Analogies: The USS Pueblo and Paranoid Policy-Making

News Abroad

Mr. Lerner is an assistant professor of history at the Ohio State University, and a fellow at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Pueblo Incident, which will be published by the University Press of Kansas (2002).

It is a trying time. A sudden and unexpected attack from abroad deals the United States a shocking blow, one that the nation's massive intelligence apparatus somehow overlooked. A stunned American nation demands vengeance.

The president, a Texan who came to office under highly unusual circumstances, makes his position clear: the real culprit is not a single nation but a larger conspiracy that extends across much of the world. He warns of a long struggle and calls for patience, while working frantically to keep international support behind the American response. George Bush and the attacks of September 11? No, Lyndon Johnson and the 1968 Pueblo Incident.

Okay, it is not a perfect analogy. The Pueblo Incident, the capture of the American spy ship Pueblo by North Korea in 1968, left only one American dead (although 82 others were beaten and tortured in North Korean prison camps for eleven months). The Pueblo Incident came at the height of the Vietnam War, while the September 11 attacks occurred during a period of relative peace and domestic tranquility. The Pueblo Incident occurred during an election year, unlike the World Trade Center attack that came just after one. Yet, in both cases the American president insisted that the true culprit was not a single country but a larger and more dangerous international conspiracy. Although it will be years before historians can fully evaluate Bush's contention, recent sources have finally allowed for a more careful analysis of LBJ's claim. This evidence suggests that he was wrong.

The USS Pueblo departed Sasebo, Japan on January 11, 1968, destined for the Sea of Japan. The 173 foot ex-cargo carrier carried a crew of 83 men (43 more than her recommended complement) with orders to monitor and collect North Korean (DPRK) and Soviet electronic communications, and to study naval activity along numerous Korean ports. Should everything go smoothly, the ship would return to Japan on February 4, full of valuable communications intercepts, photos of new Soviet ships, and 83 sailors desperate for some shore leave. Unfortunately, however, things never seemed to go smoothly for the Pueblo.

On the afternoon of January 23, DPRK ships and jets approached the Pueblo while she lay in international waters off the eastern coast of North Korea. Anticipating the routine harassment common in the intelligence gathering field, Commander Pete Bucher maintained his position until the lead ship suddenly demanded,"Heave to or I will open fire."

Gunfire met the Pueblo's attempts to escape, and Bucher soon surrendered with one dead and four wounded. In a struggle that had taken less than two hours, an American captain had surrendered his ship in peacetime for the first time since Commodore James Barron surrendered the U.S.S. Chesapeake to the British in 1807. It would require almost a year of difficult negotiations before the two rivals found a diplomatic solution, which returned the men, but not the ship, to the United States just in time for Christmas. The ship remained in North Korea, where it eventually became a tourist attraction.

When Lyndon Johnson and his advisors got word of the seizure, they had no doubt that more sinister forces were at work than met the eye. The Pueblo crisis, they believed, was the product of an international communist conspiracy directed by the Soviet Union. CIA Director Richard Helms described the attack as"an effort by North Korea to support the North Vietnamese in their efforts . . . It looks at this time like collusion between the North Koreans and the Soviets. It also appears to be another attempt to divert us from our efforts in Vietnam."

Walt Rostow insisted that it was connected to other Soviet actions in the Pacific, and suggested that the United States order the South Koreans to capture a Soviet ship, an action he termed"symmetrical."

LBJ saw it the same way."You look at Pueblo, Khe Sahn, Saigon," he told his cabinet,"and you see them as all part of the communist effort to defeat us out there."

Accordingly, the administration directed its response not toward North Korea but toward the suspected global communist monolith. Representatives were dispatched to Moscow, to the United Nations, to the World Court, and to the International Red Cross, in a desperate attempt to find a solution to a crisis that, it was believed, clearly derived from a massive international conspiracy.

Recent evidence, however, suggests otherwise. It should be acknowledged that records from the North Korean archives remain sealed, if they exist at all. Interviews, as well as declassified documents and intercepts from American intelligence agencies, however, have strongly suggested that in the case of the Pueblo, Kim Il Sung had acted alone.

"North Korea," recalled one member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1960s,"was an independent country . . . They would down a plane, capture a ship, join the nonaligned countries, and we would only learn of it from the newspapers."

"The North Koreans," echoed KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin,"they have their own agenda."

Relations between the intelligence services of these two communist nations, Kalugin and others have reported, were so strained that an almost complete cessation of joint operations had resulted.

This fact was not lost on the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, whose recently declassified reports about the attack highlighted the many signs suggesting that the Soviets had not been involved, including the numerous back-channel contacts Moscow had suddenly opened in an effort to convey this fact to American authorities. The Soviets, all signs thus suggested, were as stunned by the attack as was the United States.

In fact, it appears that not only were the Soviets uninvolved in the DPRK action, but that the seizure played a significant role in alienating the two nations. Recently declassified documents reveal that Moscow requested detailed information on the crisis a few days after it occurred but Kim Il Sung did not reply, and in February he ignored them again when they advised him to return the ship and crew without waiting for an apology. Later that month, the CIA reported that the Soviet Union had been"quite cool" toward the North Koreans since the Pueblo seizure, an attitude that was apparent in Moscow's unenthusiastic public support of Kim's position. It appears no coincidence that in 1969, when the North Koreans shot down an American EC-121 reconnaissance plane, the Soviet navy helped search for survivors.

In reality, locating the true source of North Korean actions required looking not toward Moscow but toward the one place that the administration refused: North Korea itself. Close scrutiny of Kim Il Sung's handling of the affair suggests that domestic issues, rather than global Cold War rivalries, lay behind his decision. Kim had predicated his rule on one ideological construct above all else: Juche.

Juche, roughly translated as"self-identity" or"self-reliance," was the almost ubiquitous principle directing DPRK life. On a basic level, it can be defined as a state of mind in which actors, both individually and collectively, advanced their interests without external influence; in the words of its formulator, Kim Il Sung, it consisted of"having an attitude of a master toward the revolution and construction of one's own country."

Rooted in the idea that man must determine his fate, and that of his nation, based solely on his indigenous experiences, juche demanded North Koreans embrace a purely Korean way of life, especially in the critical fields of economic, domestic politics, and international relations. By the late 1960s, however, economic shortages and political infighting had begun to call into question Kim's ability to live up to his own standard in the first two realms. No surprise then, that North Korea launched a much more bellicose phase of behavior in the only remaining aspect of juche: international relations.

In reality, the Pueblo seizure appears to have been only a small part of a larger onslaught designed to show a domestic audience that Kim could still lead the nation down that sacred juche path. The Pueblo seizure thus makes sense only when it is removed from the context of the global superpower struggle, and considered instead as the product of indigenous North Korean circumstances affecting not only relations with the United States but with most of the world. As much as the exigencies of the Cold War dominated attention in Moscow, Peking, and Washington, in Pyongyang they took secondary status to the need to conform to the ideological program that virtually defined their society.

And what lessons does this offer the current Texan in the White House as he faces what he sees as another global conspiracy? Probably few. Just as LBJ erred in not paying enough attention to the unique North Korean circumstances that gave rise to the attack on the Pueblo, it would be a mistake to not recognize the unique sources behind the World Trade Center attacks. And, the attacks of 2001, unlike those of 1968, clearly did involve a global network. Still, the Pueblo incident does offer at least one broad warning by reminding us that indigenous values can produce disparate behavior within separate elements of a larger, and seemingly united, movement. North Korea in 1968 may have been part of a larger ideological alliance, but its behavior within this alliance was often driven by its own unique circumstances, rather than by an international conspiracy. In the same way, the American government and people need to recognize that despite many clear connections, Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, and in Somalia, may be closely entwined and bear striking similarities, but are not necessarily the same.

Reducing them to identical parts of the same whole reduces a complex reality to a simple and dangerous one, and encourages policymakers to gloss over the local factors that shape behavior in the international arena. Such recognition in 1968 may have led to steps that would have better served the men of the Pueblo; doing so in 2002 should have a similar consequence for millions of Americans.

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michael jenkins - 12/9/2002

how many american presidents have died in office again? i.e, is it really so 'highly unusual'?