The USS Vincennes and the Missing Unconditional Apology

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Let's open with this quote:

"I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are. … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.

This comment was made on August 2, 1988 during a campaign stop by then Vice President George H.W. Bush, about the USS Vincennes' mistakenly downing Iran Air Flight 655 which killed 290 occupants, 254 of which were Iranian and 66 of which were children.  The Iran Air flight was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai and was shot down by two surface-to-air cruise missiles fired from the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988 while in Iranian air space and while the Vincennes was in Iranian waters.  After shooting down Flight 655, the Vincennes did not search for or help potential survivors.

Let's now look at what the Reagan White House had to say about the incident.  Here is a statement which appeared in the bottom corner of section 1 page 6 of the New York Times on July 4, 1988:

USS Vincennes Missing Apology,

Note the use of the words "proper defensive action", and the claims that the USS Vincennes was merely defending itself against five Iranian Boghammer boats but that there is no mention that the Vincennes was in Iranian water.

Let's contrast George H.W. Bush's quote and Ronald Reagan's apology with those of Iran's leadership in response to the shooting down of UIA Flight 752.  Here's what Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, had to say in a tweet on January 10, 2020:

USS Vincennes Missing Apology,

Note that he accepts responsibility and apologizes for the mistake made by Iran's Armed Forces.

Here is what Iran's Foreign Minister Javed Zarif had to say:

USS Vincennes Missing Apology,

In contrast to the nearly immediate admission of guilt by Iran, the United States Department of Defense took nearly 6 weeks to admit that it was conditionally at fault and released this report  which, at the time, was classified as "Secret":

USS Vincennes Missing Apology,

In the report, we find this listing of the reasons why the Vincennes was justified in its actions:

USS Vincennes Missing Apology,

Among the recommendations, we find that the Department of Defense placed at least part of the blame on the "impact of human stress" during operations because ships like the Vincennes were sophisticated to the point that "a high level of responsibility and stress" is associated with working on these ships.

Eventually, under President Bill Clinton, in 1996, the United States agreed to a $131.8 million settlement for damages it caused to the families of those on board Flight 655 but an unconditional apology is still absent.  

In any case, while both events are tragic, it is interesting to see that the United States was only willing to issue a conditional apology for its killing of 290 passengers on a commercial aircraft and made little mention of the fact that this crime was committed in both Iranian airspace and Iranian territorial waters. This is in sharp contrast to the Iranians who believed that the threat in their domestic airspace on January 8, 2020 was related to an American reprisal for the Iranian missiles that had been launched into Iraq just a short time before.

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