Skip to comments.(New Docs:) U.S. Ruled Out Military Action Over USS Pueblo for Fear of War w/ China or USSR
Posted on 01/31/2002 7:53:45 AM PST by AmericanInTokyo
Thirty-four years ago this weekend, the 82 surviving crew members of the Navy spy ship USS Pueblo shivered on their bunks in a North Korean prison. As they listened to screams of their shipmates enduring beatings and torture, they prayed for U.S. jets to scream in from the sky and begin the attack they were sure would come soon.
"I was flabbergasted there was no response," said Bob Chicca, then a Marine Corps sergeant who worked as a translator in the Pueblos secret communications hut. "It took months for me to get that no [military] reaction was going to come. I didnt like it one bit."
Thousands of pages of recently declassified documents including minutes of meetings of President Johnsons inner circle, secret CIA memos, telegrams between the State Department and embassies in Seoul and Moscow and transcripts of the presidents recorded telephone conversations show the White House starved for information about the ships capture in international waters near Wonson, North Korea, in 1968. They feared provoking a war with the Soviets or the Chinese.
Many of the documents are part of a collection published by State Department researchers in 1999 called "Foreign Relations of the United States" and later posted on the Departments Web site (www.state.gov). Most were labeled "Top Secret."
The State Department documents show that although Johnson considered military action, he and his advisors dismissed the idea of the kind of quick-strike rescue or aerial bombardment the crew hoped for. North Koreas aerial defenses were too strong and the risk of a war with the Communist powers too great, especially with the United States already bogged down in Vietnam.
"I am deeply sorry about the ship and the 83 men," said Clark Clifford, a Johnson aide who would become secretary of Defense five weeks later, "but I do not think it is worth a resumption of the Korean War."
North Korea had been increasingly bold in early 1968, harassing and firing at South Korean fishing boats. Just two days before Pueblos capture, they sent a team of 31 infiltrators into South Korea to assassinate that countrys president, but South Korea rounded them up and executed them.
U.S. leaders firmly believed the Soviets were using their client state to lure America into a second Asian war.
CIA Director Richard Helms said as much in a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, written a few hours after the capture. He accused North Korea of "deliberately creating a pretext for hostilities."
Publicly the United States sought help from the United Nations while privately Defense officials drew up a list of military measures they could take, including mining Wonson harbor, launching air attacks against selected North Korean targets and seizing North Korean ships. Johnson aide Walt Rostow argued the hardest for military action. He noted that a Soviet surveillance ship similar to the Pueblo had been following the Enterprise in the Sea of Japan. He thought a "symmetrical response" would be to have the South Koreans surround and seize it.
"We do not want to appear weak to the American people by doing no more than beg in the United Nations," he said at a Jan. 24 meeting of Johnsons inner circle. The following day, he told the president the seizure called for an "equivalent reprisal." Clifford argued most strongly against such saber-rattling.
"I am concerned about using this incident as the basis for major military action," he said. "This is not a clear case. If we can find a way out with face, we should do so."
Johnson eventually chose largely symbolic military measures that also helped close the North Koreans 2-1 airpower advantage. He kept the Enterprise and its 68 aircraft in the Sea of Japan while bringing the USS Kitty Hawk over from Japan as a backup. He sent 59 jets to South Korea, and quietly moved 26 B-52s to Guam and Okinawa. Finally, he called up thousands of stateside reserves in case of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. It took 11 months of negotiations to free the men, and the crew long has wondered why the Navy didnt send help as soon as the ship reported trouble.
"The time for action was in the first four or five hours, and no one wanted to say go, " Chicca said in a telephone interview Friday. "By the time they even woke Johnson, it was already too late." The president, skewered in the press over the lack of military support for the Pueblo, asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff the same thing.
Gen. Earle Wheeler, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Johnson the commander of the 5th Air Force in Japan did scramble aircraft but called them back when he realized they could not reach the area before dark. Military leaders also believed the North Koreans might blow the Americans out of the sky with their air defenses and the 70 MiG fighters parked at Wonson.
"We would have been in a fine fix if we had sent planes in there," Wheeler said at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs on Jan. 29. "We probably would have been in a war."
Since, I'm going fishing, so no more comments from me. My reply #10 still stands. My BP probably went up 10 points by just reveiwing this thread! I'm sure that you have the same feelings on this terrible moment during LBJ's criminal era as President.
You are 100% correct. I was in the SCIF when this went down.
Most of our guys who were off duty came in to work without being told.
We really thought the balloon was going to go up.
Yes, the anger is still there.