Fifty years ago this week, North Korea took an extraordinary gamble against the United States when communist gunboats attacked and captured a Navy spy ship, the USS Pueblo. One American sailor was killed in the Jan. 23, 1968 assault. Eighty-two others were tossed into prison, touching off an international crisis that dragged on for nearly a year.
A U.S. naval armada gathered off North Korea, and North and South Korea alerted their armies for possible war. President Lyndon Johnson’s Pentagon prepared plans for the use of nuclear weapons. A diplomatic sleight of hand finally ended the standoff, with Washington issuing a “pre-repudiated” apology to Pyongyang.
Led by their haggard but unbowed skipper, Commander Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, the surviving sailors — who had endured torture and food deprivation — were let go and flew to San Diego, where cheering crowds greeted them on Christmas Eve 1968.
You don’t need to be a Navy veteran to be angry at this state of affairs. Many ordinary Americans would like nothing better than for a flock of cruise missiles to blow the old surveillance ship to smithereens.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But there’s a perverse educational value in having the Pueblo moored in the Botong River, where American and other Western tourists visit it, playfully swiveling its machine guns and gawking at shell holes helpfully circled in red.
WATCH VIDEO: The taking of the USS Pueblo in 1968
The ship’s mission was a poorly planned affair. American and Soviet vessels had been eavesdropping on each other’s naval bases for years without serious problems under an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement. Navy officers assumed the North Koreans would treat the Pueblo the same way as it tried to pinpoint their coastal radar and missile batteries. As a result, no warships or aircraft were assigned to protect the Pueblo. The ship carried only small arms and two machine guns to defend itself. Cruising in international waters, it came under attack by four North Korean torpedo boats, two submarine chasers and two MiG jets.
Bucher tried to flee farther out to sea, since the Pueblo had no realistic way of fending off the onslaught, nor any efficient means of getting rid of its classified payload. Equipped only with fire axes and sledgehammers, crewmen struggled to break up well-built electronic listening devices. They tried to burn mounds of secret documents in wastebaskets. But much classified material fell into communist hands when Bucher — with one sailor dead and 10 others wounded — decided to surrender.
In early 1968, Johnson had his hands full with Vietnam. The last thing he wanted was a second war in Asia. He ordered the aircraft carrier Enterprise and 25 other warships to waters off North Korea, and more than 350 aircraft to bases in and around South Korea.
Despite strident calls for military revenge, the president held off while American diplomats opened secret talks with Pyongyang. His team persisted amid insults and foot-dragging by communist negotiators until a deal was eventually struck for Bucher and his men to be freed.
One wonders if President Donald Trump would have the same reserves of patience and restraint if faced with a similar provocation by North Korea today.
U.S. satellites, ships and aircraft still conduct numerous surveillance missions around the globe. We clearly need to keep tabs on what our enemies are up to. But spying on other nations is an inherently provocative act that can backfire badly.
Five decades on, the Pueblo’s forlorn presence in Pyongyang reminds us that such operations can go horribly wrong, bringing our country to the brink of war.
Jack Cheevers is author of “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo.”