The USS Vincennes ‘Accident’ – 3 July 1988

“I am saddened to report that it appears that in a proper defensive action by the USS Vincennes this morning in the Persian Gulf, an Iranian airliner was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz.” US President Ronald Reagan

In early July 1988, Iran had nearly completed an underground bunker that put its Chinese-built Silkworm missiles within range of any ship passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, the bunker also concealed Iranian weapons from American reconnaissance.

General George B. Crist, in charge of United States operations in the gulf, said the bunker at the Iranian coastal town of Kuhestak ”changes the entire equation” for shipping in the Persian Gulf.

The United States is studying ways to destroy the nearly built underground bunker. ”If you don’t have to send out boats to attack shipping, it changes the entire equation,” General Crist said.

As a precaution, an Aegis class cruiser, the USS Vincennes — the most advanced anti-missile weapon in the American fleet — is stationed in the Persian Gulf. To many experts, the presence of the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf was a disaster waiting to happen because such a battleship was not designed to operate on a ”lake”.

Last month, Senator Brock Adams, Democrat of Washington, tried unsuccessfully to invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 in order to require explicit Congressional authorization for the continued use of American forces in the Persian Gulf. ”The United States was involved in an incredibly dangerous situation,” Adams argued.

During the debate regarding that proposal, Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia and the majority leader, told the US lawmakers that he was ”opposed to the escorting and convoying of Kuwaiti ships under the American flag.”

On July 3, 1988, four days before the feast day of Id al-Adha [1], the navy cruiser USS Vincennes, also known as “Robo-cruiser” because of the extremely aggressive behavior of her commanding officer, shot down an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf. The civilian Airliner was carrying mostly Muslims on their pilgrimage to Mecca. 290 died, mostly Iranians.

President Reagan was at Camp David, Md., to celebrate the fourth of July. Regan issued a statement regarding the shooting down of the Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. Marlin Fitzwater, the President’s spokesman, read Reagan statement at the White House.

“This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew and their families.”

“The Defense Department will conduct a full investigation. We deeply regret any loss of life. The course of the Iranian civilian airliner was such that it was headed directly for the USS Vincennes, which was at the time engaged with five Iranian Boghammer boats that had attacked our forces.”

“When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack.”

“The only US interest in the Persian Gulf is peace, and this reinforces the need to achieve that goal with all possible speed,” Reagan concluded.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Id al-Adha is the high point of the Muslim year just like Christmas is the great holiday of the Christians.

Iran Said to Fortify Key Strait – Reuters – New York Times, July 1, 1988

Text of Reagan’s Statement – AP – New York Times, July 4, 1988

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