The Long View on Hainan

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Apr 16, 2001 12:00 AM
Scene: 1960, Army War College, Carlisle, Penn. Off-the-record speaker, Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Background: Our pilot, Gary Powers, has been shot down flying a U-2 on a routine spy mission over the heart of Russia. Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev is having an apoplectic fit, the upcoming summit in Paris (de Gaulle, Macmillan, Khrushchev, Eisenhower) is threatened and the scheduled visit by Ike to Moscow almost certainly doomed.

Question from the floor to Director Dulles, who is onstage, smoking a pipe. "The report during the weekend that the United States would no longer fly U-2s over Russia is pretty dismaying to those of us who believe that the sovereign responsibility of the CIA is to bring in data critical to understanding what's going on in the Soviet Union so that we can hope to cope with it."

Dulles: "Yes. Well, er" -- puff on his pipe; the smoke eddies out -- "we'll have to resort to other means to bring in our ... data."

Translation: We had developed the technology of microphotography from satellites that would give us as intimate a view of Soviet missile development as we had been getting from our U-2s. They had been flying happily, insouciantly, at 70,000 feet, which was higher than the range of Soviet antimissile firepower.

But on that critical day, Soviet technology had caught up. President Eisenhower told the press that our flights were "a distasteful but vital necessity." And that the Soviet reaction "to a flight of an unarmed non-military plane reflects a fetish of secrecy." Even so, not much later, Eisenhower said that such flights would end, and much of America blushed with shame.

Ike did not apologize. Why should you apologize to Moscow for monitoring its aggressive capabilities? Which capabilities they were forever threatening us with and which, two years later, they transported to Cuba to diminish the exigencies, for their missiles, of trans-Atlantic flight.

Why should we apologize to the People's Republic of China for collecting such material as we think is needed to keep pace with their advances in missile technology?

Answer: We do not need to apologize. This we should make plain. On the other hand, it may be that we do not need to resume the EP-3E flights -- on the grounds that, even as in 1960 we developed a sufficient alternative technology, so in 2001 have we done, avoiding the need for cheek-by-jowl surveillance of the kind that has got us into the current mess.

There is, of course, the critical difference between Gary Powers and our EP-3E crew in Hainan. Powers was caught and tried by a Soviet court for crimes against the state. There is no doubt that that was exactly what Powers was doing: taking unauthorized pictures of secret Soviet missile development. He had no right to overfly Soviet territory. The penalty for doing so became whatever the Soviet Union specified as the appropriate penalty.

In the case of China, our EP-3E pilot and crew were not overflying China. They were 50 miles off the coast, and PRC claims that the dribbles of land south and east of Hainan extend Chinese territoriality to where our plane was flying are hogwash, to be treated with the same disdain history authorizes toward such Maoist claims as that retention of a wedding ring is evidence of bourgeois disaffection, meriting public execution.

The proposition that our plane initiated aerial maneuvers that brought down the peaceful Chinese fighter plane is derided by elementary knowledge of the separate characteristics of our plane and of their plane. To augment these, we have auxiliary evidence of the Chinese pilot's all but holding up his middle finger doing a fico at our own pilot, which is heady stuff at about 300 mph.

But our crew are members of our armed services and undergo the risks of their profession. The United States must on no account lose sight of the crew, as we did not lose sight of the Pueblo when in 1968 its crew were kept imprisoned by the North Koreans, or of the diplomatic hostages kept 14 months by the government of Iran in 1979-1981. The goal of the return of the EP-3E crew should be high on our agenda, but not highest.

Highest we place the strategic interests of the United States. And these demand that the PRC should feel the high cost of reckless behavior. Peking chose to make a huge public case out of the incident, telling lies and inflaming public opinion. Perhaps it is time to turn to more sophisticated means of gathering intelligence, but it is never time to apologize for looking after the national defense, or to conceal from the People's Republic the uses of American resources, on which they so heavily depend.