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Book Review: “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo”

By
26 June 2015


Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo.
By Jack Cheevers. NAL, December 2014. 440 pp.

Book Cover of "Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo," by Jack Cheevers.If South Koreans were pressed to identify the origin of America’s involvement in Korean affairs, most would likely ponder the question a few moments before pointing to the US role in liberating the peninsula from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. North Koreans, by contrast, would immediately single out 1866, the year that the armed merchant ship USS General Sherman approached Pyongyang on a mission to open Korea’s markets to international commerce, using force if necessary.

North Koreans learn in school that this gloomier incident—locals burned the vessel and executed its crew—marked just the start of a long history of American attempts to seize the peninsula. North Korea still portrays itself as a country under siege, and it doggedly searches for new means to highlight victories over the United States. Visit any North Korean museum built to commemorate the Korean people’s resistance to foreign aggression, and you will encounter a lengthy chronology of alleged US incursions extending from 1866 to the present.

The country reinforces that narrative in parks that display totems of its successful resistance to foreign encroachment. The most famous of these sites is in Pyongyang, on a bank of the Taedong River where the USS General Sherman allegedly ran aground. Items there include cannons said to have come from the ship, as well as a “spy torpedo” purportedly captured off the coast of Wonsan in the 1980s. Until two years ago, the centerpiece of this riverfront trophy collection was the USS Pueblo, a diminutive, undefended surveillance ship seized in international waters near the city of Wonsan in January 1968.

At its new home, a Potong River berth outside a new museum built in remembrance of the so-called “Fatherland Liberation War” of 1950-1953, the Pueblo remains a trophy of resistance. It is the crown jewel in North Korea’s collection of propaganda designed to justify the country’s hardships and convince its population of America’s hostile intentions. The boat is more than a historical artifact; it is central to North Korea’s state-sponsored mythology, and the subject of numerous government-authored movies and textbooks.

One would not know this by reading Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo, a narrative nonfiction account of the Pueblo incident by veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Cheevers. North Korea’s perspective on the capture and the episode’s immortalization in national lore are each largely absent, save for one brief chapter and the overview of the latest decade in the country’s history. Cheevers states that he does not seek to explain North Korea’s conduct, but his omission represents a missed opportunity in light of the enormous number of materials on the incident that have been declassified in recent years by North Korea’s former communist allies.

What one does find in Act of War is a gripping description of the vessel’s capture in January 1968, killing one man on board, and the US institutional and leadership failures that placed the unarmed, secret-laden spy ship in harm’s way to begin with. Books such as Mitchell Lerner’s The Pueblo Incident contain more thorough research of the episode, but history is often hard to sell if it’s complicated. Through his narrative nonfiction, Cheevers offers an accessible take on a subject typically confined to academic literature and participant autobiographies.

The engaging and well-framed account synthesizes academic findings with autobiographies from the ship’s captain, Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, and his executive officer Edward Murphy. Cheevers adds additional flavor by quoting from interviews with crew members, including ones conducted with Bucher before his death in 2004, and by citing a handful of recently declassified US documents. Despite claims by the author, though, these documents do not contribute significantly to the Pueblo incident’s historiography. While his materials add more texture, they do little to fundamentally change our understanding of how Johnson administration officials handled and mishandled the incident.

Washington’s controversial steps include its initial decision to send the Navy electronic surveillance vessel close to the coast of North Korea, which was already on high alert after a botched attempt days earlier to assassinate South Korea’s president. The undefended boat contained top-secret cryptographic materials and encryption equipment it was unprepared to destroy in a crisis, and Cheevers deftly explains how the classified material’s seizure damaged US interests far more than Johnson officials had initially anticipated. The journalist’s use of new documents perhaps adds more where he examines potential actions the administration had weighed taking—if even momentarily—in response to the vessel’s capture.

Cheevers weaves a riveting description of the 82 surviving crew members’ eleven months in captivity, which ended only after the US government admitted harboring hostile intentions toward North Korea. His account is rich in human drama, and provides deep accounts of the bonds that sustained the former shipmates. He describes the physical and psychological tortures they faced, including sleep deprivation, willful malnutrition, and threats of execution. He also demonstrates how small acts of resistance by the crew members, and often by Captain Bucher himself, yielded minor-but-meaningful victories over their captors that boosted their morale over the course of their detention. These well-known exploits included flashing the “Hawaiian sign of peace” to North Korean minders, until the guards discovered the true meaning of the middle-digit gestures. Such details are not new, though, and they receive just as much attention in the memoirs of participants and in Lerner’s groundbreaking book on the Pueblo. But Cheevers also carries the crew members’ saga beyond their release, covering an emotional and unpopular Naval Court of Inquiry review of their actions during the incident, and Washington’s eventual reversal of a decision not to honor them as prisoners of war.

The author’s commendable coverage of the incident’s American dimensions makes his underdeveloped treatment of North Korean perspectives all the more noticeable. In recent years, several thousand pages of documents from the archives of North Korea’s present and former communist allies have been obtained, translated and released online by the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Cheevers consulted relatively few of these materials, though they have already yielded significant insights about North Korea’s actions, its external security environment and domestic politics when the incident took place. Unfortunately, Act of War acknowledges almost none of these new findings in the single, brief chapter it devotes to them.

The diplomatic record of North Korea’s present and former communist allies reveals that international conditions in the 1960s were unstable and deeply unfavorable to the country’s leadership. The ongoing Sino-Soviet split continued to divide the socialist camp as the US increased its presence in Vietnam. The Chinese Cultural Revolution threatened to spill over North Korea’s borders, and Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing became acrimonious. North Korean leaders also remained unsettled by the anti-communist military junta in South Korea and its normalization of relations with Tokyo three years earlier.

About five years before the Pueblo crisis, Pyongyang had stirred domestic controversy with its response to external security conditions that Kim Il Sung considered to be deteriorating. The government scrapped earlier plans to re-orient industrial development toward the construction of light and consumer goods to improve living conditions for the North Korean masses, and instead adopted the ‘Byungjin Line,’ which called for simultaneous development of its heavy industries and the national defense sector. By late 1966, leading cadres had begun to criticize the continuation of this policy and call for an immediate improvement of living conditions, threatening Kim’s national security doctrine. His regime purged its internal critics in 1967, and Kim launched the so-called Monolithic Ideological System, ushering in an era of absolutist control. Meanwhile, with the external security environment remaining unstable, he continued the country’s relentless pursuit of industrial development and self-reliance in national defense.

The material overlooked by Cheevers includes documentation shedding light on possible North Korean motivations for seizing the USS Pueblo. The materials reveal how North Korean government personnel portrayed the incident to other countries in the fractured socialist camp, as well as reactions by Soviet, Chinese and other communist officials to what they (and Moscow in particular) saw as a reckless decision to seize the ship and provoke the United States. Former communist bloc records also reveal how seriously North Korea took the prospect of US retaliatory action, as revealed by its evacuation of Pyongyang, the construction of bunkers and fortifications throughout the country, and its calls for foreign diplomatic officials to withdraw their non-essential personnel.

It would be inappropriate to elaborate on the substance of these additional documents in this review, but some of their contents would have made a welcome addition to the literature on the Pueblo incident while presenting a much fuller account of the affair. While the omission of these new findings on North Korea is regrettable, Act of War is still an engaging and emotional read, and a well-executed synthesis of existing academic research and autobiographical accounts of institutional leadership failures in the Johnson administration. It pays adequate tribute to the unspeakable horrors endured by the captive crew, as well as the travails that awaited them back home.

Reader Feedback

2 Responses to “Book Review: “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo””

  1. Timothy Riffel says:

    I just purchased Mr. Cheevers book on amazon, and I have a hard time trying to put it down, even though I do have a job that requires me to at least get a few hours of sleep. I read Bucher’s 1970 book with earnest when I was in Junior High back in the mid-70s…my interest was piqued by the Hal Holbrook TV movie about the Pueblo incident.

    For some reason, years later, I was became fascinated with North Korea, and I re-read Bucher’s book again, and also the book that his exec wrote. Mr Cheevers book brings the story of the Pueblo up to date, and fills in the background of what was happening on both sides, and for myself, it is irresistible to stop reading it.

    On another note, I used to work for the Navy as a civilian engineer, and from that job, I would butt heads with a program manager I had to deal with, who I later found out was Pueblo crew-member.

  2. Jack Cheevers responds:

    In his review of my book about the USS Pueblo crisis of 1968, James Person falls into a hoary literary trap: rather than critique my book, he outlines the volume he’d like to have written himself.

    When he focuses on what I actually wrote, he seems to approve, describing “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo,” as “gripping,” “engaging,” and “rich in human drama.” But mostly he criticizes my book for not including what it deliberately eschews: dense expositions of such marginalia as North Korea’s industrial development policy in the 1960s.

    “Act of War” is a work of popular history, not a PhD thesis or think-tank paper. It tells a series of interlocking stories, primarily from an American point of view: the genesis of the U.S. Navy spy ship program of which the Pueblo was part; the military myopia that led to the bloody attack on the unprotected vessel off the North Korean coast; the valiant struggle of its captain and crew to resist their tormentors in North Korean prisons; and the frustrating (but ultimately successful) secret negotiations by Lyndon Johnson’s administration to save the sailors from possible execution. The book also details the Navy’s attempt to court-martial the Pueblo’s captain, Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, for surrendering his poorly armed ship without a fight, and the furious public backlash that ensued. My final chapters set forth what happened to Bucher and his fellow seamen later in life, including their struggle to wring well-deserved POW medals out of the Pentagon.

    Person, who holds a doctorate in modern Korean history from George Washington University, argues that “Act of War” doesn’t have sufficient North Korean perspective. He dings me, for example, for not mentioning such historical footnotes as the “Byungjin Line,” under which Pyongyang tried to simultaneously develop its heavy manufacturing and defense industries in the mid-‘60s. But he’s a specialist, and I’m writing for non-specialists. Most general readers would probably lapse into a coma at the mere mention of the “Byungjin Line.”

    For the average reader, my book contains plenty of background about North Korea. It recreates Kim Il Sung’s days as an anti-Japanese partisan and his ruthless rise to political power. It also details the nervous reactions of the Soviet Union and other communist nations to North Korea’s dangerously provocative seizure of the Pueblo; Washington’s futile efforts to enlist Moscow’s help in pressuring Pyongyang to disgorge the crew; the astonishing North Korean commando assault, just two days before the Pueblo incident, that narrowly missed assassinating South Korea’s president; and the North Koreans’ palpable fears of a U.S. retaliatory strike.

    Dr. Person also criticizes “Act of War” for relying on only a “handful” of recently declassified U.S. documents relating to the Pueblo. Did he not read, on my book’s second page, that I pried more than 11,000 pages of relevant documents out of the Navy, National Security Agency, CIA, and State Department, using the Freedom of Information Act and mandatory declassification procedures? Among those materials were a secret CIA psychological profile of Bucher; the classified Navy dossier on its intrusive security investigation of the captain; numerous pages that had long been withheld from the transcript of the Navy’s official inquiry into the capture; and three lengthy NSA reports evaluating the national security fallout that resulted when the North Koreans (and, later, the Soviets) got their hands on code machines, eavesdropping gear, and other top-secret gems aboard the ship. (One NSA study characterized the Pueblo’s loss as the worst intelligence debacle in U.S. history until then).

    Dr. Person further upbraids me for “consult[ing] relatively few” declassified documents from the excellent archive with which he’s associated, the North Korean International Documentation Project, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I have high regard for the work of NKIDP researchers, which is why I carefully examined every available NKIDP document related to the Pueblo while working on my manuscript.

    Certainly, I didn’t use them all in my book (any more than I used all 11,000 pages of material I obtained on my own.) But oddly, Dr. Person overlooks multiple passages in “Act of War” based entirely on materials from his archive or its sister institution, the Cold War International History Project. On page 204, for example, I quote an NKIDP document in which a Czech observer in Pyongyang describes for his government the “military psychosis” that grips North Koreans as Kim Il Sung fans fears of a U.S. attack.

    Dr. Person concludes his sour-and-sweet review by noting that my research doesn’t fundamentally change our understanding of the Pueblo crisis. But again, he sets up a straw man and then tears it down.

    I didn’t set out to revise history, nor do I claim to have done so. What my book does is add substantial detail and context to the Pueblo saga, and bring it alive for a generation that knows little or nothing about a fascinating Cold War clash at sea that easily could have sparked a hot war. For instance, “Act of War” portrays, nearly hour-by-hour, the tense, high-stakes negotiations between South Korean President Park Chung Hee and Cyrus Vance, LBJ’s diplomatic troubleshooter, as Vance struggles to prevent Park from impulsively invading North Korea and touching off a second Korean War. That’s riveting stuff, and I don’t believe it’s ever been published in such detail before.

    To me, the most important goals of historical writing are accuracy, clarity, and accessibility. (An elegant prose style doesn’t hurt, either.) If a reasonably intelligent person has trouble understanding your work, you probably should start rewriting. Dr. Person appears to disagree, sniffing that “history is often hard to sell if it’s complicated.”

    I’d argue that history is almost always complicated; it’s only a hard sell if it bores the reader with unnecessary information and uninteresting digression.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.