north of its intended route. For more than two hours, the Korean flight crew was unaware that the plane was off course and was flying over forbidden Soviet airspace. Soviet air defense, meanwhile, tracked the intruding aircraft and made attempts at identification. The pursuit pilot reported that unlike a spy plane, the aircraft had its navigation lights aglow. Because Soviet rules of engagement required air defense forces to shoot down any intruder that ignored a warning, Colonel Osipovich tipped his wings and fired warning cannons. Apparently, the Korean crew neither saw nor heard these signals. His efforts at identification having failed, the Soviet pilot followed orders to shoot, reporting tersely that "the target is destroyed."

Soviet leaders soon learned that the intrusion was the result of navigational error, but they refused to admit it. This allowed the Reagan administration to initiate a major public relations effort to discredit the Soviets. On 6 September, the United Nations (UN) Security Council for the first time watched a video supporting the U.S. contention that a Soviet pilot wantonly shot down what he knew was a passenger jetliner. The purpose of the display was to use the KAL 007 incident to undermine Soviet integrity, thereby blunting Moscow's so-called peace campaign to dissuade America's European allies from basing upgraded U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil.

U.S. officials knew the truth, however, because top secret American intelligence stations near the Soviet border had monitored the pursuit of KAL 007 minute by minute, recording how the Soviets believed that the intruder was a military plane but realized their error too late. Reagan and his aides refused to attribute the incident to mistaken identity or bureaucratic rigidity. One reason for this was to keep secret the reach of American intelligence, but more important was scoring a propaganda victory that Reagan defenders would argue helped win the Cold War.

James I. Matray

Further Reading
Hersh, Seymour M. "The Target Is Destroyed": What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew about It. New York: Random House 1986.; Sayle, Murray. "Closing the File on Flight 007." New Yorker 69 (13 December 1993): 90–101.

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