Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Taking of the USS Pueblo

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. Below, I describe the crisis provoked by the North Korean capture of an American spy vessel, the USS Pueblo.

It seemed as though governments across the West might fall because of revolutionary movements. At the same time, the United States suffered serious setbacks in foreign policy that seemed to threaten its position in the world. Entering what would be the most difficult year yet for the Vietnam War, the United States almost stumbled into a second war against North Korea.

On January 11, 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo departed from a Japanese port on an espionage mission off the North Korean coast. The North Koreans captured the ship and held the crew prisoner for almost a year while the Pyongyang regime presented evidence that the Pueblo had entered the communist nation’s territorial waters. Conservatives in the Congress called for a military strike against North Korea and President Johnson received angry letters complaining about his perceived failure to strongly respond.

The American command should have seen this incident developing. The Navy had previously come close to mothballing the Pueblo, which had a history of problems with navigation, and speed, and with its communication equipment. Yet the Navy sent this vessel to monitor Soviet and North Korean sonar, radar and radio transmissions and to observe the movement of Soviet and North Korean vessels. The Pueblo, slow and hard to maneuver, also suffered from inadequate defenses, according to historian Mitchell B. Lerner, including guns that overheated and were accurate only from a short range.

The ship’s translators, Robert Hammond and Robert Chicca, were not up to the jobs assigned them. “Their task of monitoring and translating Korean communications was crucial for the ship’s safety, since they were relied on to warn the officers of any impending danger,” Lerner wrote. “ . . . Yet neither Hammond nor Chicca was qualified for this critical position. Their training consisted of a nine-month course in Korean at the Defense Language Institute . . . Neither had used the language for years, and their skills had deteriorated to such an extent that neither could read Korean without a dictionary. In fact, Hammond’s fluency was so poor that while in captivity the North Koreans beat him repeatedly because his personnel file stated that he could speak Korean, but he was so inept at it that they believed he was trying to conceal this ability.” In spite of all of these problems, the Navy sent the ship near the coast of an enemy with no clear set of commands for the crew on what to do if they were detected and stopped by North Korean ships.

By mutual consent, the Soviet Union and the United States had long histories of sending monitoring ships close to the rival nation’s coastlines. The risk of a military confrontation between the two nuclear-armed superpowers was too great for commanders in either navy to risk stopping and boarding enemy vessels. Using the same Cold War reasoning that led the United States government to assume the Vietnam War was not a civil war but a war of aggression in which the Soviets used North Vietnamese puppets to further their campaign of global conquest, the American military establishment assumed during the Pueblo incident that North Korea was under Soviet command and would react the same way as its supposed Russian overlords to spy vessels in its territorial waters.

The Pubelo’s mission took place amid signs that the North Korean government had embarked on a more aggressive course towards the United States and its South Korean ally. The North Korean navy had seized twenty South Korean vessels in the last three months of 1967. On January 17, 31 North Korean Army officers had crossed the South Korea border as part of a plot to assassinate President Park Chung Hee. The hit squad reached the South Korean presidential palace on January 22 when stopped by a South Korean policeman. In the ensuing gun battle, eight South Koreans and five members of the assassination squad died.

As Lerner notes, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung had domestic political reasons for his more aggressive stance towards South Korean and his belligerent approach to the Pueblo crisis. The North Korean economy slowed significantly in the 1960s. As industrial and agricultural production fell, the low wages paid North Koreans led most families to suffer as prices rose. Underwear cost North Korean workers almost two weeks’ wages. Severe shortages of beef and pork made these items unavailable for most North Koreans.

Deep cuts in Soviet aid after the North Korean leader criticized Soviet foreign policy further hurt the economy. Kim also faced serious challenges within the North Korean communist leadership from moderates who wanted a less provocative foreign policy towards South Korea. Acting aggressively towards a United States vessel, therefore, served Kim’s domestic political needs by creating a crisis in which opposition to the dictator would seem like treason. If the United States had viewed North Korea as an independent state rather than as a pawn, the military establishment might have been more cautious in how it deployed spy ships near the North Korean coast.

The North Koreans seized the Pueblo on January 23, 1968. One crewman died during a faceoff with the North Korean Navy, and the other 82 were arrested. The North Koreans claimed their territorial waters extended 12 miles from their shore and that the Pueblo had crossed this line. Lerner believes that American administration officials told the truth when they said the Pueblo was captured in international waters. The seizure of the Pueblo proved devastating to American security. The capture of communications equipment and classified documents, combined with information provided by a Soviet-paid spy operating in the United States, Navy Officer John Walker, Jr., allowed the Soviets to decode approximately 1 million American messages. The Soviets were able to tip off the North Vietnamese about American bombing raids in advance, allowing the Hanoi military to prepare defenses, which resulted in downed American bomber planes.

Under torture, the Pueblo crew signed several statements indicating they had committed crimes against the North Korean people. To win the release of the prisoners, an American negotiator on December 23 signed a statement written by the North Koreans in which the American government apologized for the incident. The North Koreans released the 82 surviving crewmembers. The statement the Americans signed was humiliating, but in one important way, the resolution of the Pueblo crisis marked a rare and important triumph for the Johnson administration that year. In this case, the United States was able to avoid armed conflict, a rare foreign policy triumph that year.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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