On September 6, 1976 a MIG-25 (foxbat), the most advanced Soviet fighter jet at the time, landed at Hokadote Airport in Hokkaido, Japan. Pilot Viktor Belenko emerged waving a pistol in the air and requested asylum in the United States. Washington promptly approved Belenko’s asylum request and asked young diplomat Nicholas Platt to handle his transfer. Washington also wanted to analyze the MIG-25. Platt and colleagues at the Japanese Foreign Ministry came up a plan to tell the Soviet Union that the landing gear on the MIG was damaged. The aircraft needed to be transferred to the Chitose Air Base, they explained, for dismantling and shipment back to Russia. The airbase happened to be jointly operated with the United States. U.S. Air Force personnel meticulously examined and repackaged the parts of the aircraft before shipping it back. The United States got the intelligence it wanted, and the three nations avoided a more serious diplomatic standoff.
Nicholas Platt went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, culminating in service as Ambassador to Zambia, the Philippines and Pakistan. He is perhaps best known as a China expert, however, and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is proud to have supported publication of Platt’s memoir China Boys: How U.S. Relations with the PRC Began and Grew (2009). Platt’s interview with David E. Reuther began on March 7, 2005.
Read Nicholas Platt’s full oral history HERE.
“The Soviet pilot, brandishing a pistol from his cockpit, requested political asylum in the United States.”
Onset of the MIG-25 crisis: “I found myself in the eye of a three-sided storm involving Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States. On Labor Day, September 6, 1976, a MIG-25 “Foxbat” fighter landed at Hakodate airport in Hokkaido. The Soviet pilot, brandishing a pistol from his cockpit, requested political asylum in the United States. [As] the embassy duty officer of the day, I was paged off the courts at the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club, to deal with the matter. I was also the action officer in the Political Section responsible for the diplomatic handling of defectors (as opposed to debriefing them, a task for the intelligence agencies), so sent to the State Department an immediate request for defector status for the pilot, whose name was Viktor Belenko.”
“No one in the NATO Alliance had seen this most advanced fighter in the Soviet arsenal up close.”
Japanese hesitation: “The Japanese, deathly frightened of the Soviets, wanted to return the aircraft to the USSR at the same time they released to pilot to us. The Ministry of Justice claimed jurisdiction over the case, arguing that Belenko had violated the National Sword and Gun Act when he waved his pistol. They maintained that they had no power to hold the plane. It had only served as the vehicle for the violator….. Washington was astonished and furious. The plane that had carried Belenko was no sword or gun, but one of the deadliest weapons in the world. We needed a long, careful look at the Foxbat. No one in the NATO Alliance had seen this most advanced fighter in the Soviet arsenal up close.”
“The Japanese went on to explain that, lacking the expertise to dismantle the aircraft, they would have to hire a contractor, which turned out to be–surprise, surprise!–the U.S. Air Force”
Solution to the crisis: “In the end, under the patient and skillful prodding of Mr. Satoh [a Japanese Foreign Office official], a special, very Japanese arrangement was made. The Foreign Office explained to the Soviets that the Foxbat’s landing gear had been damaged (not true), making it impossible simply to fly the plane back to its base in Vladivostok as they demanded. Instead, the aircraft would have to be moved to Chitose Air Base, which the U.S. operated jointly with the Japanese, and taken apart for shipment back to the USSR. The Japanese went on to explain that, lacking the expertise to dismantle the aircraft, they would have to hire a contractor, which turned out to be–surprise, surprise!–the U.S. Air Force. In the event, it took a meticulous month to complete the dismantling. The parts were then placed in handsome, custom-built wooden crates, as if packaged at a fancy Japanese department store. Plexiglas windows were installed helpfully to show what was in each box (wings, fuselage, engines, etc.). These were then loaded onto a freighter and sent back to the Soviet Union.”
Drafted by Neil Nabar
Table of Contents highlights:
BA from Harvard University 1957
MA from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Affairs 1959
Entered Foreign Service 1959
Windsor, Canada-Vice Chancellor 1959-1962
China, Beijing, Chief of the Political Section 1973-1974
Japan, Tokyo, Political Officer 1974-1977
Zambia, Ambassador 1982-1984
Philippines, Ambassador 1987-1991
Pakistan, Ambassador 1991-1992