It seems like much longer, but it was only five weeks ago that I boarded a plane at Heathrow for New York, and settled down with four or five English newspapers.

I picked up first the one I always start with: it’s that refreshing thing today of a newspaper that is neither a daily journal of your own opinions, nor an anthology of bikinis and provincial murders, but a paper, dull and devoted to news. I noticed on the back page, a little "Stop press" space which had just had time to catch one item, a single, short sentence report of a Korean airplane crash with upwards of 250 people as probably casualties.

And I remember saying to my wife "That has got to be wrong, or they didn’t have time to check the figure. If it's right, it must be some sort of grizzly world record."

At such times you sigh and move on to the solid stuff and think no more about it.

I should guess it was about eight hours later that we got in the car, at Kennedy Airport for the two-hour drive down Long Island. It was going on seven o’clock, pm, just in time for the network's evening news. We turned on the television fully provided by this pick-up company, and – bam – there it was, and there it stayed, by way of shaky elaboration and guesswork for most of the half-hour, the probable shooting down of 007 – a grim coincidence that, that is James Bond’s identifying number as a secret agent – the shooting down, it was presumed, by the Russians.

Well, another month, another crisis. The boycott of the Soviet airline has ended and people no longer hide the bottles of Russian vodka or pour them down the sink. We wound up in this country with the surprising figure from a national opinion survey, that over 60% of Americans, in spite of the administration's positive and outraged version of the incident, over 60% are dissatisfied with the official accounts on both sides, and suspect there is more to be known.

I have been looking back to the reports, and the commentaries that abounded in the European and American media in those first days, and I find it at once instructive and humbling to consider now several large consequences of the American, if not the western, reaction which could hardly have been guessed at in the first waves of shock and indignation.

Yet the response of this administration to the incident has had serious effects on at least two concerns that most of us didn’t anticipate at the time – on the future of the United Nations, and on the future, if any, of the Soviet- American talks on the limiting of strategic arms.

Of course, we guessed in the first angry days that some sort of sanctions against the Soviet Union would be urged by President Reagan. And it was on the initiative of the international airline pilots' union that it took the form it did, the 30-day suspension of Aeroflot’s landing rights in most of the countries of the western alliance.

That led to the Russians refusing to let Mr Gromyko come to New York for the annual session of the United Nations general assembly, on the ground that his personal safety could not be guaranteed. And that led to the Soviet ambassador here sitting in for the absent Mr Gromyko.

And that led, presumably with Aambassador Troyanovsky’s blessing, to a Soviet delegate's snapping out in the United Nations that the United States was not fit to be the host nation of the organisation.

And that provoked the deputy chief of the American mission, a gaunt and owlish gent named Charles Lichenstein, to snap back that if the Russians and their now almost innumerable friends in the Third World wanted to leave New York, and I quote, "We will put no impediment in your way, the United States mission will be down at the dockside, waving you a fond farewell as you sail into the sunset".

Mr Lichenstein maybe forgiven, in the heat of the moment, for confusing the points of the compass and offering to watch the departing guests sail into the eastern sunset. Mr Lichenstein said it so sweetly and so rhythmically that he got into all the news shows, and everybody chuckled, for about a couple of hours.

When reporters enquired of the state department if Mr Lichenstein was speaking for the government, no he was not. However, it’s not often that American diplomats twist the bear's tail in public, albeit with a smile. Mr Lichenstein’s chief, the United States ambassador to the UN Mrs Kirkpatrick, jumped in to add a tug of her own.

Why not, she suggested, divide United Nations meetings between Russia and America – six months in New York and six months, presumably, in Moscow? While the state department was blushing and saying that these droll opinions were purely personal, they and everybody else, except one off-the-cuff reporter forgot to check with the president.

Mr Reagan thought aloud, in his own genial way, that Mr Lickenstein’s original idea seemed like a good one. We aren’t asking anyone to leave, he said, but if they choose to leave, goodbye. As for Mrs Kirkpatrick’s amendment he thought half a year spent in Moscow would give them an opportunity to see two ways of life.

I have no idea how these quips – for that's what they were – were reported in the Soviet Union or eastern Europe but they’d be asleep at the switches if they didn’t report with all due gravity that the United States is so alarmed at the Communists and Third World weight of opinion against her, perhaps feeling so embarrassed by 70 speeches made against Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights – there have been no speeches about solidarity in Poland – that America would like to see the UN move elsewhere.

Anyway there were also Americans who were aroused and delighted by the jest and chose to take it seriously. Senator Goldwater, the old conservative battleaxe from Arizona, has been saying for years that the United States had no business being in the damn UN at all. In California, the extreme right-wing John Birch Society chanted its old slogan, "US out of the UN".

To anybody who knows only a little about the American commitment to the United Nations, what she puts into it, what she gets out of it, what the effect would be of an American pull-out, the effect could be as fateful and final as the Senate’s refusal, 64 years ago, to have this country join the League of Nations.

To anyone who is used to this administration's gift for public jocularity on serious issues, the joke that ran from Lichenstein to Kirkpatrick to Reagan was not taken seriously for a moment. But considering the hunger of mass-circulation papers at home and abroad, and television's hunger for hot and juicy snacks of news, some damage had been done.

The administration had cause to think again quickly and smooth it over, because it came out again that while the United States pays a quarter of the entire UN budget – the American share being $350 million a year – the city of New York alone makes a net profit of just about twice that, 700 million, in having over 30,000 foreign diplomats living and renting and playing and eating and theatre-going and carousing here. And that over 40 other nations pay a bigger percentage of their gross national product to the UN than the United States does.

Mayor Ed Koch is not one of the citizens who shared the Reagan chuckles, but, within days, the United States Senate, considering a bill to reduce the American dues to the United Nations, promptly voted to cut the annual contribution by more than a third; by, that is, about 130 million a year.

By this time the White House aides, frantically trying to throw a blanket over their jokey president and chief ambassador to the UN, announced that the Senate’s action, if it were supported by the House of Representatives, would greatly damage United States' interests.

Well if a joke provoked in the United Nations by Mr Gromyko’s absence can damage American prestige here, a prolonged outburst of anger and abuse of the Soviet Union from the president could produce more damage still, not so much to America’s prestige but to the belief, in both western and eastern Europe, in America’s commitment to peace.

What Mr Reagan’s unquestionably sincere indignation did over the downing of the Korean jet liner, was to fire the conservatives and Congress and the hardliners in the Pentagon with the new hope of getting most, if not all, of what they had been begging for, by way of new weapons.

Even on the completed plan to install medium-range nuclear missiles in West Germany there had been a sizable body of Congressmen who looked forward to this week and the start of the Geneva talks in the hope that the deployment of those missiles – which will begin towards the end of November – could somehow be put off.

After the first scornful slanging match between Washington and Moscow ... when that was over and things seemed to have died down, the president then began to explore with both parties in Congress the possibility of a plan that would represent America’s final offer.

At that point, it was the Russians who showed how much they had been provoked by the row over the Korean jet.

Mr Andropov went further than any of his predecessors in discounting not only the seriousness of America’s intentions, but of the very possibility of an agreement. He said that any illusions about the possible evolution for the better in the policies of the Reagan administration had been finally dispelled.

The word "finally" is one that, in the process of diplomacy, you do not use. And it gave solemn pause to even the hawks, in the moment of what they took to be their triumph. It persuaded the White House to work on another plan and to get the consent to it of the leading expert on arms and arms control in both parties in the Senate. It is, as you have no doubt heard, a plan to destroy two old warheads, for every new one that is deployed.

The senior senator on foreign affairs, Senator Percy, said that this is the first time in history that the Congress and the president have worked out jointly an arms control proposal, in which we are truly united.

Now, if only Mr Reagan and Mr Andropov will stop calling each other names, maybe the first chink of light will appear at the end of the interminable Geneva tunnel.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.