The Myth of North Korea, the USS Pueblo, and Nuclear War

Source: CNN

When the 50th anniversary of the capture of the USS Pueblo hit a few weeks ago, the nation’s eyes briefly returned to this forgotten American spy ship that had been captured in the East Sea in January 1968. For a few days, the internet was awash in stories related to this long-forgotten tragedy. Some described the terrible consequences for the 82 crewmen who were beaten and tortured for almost a year in DPRK prison camps.[1] Other articles attempted to draw lessons from the 1968 crisis that could be applied to today’s situation.[2] Others reminded readers that the DPRK still proudly held the ship, which has become a prominent tourist attraction.[3] But one fairly new and exciting theme in particular echoed across the social media landscape: the idea that the attack had come close to sparking a nuclear war. “U.S. Spy Ship Captured by North Korea almost Caused Nuclear War,” screamed a Newsweek headline.[4] Smithsonian Magazine agreed. “Fifty Years Ago, North Korea Captured an American Ship and Nearly Started a Nuclear War,” blared its headline.[5] CNN took this claim the farthest, with a long piece entitled “How the Seizure of a US Spy Ship by North Korea Nearly Sparked Nuclear War.” The CNN story, proudly noting that it was based on “top secret diplomatic cables; CIA, NSA and State Department reports; and interviews with and testimonies from the crew,” offered maps, photos, and links to documents, and concluded that “US generals were prepared to use nuclear weapons to fight, and could have sucked in both the Soviet Union and China.”[6] It is a powerful and dramatic addition to the story, one that perhaps seems appropriate considering the intrigue that has always surrounded this 177-foot floating Cold War metaphor. There is only one problem, however: the notion that the Pueblo seizure almost sparked a nuclear war is completely wrong.

A close look at the internal deliberations within the Johnson White House demonstrates quite clearly that the administration never seriously considered a nuclear response. On the afternoon of the 23rd, LBJ’s advisors met for the first time to discuss the Pueblo. Without much detailed knowledge of what had happened, their instinctive responses spoke of reinforcing America’s troop commitment in the area, and even of “picking up units of the North Korean fleet or units of the North Korean army along the DMZ,” but the idea of a nuclear retaliation was never mentioned.[7] The principals met again the next morning for a more extensive conversation. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggested a number of options: “mining, conducting a quarantine, blocking shipping into North Korea, etc,” but failed to propose any significant offensive action, let alone a nuclear response. General Earle Wheeler chimed in with his own list of possible military options that ranged from building up American forces in the area to capturing a North Korean ship to blockading North Korea and more, but he also failed to mention a nuclear possibility or even anything even remotely close.[8] Two other meetings were held that day to discuss options, but a nuclear path remained without even a mention. In fact, when, the principals met six days after the seizure to consider their military options based on a report prepared by the Defense Department, they discussed 11 possibilities, most of which were quickly dismissed out of hand; a nuclear strike did not even earn inclusion in the discussion, which rejected as too risky such options as a naval blockade of Wonsan Harbor.[9] Even the military was uninterested in escalation. “We would have been in a fine fix if we had sent planes up there,” noted Wheeler. “We probably would have been in a war.”[10]

As the days turned into weeks and then months, frustrated American leaders wracked their brains to devise even the most unlikely scenarios that might win the release of the men. Even in desperation, however, no one ever seriously broached the idea of using nuclear weapons. In fact, even the few relatively conservative military steps that the administration did approve, such as building up American naval forces in the area, were taken with great caution and with the central intention of pressuring the North into a diplomatic resolution.[11] Facing an already exhausting war in Vietnam and desperate to prevent the deaths of the 82 crewmen, the Johnson administration left no doubt that it was going to cling to a diplomatic path. “As far as the end of the trail is concerned,” Dean Rusk noted, “the use of military force would make us feel better about it, but does not get our ship and our men back. We do not want to take on a second front if we can avoid it.”[12] Revealingly, when the South Korean military wanted to launch conventional raids against the North in retaliation, American military officials interceded to restrain them, sparking tensions between the two allies.[13] The idea, then, that the administration might have seriously endorsed a nuclear attack when they would not even consider a small ROK retaliation against DPRK ships is simply not reasonable.

Other evidence argues against the idea that a nuclear response was a serious possibility. The Pueblo attack was not the first time the North had taken provocative action against American forces. In 1964, the DPRK had captured two American helicopter pilots who had strayed over North Korea and held the men prisoner for a year. No one went nuclear. In 1969, just months after the Pueblo men were released, North Korean forces shot down an American EC-121 spy plane operating over the East Sea. No one went nuclear. In 1977, North Korea shot down an American helicopter that strayed into its territory, killing three and holding the pilot prisoner. No one went nuclear. Emotions ran high in all of these (and other) situations, but structural constraints ranging from the other demands on American foreign policy to the fear of retaliation from the Soviet and Chinese to the constraints of world public opinion restrained American leaders in those other occasions, just as they had in 1968. Nor would a nuclear attack have fit into Lyndon Johnson’s worldview. For more than three years, the Johnson administration had been engulfed in another war in Asia, one that had seen a much larger investment of American resources and was widely perceived as a much greater threat to long-term American interests, and yet Johnson had not endorsed nuclear attacks in Vietnam. And his foreign policy beyond Vietnam had generally focused on diplomatic solutions that could avoid the costly and draining conflicts that might have impeded his Great Society legislation; to have endorsed a nuclear strike is thus so out of character that is hard to imagine.[14] It is also worth noting that the Soviets were equally uninterested in sparking a military conflict of any size and were actually unhappy that the North had attacked the ship at all. “We indeed have a treaty,” the Soviets told Deputy Premier Kim Ch’ang Bong in response to the DPRK’s requests for support. “Its essence is known to both you and us. We would like to stress that it has a defensive character.”[15]

The underlying problem with the nuclear claim is that it fails to distinguish between theoretical and plausible options. When LBJ learned of the attack on the Pueblo, he ordered a comprehensive study of all possible American responses. As part of this process, all options––including nuclear––were considered, as is standard operating procedure. A handful of documents thus exist that study the possibility. But that does not mean that all ideas that were evaluated by staffers were taken seriously by policymakers.[16] The truth is that a nuclear attack was absolutely unthinkable in 1968. The United States was already engaged in one costly and draining conflict. The North Koreans were holding the men in a well-defended area, making any rescue attempt almost impossible and ensuring that any retaliation would likely ensure their deaths. Accordingly, there was no one, not even the most bellicose voices inside the administration, who wanted to deviate from the diplomatic path that they had established from the start. “One war at a time,” explained Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach simply, “is enough.”[17]


  1. [1]

    See, for example, Fox News, “On 50th Anniversary of Capture by North Korea, USS Pueblo crew still feels scars,” January 22, 1968, on-line at: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/01/22/on-50th-anniversary-capture-by-north-korea-uss-pueblo-crew-still-feels-scars.html; and the Washington Post, “’Beaten Every Day’: North Korea Tortured USS Pueblo crew members, gathering damaging intel,” January 23, 2018.

  2. [2]

    See, for example, “Lessons From a Spy Ship’s Seizure,” NY Times, January 23, 1968, on-line at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/korea-spy-ship-pueblo.html; Mitchell Lerner, “Remembering the Pueblo: How Internal Imperatives Shape North Korean Decisions,” 38 North, on-line at: http://www.38north.org/2018/01/mlerner012318/.

  3. [3]

    See, for example, “Ill-fated local ship still held hostage by North Korea,” The News Tribune, January 21, 2018, on-line at: http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/article195619769.html; and “North Korea Commemorates 50th Anniversary of USS Pueblo Seizure,” USNI News, January 23, 1968, on-line at: https://news.usni.org/2018/01/23/the-uss-pueblo-50-years-later.

  4. [4]

    Tom O’Connor, “U.S. spy ship captured by North Korea almost caused nuclear war and is still there 50 years later,” Newsweek, January 23, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/us-spy-ship-captured-north-korea-still-floats-fifty-years-788299.

  5. [5]

    Lorraine Boissoneault, “Fifty Years Ago, North Korea Captured an American Ship and Nearly Started a Nuclear War”, Smithsonian Magazine, January 23, 2018,
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fifty-years-ago-north-korea-captured-american-ship-and-nearly-started-nuclear-war-180967919/.

  6. [6]

    James Griffiths, “How the seizure of a US spy ship by North Korea nearly sparked nuclear war”, CNN, January 20, 2018, http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/20/asia/north-korea-uss-pueblo-intl/index.html.

  7. [7]

    “Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings,” Pueblo I, January 23, 1968, 12:58–2:30 p.m, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #213.

  8. [8]

    Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Bromley Smith, Meeting of Pueblo Group, January 24, 1968, 10:30 a.m., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #217.

  9. [9]

    Report on Meeting of the Advisory Group, January 29, 1968, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #242.

  10. [10]

    “Notes of Meeting,” January 29, 1968, 1:04–1:40 p.m, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #243.

  11. [11]

    See, for example, “Notes of Meeting, January 25, 1968, 6:30–7:45 p.m,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #226.

  12. [12]

    “Meeting on Pueblo Crisis,” January 24, 1968, 6:00 p.m., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #220.

  13. [13]

    “Meeting on Pueblo Crisis,” January 24, 1968, 6:00 p.m., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea, document #220.

  14. [14]

    LBJ’s foreign policy is best evaluated in H.W. Brands, The Wages of Globalism (Oxford University Press, 1995).

  15. [15]

    “Excerpt from Leonid Brezhnev’s Speech at the April (1968) CC CPSU Plenum, “On the Current Problems of the International Situation and on the Struggle of the CPSU for the Unity of the International Communist Movement”,” April 09, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Russian State Archive of Recent History (RGANI), fond 2, opis 3, delo 95, listy 50-58. Obtained and translated by Sergey Radchenko. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110507

  16. [16]

    Many of those who push the idea that there was a serious risk of a nuclear conflict cite a memo for the Joint Chiefs from May 1968, which references Operation Freedom Drop and describes it as a “basic outline for planning of a nuclear contingency plan against North Korea.” The whole of the memo, though, makes it clear that the military saw such actions as part of a larger operation to defend against a North Korean attack against the South (as demonstrated by the memo’s title: “Possible Responses to North Korean Attack on the Republic of Korea,” rather than a step to be taken in response to the 4 month old Pueblo crisis).

  17. [17]

    Oral history of Nicholas Katzenbach, Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, interview #3, p. 4.


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