It happened today - September 1, 2015
Thirty-two years ago today the wanton Soviet destruction of KAL-007, a Korean passenger flight carrying 269 people, was a significant turning point in the Cold War.
It was just one of countless brutal atrocities carried out under the hammer and sickle. And yet somehow, at a delicate moment in the moral and military rearmament of the West under Ronald Reagan, it laid bare the thuggishness and mendacity of the Bolshevik regime in ways hard to ignore.
Hard, not impossible. There are always some useful idiots willing to downplay the most brazen acts of evil by enemies of the open societies. But for reasonable people concerned that Reagan was the unreasonable one, that American foreign policy was often harsh and unfeeling, the brutality of the initial shooting down of a clearly marked passenger plane with lights on was turned from a tragic mistake into a stark illustration of the nature of the regime by the stone-faced dishonesty of the various cover stories put forward.
The initial shooting down of the plane could have been explained, even partly excused, by a trigger-happy pilot, overly rigid operating procedures, an excess of caution, a cruel or drunken commander. KAL-007 was, in fact, off course and over Soviet airspace when shot down, and the Soviet airspace in question, over the Kamchatka peninsula, contained sensitive secret military installations. But the inhuman response, the icy lack of contrition or regret, indicted the whole system.
What the Soviets really communicated, beyond any rational doubt, was that they were not sorry for what they had done. Their various specific lies about the plane being a spy plane, flying blacked out and so on were hardly relevant and too horrible to be tragicomic. The fact that the pilot responsible clearly indicated what he was tracking, was ordered to shoot it down, obeyed the order and was subsequently decorated revealed plainly the difference between a system that made mistakes and a system that was a mistake, between those who sometimes did wrong in pursuit of right and those who were on the side of darkness.
I remember well a political cartoon at the time showing one of the many peace marches of that period (all in the West, of course) with pieces of the plane raining down on horrified participants with the caption “red rain”. To be concerned about nuclear war and “superpower tensions” was reasonable, even to some extent commendable. But to portray the Cold War as a standoff between morally equivalent rivals was never reasonable. And incidents like this one drove that point home to all but the most bitterly angry radicals.
The West would, I am confident, have won the Cold War anyway. But there was enormous opposition to Reagan’s policies at the time, and horror at his rhetoric, his characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” destined for the “ash heap of history.” Its conduct in this lamentable episode could not have been better designed to prove him right.