The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy

The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy

by Mitchell B. Lerner

"Remember, you are not going out there to start a war," Rear Admiral Frank Johnson reminded Commander Pete Bucher just prior to the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Pueblo. And yet a war—one that might have gone nuclear—was what nearly happened when the Pueblo was attacked and captured by North Korean gunships in January 1968. Diplomacy prevailed in…  See more details below


"Remember, you are not going out there to start a war," Rear Admiral Frank Johnson reminded Commander Pete Bucher just prior to the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Pueblo. And yet a war—one that might have gone nuclear—was what nearly happened when the Pueblo was attacked and captured by North Korean gunships in January 1968. Diplomacy prevailed in the end, but not without great cost to the lives of the imprisoned crew and to a nation already mired in an unwinnable war in Vietnam.

The Pueblo was an aging cargo ship poorly refurbished as a signals intelligence collector for the top-secret Operation Clickbeetle. It was sent off with a first-time captain, an inexperienced crew, and no back-up, and was captured well before the completion of its first mission.

Drawing on thousands of pages of recently declassified documents from President Lyndon Johnson's administration, along with dozens of interviews with those involved, Mitchell Lerner provides the most complete and accurate account of the Pueblo incident yet available. He weaves on a grand scale a dramatic story of international relations, presidential politics, covert intelligence, capture on the high seas, and secret negotiations. At the same time, he highlights the personal struggles of the Pueblo's crew—through capture, imprisonment, indoctrination, torture, and release—and the still smoldering controversy over Commander Bucher's actions. In fact, Bucher emerges here for the first time as the truly steadfast hero his men have always considered him to be.

More than an account of misadventure, The Pueblo Incident is an indictment of America's Cold War mentality. Lerner argues that had U.S. policymakers regarded the North Koreans as people with a national agenda, rather than as serving a global Communist conspiracy, they might have avoided the crisis or resolved it more effectively. He also addresses such unanswered questions as what the Pueblo's mission exactly was, why the ship had no military support, and how damaging the intelligence loss was to national security.

With North Korea still seen as a rogue state by some policymakers, The Pueblo Incident provides key insights into the domestic imperatives behind that country's foreign relations. It astutely assesses the place of gunboat diplomacy in the modern world and is vital for understanding American foreign policy failures in the Cold War.

This book is part of the Modern War Studies series.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The January 1968 North Korean seizure of the intelligence-collecting ship USS Pueblo came close to sparking a second Korean War. Lerner, an assistant professor of history, synthesizes newly available documents and a large number of participant interviews to attribute the crisis to the Johnson administration's unsophisticated interpretation of contemporary international relations as bipolar global rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Sending the Pueblo to monitor electronic communications and naval activity off North Korea's coast was regarded as a routine mission in the general context of the Cold War. The ship, its crew and captain were poorly prepared for any unexpected occurrences, able neither to resist nor escape the North Korean gunboats. Johnson and his advisers processed the seizure as having been orchestrated by the Soviet Union. U.S. responses focused on Moscow and on international agencies like the Red Cross and the World Court. Lerner, however, offers extensive documentary evidence that the U.S.S.R. was not involved in the Pueblo's seizure. Instead, he makes a convincing case that North Korea acted on its own and for domestic reasons. Kim II Sung, according to Lerner, was increasingly committed to structuring North Korea around the ideological principle of juche, or "self-identity." Juche required the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea to act in all areas without regard for external influence. Even in its early stages, attempts to apply the concept had generated economic shortages and political dissent sufficient to impel Kim to assert "self-identity" in another way: seizing a ship whose presence, even in international waters, was in any case provocative. American efforts to resolve the crisis, pointed as they were in the wrong direction, only exacerbated it. In the absence of North Korean documents, Lerner's argument cannot be regarded as definitively proven, but expect it to get serious (if quiet) play among historians and policy makers. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Lerner has rescued from hazy memories what seemed to be at the time an extremely dangerous incident. In January 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a rickety spy ship gathering signals intelligence, was obliged to surrender in North Korean waters after facing gunfire from warships that left one dead and four wounded. By the end of the year, the crew was returned home — but not the ship. This lively account, backed by extensive research, demonstrates the multiple flaws in the mission's planning that put the crew in such a parlous position. Even though blame was eventually targeted at Commander Pete Bucher, the author points out, the Navy was really at fault. Lerner also describes the impact of Cold War assumptions on the management of the crisis, particularly in the failure to appreciate the singularity of North Korea. But he also credits Lyndon Johnson with the patient diplomacy that brought about the eventual resolution.
Library Journal
The title of this study by Lerner (history, Ohio State Univ.) refers to the capture of the intelligence gathering ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, by the North Koreans in January 1968. The Pueblo was nothing more than a made-over cargo vessel with the addition of an electronic shack for eavesdropping. It was prone to steering loss and engine failure, and its crew and captain were new and untrained. Unarmed except for two machine guns and some small arms, the ship was in no condition to attempt an intelligence mission off the North Korean coast. Unfortunately for the captain and crew, that is exactly where they were captured. Lerner does an excellent job of detailing the crew's torture and imprisonment for almost a year. He draws on interviews with those involved, as well as recently released documents relating to the Johnson administration, to show how badly the administration handled foreign policy challenges during the 1960s. This excellent read sheds light on the incident, which is still debated in some circles today. Recommended for both public and academic libraries. Mark Ellis, Albany State Univ. Lib., GA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A detailed history and analysis of the U.S.S. Pueblo's capture by North Korean gunships in January 1968 and the American government's chaotic attempts to recover its crew. President Bush's recent declaration that North Korea is a key member of an "axis of evil" establishes this study as both timely and compelling. Lerner (History/Ohio State Univ.) argues that the Johnson administration's view of North Korea as a mere satellite of the Soviet empire was a dramatic miscalculation. He clearly connects the design and outfitting of the Pueblo to an American-Soviet paradigm that tolerated electronic eavesdropping in international waters. That assumption, Lerner asserts, failed to account for North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's nationalistic determination to remain as independent as possible from both Soviet and Chinese domination. This serious shortsightedness in American policy resulted in a confrontation: the North Korean navy crippled the Pueblo with automatic-weapons fire, killing one sailor and taking Commander Lloyd Bucher and his crew prisoners. Lerner details how growing public pressure to open up a new Asian conflict over the release of the crew caused Johnson to waver between hawkish bluster and timid placating of the North Korean government. While the administration stumbled towards a resolution with negotiators, he argues, the American sailors endured more than 300 days of systematic torture and abuse during which their captors coerced them into confessing to spying and other crimes against the North Korean people. Upon his repatriation to the US, the Navy pinned the blame for the incident on Commander Bucher, transforming him, according to Lerner, into a symbol of American Cold Warblindness. Engrossing analysis of Vietnam-era diplomacy, naval history, and Cold War politics-embedded with fascinating parallels between the events of 1968 and today's crisis over terrorism. (21 photos, 1 map)

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Product Details

University Press of Kansas
Publication date:
Modern War Studies Series
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Classified Operation

Out of Japan,
On the Fifth of Jan.,
The Pueblo came a-steaming.
Round Kyushu's toe,
Past Sasebo,
You could hear the captain screaming.

    The message arrived at Submarine Flotilla Seven headquarters one cold December morning, addressed to Assistant Operations Officer Lloyd "Pete" Bucher. It contained a naval officer's most sought-after prize, ordering Bucher to leave his position in Sasebo, Japan, and "report to Commander Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, for temporary duty as prospective commanding officer in connection with reactivation [of] USS Pueblo ... and duty aboard that vessel when placed on commission as Commanding Officer." He immediately phoned his wife. "Hey Rose," he announced. "I've got my own ship at last."

    She let out a cry of delight: "Wonderful. Which one?"

    "She's the USS Pueblo."

    "The Pueblo.... What's that?"

    "An AKL ... that means Auxiliary Cargo, Light."

    "Oh." Rose Bucher had a hard time hiding her disappointment. Pete had dreamed of commanding a submarine, or at least a diesel snorkel boat, and instead had been assigned a small transport vessel.

    Her husband of sixteen years caught the note in her voice. "You can disregard the 'cargo' part of her designation," he reassured her. "I'm not going to become the skipper of a freighter. It's part of aclassified operation."

    His words comforted her. Yet, had she known the history of the program that now beckoned them back to the United States, Rose's unhappiness would surely have returned. Lieutenant Commander Bucher was right; the Pueblo was no ordinary cargo ship. Instead, she was part of the top-secret Operation Click-beetle, an intelligence-gathering program run under the auspices of Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency (NSA). Clickbeetle and its predecessor, a similar program run primarily by the NSA, transformed antiquated transport ships into signals intelligence (SIGINT) collectors and then dispatched them to various coastlines as mobile eavesdroppers. These operations had seen some triumphs; in 1962, one such ship provided the first evidence of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Yet they also possessed some serious shortcomings, most notably the tendency of those in charge to presume a lesser degree of risk than actually existed. As a result, Rose Bucher would soon wish that her husband had in fact received command of a cargo vessel.

    This specific form of seaborne intelligence collection originated with the NSA. The NSA, in turn, was the product of earlier American intelligence failures, especially the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950. In both instances, American SIGINT programs, run independently by the separate military branches, had obtained evidence pointing to the attacks but had failed to interpret or disseminate the information properly. To prevent such a recurrence, President Harry Truman established a committee to evaluate and recommend means of improving the performance of American SIGINT programs. Headed by George Brownell, a former special assistant to the secretary of the air force, the committee's 239-page report proposed the creation of a sole authority to collect, evaluate, and disseminate SIGINT. This agency would be directed by an individual appointed for a term of four to six years, who would have almost total operational control of the nation's SIGINT programs. The director would report to the secretary of defense, who in turn would report to a special committee of the National Security Council (NSC) consisting of the secretary of defense himself, the secretary of state, and, when necessary, the president. On October 24, 1952, Truman signed a memorandum that became National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 6, essentially putting these recommendations into effect. Thus, the NSA was born, ordered to "provide for the SIGINT mission of the United States, to establish an effective unified organization and control of all SIGINT collection and processing activities of the United States, and to produce SIGINT in accordance with the objectives, requirements and priorities established by the Director of Central Intelligence Board."

    From the beginning, the NSA was shrouded in secrecy. Not until 1957 was it even mentioned in the U.S. Government Organization Manual, and the agency's funding never appeared in the federal budget. When NSA officials attended White House meetings, the published lists of participants omitted their names; "NSA," ran one inside joke, stood for "Never Say Anything" or "No Such Agency." Congress not only accepted this secrecy but encouraged it, passing Public Law 86-36 in 1959, which permitted the organization to refuse to disclose any information that might impair its objectives, including, "any information with respect to the activities thereof, or the names, titles, salaries, or number of the persons employed." With little to answer for, and few to answer to, the agency was left to run its operations almost devoid of scrutiny; in the 1980s, for example, the NSA assisted the CIA's illegal Iran-contra operation and then refused to respond to an inquiry from the secretary of defense on the grounds that its actions did not fall within his "need to know" purview.

    In order to perform its primary task, the interception of foreign communications, the NSA developed a vast network of over 2,000 listening posts designed to capture signal waves broadcast over foreign transmitters. Communications between distant nations and their American embassies, for example, could be easily intercepted by listening posts in suburban Maryland and Virginia. However, most posts existed abroad, with the Soviet Union receiving the bulk of the attention. These stations supplied invaluable information; in the early 1970s, they intercepted radio and telephone communications of Soviet leaders speaking from limousines and later managed to obtain advance knowledge of the Soviet bargaining position for SALT I. Yet they also had severe limitations, most notably in their geographical restrictions, since stations were obviously immovable and therefore hindered by location and natural barriers. They were also unable to provide emergency coverage of smaller nations; the communications base in the Himalayas, for example, could hardly be rushed to the coast of Malta if needed, yet it made little sense to have a costly and attention-drawing base dedicated solely to Malta. As a result, these stations provided a myopic view of the world. By the early 1960s, NSA facilities virtually encircled the USSR, yet only two existed in all of Africa and none in South America. The obvious solution was to create mobile listening posts, and in 1960 the agency began a program of converting noncombatant ships for just such a purpose.

    The idea of using ships as information collectors was hardly new to American intelligence, but earlier missions had been undertaken largely by combat ships. This policy left both the NSA and the navy dissatisfied. Such missions required the sudden withdrawal of combat vessels from their normal duties, which not only disrupted the navy's routine but also ruined the dement of surprise, since it was difficult to conceal the abrupt departure of a destroyer from her standard operating area. Because of their military capabilities, combat ships were also more likely to be judged threatening by other nations, and thus risked a response should they stray too close to sensitive areas. Furthermore, warships were bound by various maritime treaties and conventions from which noncombat ships were exempt. Hence, converting old cargo vessels seemed a much better option; they were cheaper to operate, more mobile, less threatening, and, unlike airborne surveillance, could be on station twenty-four hours per day. They did not affect other naval operations and, it was assumed, were assured safety as long as they stayed within international waters. These ships, concluded Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, were "less provocative ... [with] more of a chance of obtaining the information [and] ... less of a risk of hostile action and escalatory response."

    In using these small noncombat vessels, the NSA was actually emulating the Soviet Union, which had been sending such ships off the American coast for years. Other nations would later use such vehicles; East Germany, for example, had one near the Baltics by the mid-1960s, and Algeria had one in the Mediterranean. However, Soviet ships, called Naval Auxiliary Intelligence Collectors (AGIs), were the first to be employed for SIGINT missions. AGIs frequently operated near American military bases during the 1960s; in April 1960, the Soviet trawler Vega appeared off the New Jersey coast during the testing of the George Washington, the first nuclear submarine equipped with the 1,200-mile-range Polaris missile. The Vega later materialized off Cape Henry, Virginia, within easy intercept range of the American naval base at Norfolk.

    The Soviets increased their use of AGIs following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, even at the risk of violating American territorial waters. In 1965, the trawler Barometr intruded within three miles of U.S. waters near Puerto Rico and then blamed the U.S. Coast Guard, whose sailing guide it claimed to be following. Later that year, the Arban violated American waters off San Pedro, California, and soon after, the Teodolit did the same near Puerto Rico. In another incident, a Soviet ship crossed into American territory with an unusual problem for an intelligence vessel, one solved when a U.S. helicopter arrived with personnel to assist in the delivery of a baby. AGIs also operated near American bases in South Carolina, Hawaii, and even Rota, Spain, and Holy Loch, Scotland. In fact, for most of the Vietnam War, the Soviets kept such boats off the coast of Guam, tracking the departure of American B-52s heading for Vietnam. With this example, the NSA set out to create its own espionage fleet.

    The first generation of NSA ships was born in 1960, beginning with the USNS Private Jose F. Valdez, a former coastal transport with the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). The Valdez was quickly followed by the USNS Joseph E. Muller, an ex-supply ship retired in 1956 after a career of ferrying cargo in the Far East. Small, old, and innocuous, these ships seemed unlikely to alarm anyone, fitting NSA requirements perfectly. "What we wanted," recalled a leading official, "was a slow tub ... that could mosey along a coast relatively slowly, take its time, and spend time at sea." They were also both run by the MSTS and thus manned by civilians, exempting them from required liberty calls and allowing their home ports to be far from an American naval base. Eventually the NSA stationed the Valdez at Capetown, where she spent her time cruising the coasts of South Africa. The Muller remained closer to home in Port Everglades, Florida, keeping an eye on Fidel Castro.

    This first group of ships was the only one under the National Security Agency's sole direction. Following the program's early success, the navy demanded an active role. After some bickering, the two branches reached a compromise: future generations of SIGINT ships would be manned and operated by the navy, under the direction of the Naval Security Group. The NSA would still select most of the targets and the objectives, but the navy would be allowed to choose a small number for itself. Under this new arrangement, the next generation of ships began to emerge in 1961 with the conversion of Victory and Liberty class cargo ships designed in World War II. Each weighed over 7,000 tons, measured approximately 450 feet long by 60 feet wide, and carried a crew of less than 300 men.

    The fleet's first member was the USS Oxford, assigned to the eastern coast of South America and later to Southeast Asia. Bigger and faster than her predecessors, the Oxford warranted designation as the first ship of a new model, and on July 8, 1961, she was christened the first Auxiliary General Technical Research ship (AGTR-1). The navy commissioned two more AGTRs in 1963, the USS Georgetown (AGTR-2) and the USS Jamestown (AGTR-3), both of which spent most of their early years off South American coasts. The final two, the USS Belmont (AGTR-4) and the USS Liberty (AGTR-5), joined the group in late 1964. These last two received the most consequential assignments. The Belmont, on her way to Africa in 1965, was suddenly diverted to the Dominican Republic, where she helped evacuate American citizens during an attempted revolt against the regime of Donald Reid Cabral. The Liberty was less successful; assigned to the Mediterranean Sea, she was attacked and badly damaged by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six-Day War.

    Overall, the program pleased the National Security Agency but not the navy. Although seven SIGINT ships existed, all worked almost exclusively for the NSA. The agency permitted the navy to use them only if doing so did not interfere with the ships' primary function, the collection of intelligence for the NSA. The NSA had the authority to decide when the ships could spare such time, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the agency rarely accommodated navy requests. As a result, the navy once again found itself dependent on combat ships for intelligence operations. In 1965, Assistant Secretary of Defense Eugene Fulbrini took up the navy's plight and led the charge for an intelligence fleet for naval use only. On April 20, 1965, Fulbrini and Chief of Naval Operations David McDonald met with Director of Naval Intelligence Rufus Taylor and Rear Admiral Frederic Harlfinger, the assistant director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Explaining the need for their own source of signals intelligence collection, the two men proposed the establishment of a naval fleet of thirty reconverted tuna boats at a cost of about $1 million each; later, they planned to add forty more built from scratch.

    The navy responded to Fulbrini's plan with enthusiasm for the idea but worries about the expense. Recognizing Secretary of Defense McNamara's tight budget restrictions, naval leaders decided instead to request only enough funds for a trial run of three ships, to be followed by approximately a dozen more if these proved worthy. Officials at the Naval Ships Systems Command further rejected the idea of converting tuna boats for the fleet, citing both the expense and their structural inability to bear the heavy SIGINT equipment. Still, the navy liked the idea and launched a more specific feasibility study that eventually proposed implementing Fulbrini's flotilla in three phases. First, one ship would be built and operated in the western Pacific. If it proved successful, two more would be added the following year; if no problems emerged, the fleet would be expanded by about a dozen. Quickly, this plan was approved by Harold Brown, the director of Defense Research and Engineering, and Cyrus Vance, deputy secretary of defense.

    With approval in hand, naval authorities rushed ahead. In September 1965, the Office of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) laid out the program's general concepts, and in March 1966, it provided the specifics. CINCPACFLT directives called for the creation of a program of "seaborne surveillance by a small ship acting singly." Ships were to remain at all times at least one mile beyond the territorial waters claimed by the target country, usually twelve miles. Although the program would be under the control of the Office of the Commander, Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), missions themselves would be under the control of the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Japan (COMNAVFORJAPAN), headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan. Specific mission proposals would originate with COMNAVFORJAPAN, which would relay them for further evaluation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), and CINCPACFLT, as well as the government's senior review board that approved all such covert operations. If all endorsed the mission, the JCS would issue specific sailing orders and authorize COMNAVFORJAPAN to oversee the details.


Excerpted from The Pueblo Incident by Mitchell B. Lerner. Copyright © 2002 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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