R. W. Johnson, a Fellow in Politics at Oxford University, has produced a meticulously researched, nicely organized, and well-written account of the tragedy of KAL flight 007, a Boeing 747 bound from Anchorage to Seoul. The book deserves a wide readership, though some will find his conclusions unpalatable and all will find them disturbing.

KAL 007 was well northwest of the normal air corridor across the north Pacific en route to Seoul, on a course that took it over Soviet territory on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island. This is a sensitive area containing several Soviet bases. Probably the two major questions that continue to arouse curiosity about this event are: Did the Russians knowingly shoot down an obviously civilian airliner? and why was KAL 007 so far off course?

On the former, Johnson concludes that they did not. Despite the Reagan Administration’s insistence to the contrary, Johnson’s careful evaluation of the evidence shows that the Soviet pilots did not positively identify the 747 and probably believed they were shooting at a military or intelligence aircraft intruding on their airspace.

On the latter question, Johnson concludes that, given the experience of the crew and the sophistication of modern navigation, an accidental wandering off course for five hours truly strains credibility. The wrong route was taken and could not have been taken without the connivance of the crew.

Johnson sets the incident against the sweep of great power politics in the Pacific, providing the reader with excellent background and giving a breadth of information well beyond the narrow confines of the KAL episode. He concludes by evaluating various theories as to what happened, arguing that only one theory fits the facts: KAL 007, he asserts, was on an intelligence mission, perhaps not carrying cameras and the like but nevertheless probing Soviet defenses with the high-level collusion of the United States government. Johnson accuses the Reagan Administration of whipping up anti-Soviet hysteria to cover a failed mission; he further believes that the “black box” flight recorders were recovered but have been suppressed because they will only prove American complicity in the episode. A fascinating and disturbing work.