Sunday, September 1, 2013

When the Cold War Got Hot

What would your answer be if you were asked to name the hottest moment of the Cold War?

Most people would probably say the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and they'd get no argument from me — but my choice would be the event that happened 30 years ago today.

I'm referring to the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

It was a Thursday, the first day of September. Labor Day was coming up, which meant a three–day weekend, and football season was about to begin. With the exception of the stubborn summer heat, it was the time of year I like best.

But when I got up that morning, I was greeted by the worst possible news — a Korean commercial air liner traveling from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska, had been shot down by the Soviet Union over the Sea of Japan.

At first, the Soviets denied any knowledge of what had happened to the doomed airliner, but they eventually had no choice but to admit their complicity. However, they insisted the plane had violated Soviet airspace and was on a spy mission.

The Soviets said it was a deliberate attempt by the Americans to test their readiness or even to start a war — an accusation that was perceived as plausible in some quarters because of Ronald Reagan's rhetorical history. The United States accused the Soviets of hampering search–and–rescue missions.

All the while, the world saw friends and relatives of the victims on the scene, sobbing and demanding their loved ones' remains.

At first, the Soviets were blase about what happened, saying only that an unidentified aircraft had been shot down in Soviet airpsace. The United States reacted in horror, and the State department alleged that the Soviets knew all along that it was a civilian airliner.

Ronald Reagan described what happened as a "massacre." He issued a statement at the time in which he contended that the Soviets had turned "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere."

That morning I went in to the newsroom of the newspaper where I was employed, and I had a conversation with the managing editor. It just so happened that Arkansas' junior U.S. senator, David Pryor, was speaking to a local group (the Lions or Rotary or Jaycees or something like that) at lunch that day, and I sensed an opportunity.

I was an eager young reporter, and I thought it was a golden opportunity to get some quotes from a U.S. senator about a developing international story. And it was.

But Pryor was either very cautious or very ill informed. Granted, I didn't have much of a chance to ask many questions — and even less of a chance to absorb what had happened, so little was known in those first hours — but the senator managed to avoid saying much of anything except "Let's see how this plays out."

In hindsight, that was sage advice — and characteristic of the David Pryor I knew. He was never a shoot–from–the–hip type, not brash or impulsive. He wanted to know as many of the facts as he could before he reached a conclusion.

So, as I recall, I wound up with a pretty dry article that really didn't add much to the wire coverage that thousands of papers across the country would be running. Nevertheless, I wrote a short sidebar. It localized the story, I suppose, but it didn't add a lot to it.

A resolution that was satisfactory to all sides was never reached, which permitted several conspiracy theories to flourish, the most prominent, I suppose, was one that held that Korean Air Lines 007 was on a spy mission that involved Rep. Lawrence McDonald, a conservative Democrat from Georgia who was a passenger on that flight.

Thirty years later, there are still advocates of that one.

I guess that isn't surprising. McDonald was the kind of Democrat who could be seen routinely in the South in those days — conservative, even extreme. He was a member of the John Birch Society. He was also a member of the House Armed Services Committee and an outspoken anti–communist. I've heard that former President Richard Nixon was supposed to be seated next to McDonald, but Nixon decided not to go after all.

Thirty years ago, McDonald was on his way to attend a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in Korea. He was supposed to travel with two senators and another representative, but his flight from Atlanta was delayed by bad weather, and he missed it.

Consequently, he wound up on the doomed Korean Air Lines flight instead — and perished with the crew and the rest of the passengers.

McDonald's political leanings and the fact that the Soviet Union had shot down his plane made it inevitable that conspiracy theorists would say he was the target of an assassination plot.

But that never did make much sense to me, given that McDonald's presence on that plane was a last–minute thing that no one could have predicted and for which no assassination team could have prepared.

I think the story that eventually emerged is pretty close to what happened.

The flight was diverted from its intended course by what was apparently a faulty autopilot setting and steadily drifted into Soviet airspace.

Soviet military leaders, no doubt feeling the stress of the heightened Cold War tensions of the early 1980s, ordered the plane to be shot down. All 246 passengers and 23 crew members were killed.

There was a lot of posturing, and, for awhile, I honestly believed a war was about to begin.

A few days later, the Soviets conceded what the rest of the world already knew — that a civilian airliner had been shot down. At least one high–ranking Russian official insisted the plane was on an espionage mission. The Americans suspended all Russian air travel to the United States.

In the end, I think most people agreed that it was a case of a misunderstanding that had the worst possible consequences. The flight that went off course happened to be following a flight path that had been followed recently by a known U.S. spy plane, and the Russians happened to be planning a missile test in that vicinity that very day.

(That's one of life's mysterious ironies, I suppose — sort of like the fact that slow communication between the FAA and NORAD, coupled with an emergency exercise that had been planned for that day, delayed their responses on Sept. 11, 2001.)

Combine that with the fact that old guard Cold Warriors were running things in both the Soviet Union and the United States 30 years ago and I suppose it was inevitable that something would happen.

The world was fortunate it didn't escalate into something worse.

No comments: