On Aug. 31, 1983, a South Korean airliner flying from New York to Seoul drifted off course and entered Soviet airspace. After tracking the civilian plane for more than two hours, Soviet fighter pilots were told to shoot it down. They did, killing 269 people, including 60 Americans. It was one of the most shocking atrocities of the Cold War.
It occurred during the first term of perhaps the most staunchly anti-Communist president America has ever had, Ronald Reagan, an advocate of robust military power. And how did Reagan respond? He called it a “crime against humanity,” and then, um, postponed some cultural exchanges with the Soviets.
Some of his admirers were aghast at this display, as Steven Hayward notes in his 2009 book, “The Age of Reagan.” New York Times columnist William Safire said Reagan “has acted more pusillanimously than Jimmy Carter.” Polls showed most Americans thought he had done too little, prompting the president to ask, “Short of going to war, what would they have us do?”