Document created: 1 June 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2003
The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy by Mitchell B. Lerner. University Press of Kansas (http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu), 2501 West 15th Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66049-3905, 2002, 408 pages, $34.95.
A long overdue book, The Pueblo Incident is a detailed examination of the seizure of an American spy ship in 1968 and the failure of American political and national security institutions to deal with armed piracy and hostage taking. It uncovers a serious lack of understanding of North Korean aims and threats; amazingly, in 2002 the United States still finds its Northeast Asian defense policies tied to Pyongyang’s whims and manipulations. Equally disturbing is the way the US Navy and National Security Agency went about running these offshore eavesdropping missions. The USS Liberty incident had already occurred off the Sinai coast. Israel, a notional ally, bombed and torpedoed the ship and machine-gunned US Navy personnel during the Six-Day War in 1967. The Navy continued to use converted cargo ships for eavesdropping missions and, in order to keep the Cold War from escalating, did not send either Navy combatants or aircraft to protect these very vulnerable vessels. It continued to log these missions as minimal-risk operations until the seizure of the USS Pueblo.
The heavy engagement of the United States in the Vietnam War limited President Lyndon Johnson’s options. Escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula was out of the question; as it was, certain US Air Force assets (mostly electronic warfare) had to be redeployed from Vietnam in order to meet needs of proposed Air Force operations on the peninsula. Lerner then takes us with the Pueblo’s crew members to North Korean interrogation centers, where they endured brutal beatings and inhumane treatment- a forgotten part of their story. Eighty-two sailors spent a year being treated no better than Americans who fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese in Hanoi. But the crew members received only belated recognition for their sufferings. After returning to the United States, they were considered traitors and interrogated very harshly, as the National Security Agency sought to learn how much of the sensitive cryptological gear and codes had been compromised. None of them received good assignments, and the incident was swept under the carpet. Furthermore, many US Navy officers could not forgive Comdr Pete Bucher for having surrendered his ship without a fight.
The story then switches between the White House and South Korea as President Johnson is forced to walk a tightrope among competing problems: keeping South Korea in line (Seoul wanted to attack the North), fighting the Vietnam War, and addressing domestic political concerns. Viewing the crisis from a Cold War perspective, one must conclude that it was handled well. But it also left the lasting impression that the United States would take no action to protect intelligence missions. For example, a year later, an EC-121 operated by the US Navy was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Like the Pueblo, it had communications problems, operated from Japan, and supported the same Navy security group the Pueblo had supported. Indeed, the similarities were eerie. Evidently, the Navy suffered from an inability to learn from its mistakes. Lerner lists other Cold War incidents, leveling the charge that most intelligence losses stemmed from errors within the US intelligence bureaucracy. Seemingly, the US government never was able to grasp the North Korean viewpoint- either in this crisis or in later ones. According to the author, this inability of our makers of foreign policy to see other viewpoints clouds US judgements.
Lerner, who had access to new information and talked to the crew members, breaks new ground in this book. His conclusions, although harsh, may be true- certainly, the facts as recounted in the book support them. The United States will continue to confront this type of event in its war on terrorism, and some of the failings of the national security bureaucracy lend themselves to study lest the country suffer similar misfortunes. The Pueblo Incident, which has become required reading in new Cold War courses at major academic institutions around the country, makes for spellbinding, provocative reading.
Capt Gilles Van Nederveen, USAF, Retired
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.