Review of Jack Cheever's "Act of War"


Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for the History News Network.

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
by Jack Cheevers
NAL Hardcover, 2013

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a lightly-armed diminutive spy ship was boarded by heavily- armed North Koreans near the North Korean port of Wonsan and the American crewmen and their commander taken prisoner. The unpredictable North Koreans claimed the Pueblo had been in its territorial waters while the Pueblo’s officers and the US insisted it had not. In a new and mesmerizing book, Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo (NAL Caliber), Jack Cheevers, a former Los Angeles Times political reporter, painstakingly and dramatically describes the seizure of the ship and crew and how close the U.S. came to becoming involved in a second Korean War.

With no American ships or planes nearby, the Pueblo was literally abandoned. Unable to resist 57mm cannon and machine gun fire and desperate to save the lives of his crew, one of whom had been killed by the attackers, Commander Lloyd Bucher surrendered the Pueblo without a fight, for which a court of inquiry of admirals would later want him court martialed (John Chafee, Nixon’s Secretary of Navy, would eventually throw out the charge).

A few days earlier, on January 21, the traditional hostility between both Koreas was further inflamed when a North Korean raiding party managed to reach Seoul, trying but failing to kill the South Korean president, his family, and close aides in the Blue House, the presidential residence and executive offices. Seoul demanded that the U.S. join them in striking back at the North. Both Koreas began mobilizing for a fight and the U.S. reinforced its forces in the region and came close to fighting two Asian land wars simultaneously. “The greater the preparation for war, the greater the chances that war would break out, perhaps by mistake,” Cheevers shrewdly observes.

To avoid the potential of yet another war, LBJ dispatched Cyrus R. Vance to restrain the enraged South Koreans and get President Park Chung Hee to pledge not to upset any future negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea over the Pueblo and second, have South Korea to promise not to attack the North without first checking with the U.S. All this was happening while the Vietnam War was at its hottest ­- the Tet Offensive would begin on January 30 and the number of wartime deaths and seriously wounded in Vietnam was growing. At home, domestic protests were more widespread and a few centrists inside the Congress and Pentagon began worrying about a second Korean War even as the Vietnam War dragged on.

Cheevers carefully tracks Vance’s delicate mission. Before long, he told Washington that the situation was “very dangerous.” “Moody and erratic,” Park despised communists and the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and threatened military retaliation against the North. He declared another such attack in Seoul would mean war, no doubt reminding Vance that the U.S. had signed a mutual security treaty with South Korea in 1953. “In fact,” Cheevers writes, “Park was already conducting covert counterattacks.” Park, he continues, “also had secretly assembled his own assassination squad to go after Kim Il Sung.” Eventually, Vance and his team managed to cool the situation and mollify Park and his cabinet by offering the South money and squadrons of F-4 Phantom IIs in exchange for standing down. He also had tacit Soviet support. For reasons of their own, Cheevers says that Moscow was unhappy about the North’s seizure of the Pueblo rather than simply ordering it to leave. “Kremlin leaders were as wary as Lyndon Johnson of getting drawn into a war they didn’t want by a belligerent client state.”

Meanwhile, for eleven long months, the Pueblo crew languished in prison, regularly and savagely beaten, tortured and starved and the U.S. was repeatedly taunted as a vicious imperialistic invader The problem the U.S. -- and presumably North Korea as well -- faced was how then to extricate the captives without a U.S.-North Korean showdown since both sides obviously needed to save face. Cheevers vividly portrays the frustrations and tensions before and during interminable negotiations at Panmunjom—mainly non-negotiations—with Pyongyang whose representative frequently failed to appear. LBJ’s advisors finally, if reluctantly, accepted the fact that the North Koreans would only free the prisoners if the U.S. admitted its guilt even though Navy analysts -- working from released North Korean position logs according to Cheevers -- had concluded that the Pueblo never entered their waters. The question then was how to fashion a deal agreeable to both sides. Tit for tat arguments could never persuade North Korea to free the crew. How to fashion a deal? “In utmost secrecy,” Cheevers writes, “Johnson’s advisors began to discuss giving Kim Il Sung what he wanted—without appearing to do so” How? By “diplomatic legerdemain,” or “overwrite.”

Cheevers explains “overwrite”: “On a document of apology drafted by the North Koreans, a U.S. representative would write that he’d taken custody of the crew, and sign his name. Washington could then claim it had only signed a ‘receipt’ for the men. while North Korea could crow that it had extracted an official mea culpa.” Nicholas Katzenbach, Undersecretary of State, later explained: “Both sides would understand this ambiguity.”

Once freed, the Pueblo crew all suffered from a variety of mental and physical ailments. Cheevers quotes a study by a Navy psychiatrist who examined forty-one of them after their release and came away believing that some crew members exhibited symptoms akin to “concentration camp syndrome,” which Cheevers defines as “a collection of mental and physical disorders that afflicted survivors of Hitler’s death camps.”

A singular virtue of Act of War is that it also delves into the blunders of high-ranking naval officers involved in sending the Pueblo close to North Korea. Perhaps even more troubling was the loathing many naval lifers felt toward Bucher because naval tradition dictated “We don’t give up the ship” despite the fact that the Pueblo, “jammed with sensitive documents and electronics, had been sent into dangerous waters with no air or sea cover and virtually no means to defend itself” and “no one in the Navy had given much thought to destroying a mountain of top secret material in a hurry…The level of complacency and heedlessness were appalling,” concludes Cheevers,” emphasizing that Bucher’s orders disregarded North Korea, then on high alert after its Blue House raid. Bucher and his fellow officers were obliged to confront this ill-feeling at the Court of Inquiry, an attitude reflected in the Navy’s initial reluctance to award POW medals to the Pueblo survivors.

Fortunately, Bucher and his crew had a few supporters -- the city of Pueblo, Colorado, for example. There were others as well. George Ball, who famously questioned JFK and LBJ’s interventions in Vietnam, plus General Mark Clark, former commander of UN troops in the Korean War, and Admiral George Anderson, who ran the Navy’s blockade of Cuba during the nuclear crisis. Outspoken, critical, they all disapproved the “planning, organization and direction” of the [Pueblo’s] mission. The three men also faulted the orders given to the Pueblo’s commander not to yield yet at the same time not to provoke the communists -- as “ambiguous and self-contradictory.”

All the same, Bucher had to fight for his reputation the rest of his life. In the pages of Naval History, the prestigious journal for naval professionals, he replied at length to a previous article attacking him. And an admiral at the Court of Inquiry asked Bucher’s onetime superior officer if he was "abnormally concerned” about his crewmen, Cheevers says the exchange reflected a fundamental contradiction. “While Bucher’s impulse to save his men’s lives had been a humane one, the Navy was in the fundamentally inhumane business of spending men’s lives to help win America’s wars.”

Always under a cloud of suspicion, “preemptively pardoned,” as Cheevers puts it, he was later portrayed sympathetically by Hal Holbrook in a 1973 TV film. When he died in 2004 some two dozen loyal and surviving Pueblo sailors were in attendance.

Though ordinary Americans overwhelmingly supported Bucher and the crew there was always a sense that Bucher would have to live and relive “second-guessing himself for some mortifying streak of yellow. And that was a harsher and more crippling sentence than anything the Navy could dish out.” Still, Cheever’s achievement in Act of War, grounded on CIA and other declassified materials and numerous interviews, is a striking tribute to the Pueblo’s commander and crew who acted honorably under horrendous conditions.

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