Monday, January 27, 2014

"Act of War" by Jack Cheevers (2013)

I was just a bit over 13 years old when the Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. Coming, as it did, in the midst of the Vietnam War I couldn’t quite understand why we just didn’t run in and bomb the hell out of them and take our ship back. As I said, I was just 13 at the time.

Six months previous to this Israel had bombed the USS Liberty in the Mediterranean as she was off the coast of Israel during the 6 day War. The United States took no action beyond a diplomatic note critical of the Israeli action. 34 American sailors were killed and over 150 wounded. How much this contributed to North Korea’s decision to seize the Pueblo will never be known; but undoubtedly it was a factor in that decision.

Author Jack Cheevers has penned a memorable book, which is also the first; to take a broad look at the Pueblo incident, as it has come to be known. This book would have you on the edge of your seat even without the extensive examination of the different scenarios which may have been at play in this story.

The main question I have always had is why the Pueblo was loaded with so much classified information and secret publications, almost none of which involved her mission, when it was headed out on a very risky patrol to probe the North Korean system of defenses? The mission was deemed risky enough to have the Pueblo maintain a 13 mile limit from shore, rather than the 3 miles usually recognized by the United States. That alone should tip you that all is not as it seems to be.

There are actually 3 different scenarios which could explain the seizure of one of our ships; it sits today as a symbol of propaganda in North Korea; and its crew, all of whom suffered for 11 months in a North Korean prison. Torture was routine and medical care non-existent. The one crewman who was operated upon for wounds received when the North Koreans attacked Pueblo, was not given any anesthesia at all for the extensive procedures he underwent. Others were returned with untreated compound fractures, and Quartermaster Bernard Law lost most of his eyesight to the effects of malnutrition.

The first and most widely accepted scenario is that Pueblo was spying on North Korea; there is no real doubt about that; and was captured. This doesn’t add up because another U.S. Navy ship, the Banner, had been doing the same thing for a few years at the time. She had some close calls when the Koreans would come out and “charge” the Banner, only turning at the last possible moment to avoid a collision. 

But this begs the question of what would have made the Koreans deviate from such limited action when it came to the Pueblo? With the ship on radio silence for the 12 days previous to the seizure we will never know, independent of the Pueblo’s own logs, whether or not she did indeed violate territorial waters.

Scenario 2 is a bit more complicated. The night before her seizure the North Koreans had slipped in a group of military commandos to South Korea. Their target was the leader of South Korea, President Park. He was to be beheaded in his palace; the intent being to trigger new hostilities with South Korea while the United States was bogged down in Vietnam. With only 50,000 American troops in South Korea at the time, it was apparent that hostilities with the North would require the diversion of troops from Vietnam, which would have been very helpful to the North Vietnamese.

At the same time there were 50,000 South Korean soldiers fighting on our side in Vietnam. An incursion by the North would most likely require that those troops be returned to Seoul in order to defend the capitol. This would have a pronounced effect on the American efforts in that war. At the time President Johnson was asking for more troops from President Park. The raid on the Blue House threatened that effort.

Still, a third and more interesting approach to the Pueblo’s seizure involves the actions of a spy ring operating in the Pacific which was compromising our “key codes” and making it almost impossible for our B-52’s to hit any targets of real value in North Vietnam. That mystery was eventually solved with the arrest and conviction of Navy Radioman John A. Walker. Along with a nephew and at least one other person, the damage done by Walker is estimated to have prolonged the Vietnam War for enough time to cost over 20,000 American battle deaths. He is still currently serving out the rest of his life in prison.

This 3rd scenario would have the Navy making the decision to have the Pueblo become expendable. To that end it was loaded with classified information and secret publications which had nothing to do with her mission and no means of destroying it all in a timely fashion. This could only have been the result of a decision to “reset” all of the codes while making the enemy think they had captured the current ones. Then, by a comparison of the information still being leaked; or not; they would be able to uncover the source of that leak. 
Even if he had not ventured into any of the politics involved in the whole affair, Mr. Cheevers has captured all of the tension and uncertainty of Commander Bucher and his crew during the tedious and sometimes trying voyage en route to North Korea; as well as the capture of the Pueblo and her crew itself. 

But the real “meat” in this book is the story of the sufferings and deprivations experienced by the crew of the Pueblo and her Captain by the North Koreans. From mock executions, beatings and show trials; as well as forcing their captives to pose for propaganda photos and even films; the North Koreans exhibited for the world their true barbarity.

The next 11 months in captivity are chronicled in stark detail, with the author making use of information culled from interviews he conducted with Commander Bucher, and some of the crew members, about their imprisonment. Commander Bucher was often separated from his men; seeing them only sporadically; yet his concern for the crew is clearly visible. After they are moved to a different location for the remainder of their interment, he is even able to establish some semblance of a chain of command.

At the same time, the author fully summarizes the careful dance between Moscow and Washington as they each try to control their separate “puppets.” To lose that control would mean a showdown between superpowers, similar to the one that had taken place less than 5 years earlier over the missiles in Cuba. In some ways, North Korea was hoping for just that scenario to develop.

The actions; or inactions; of the other branches of the Armed Forces; as well as the decisions made by top Defense officials;  including President Johnson; are all examined here. The author never really points the finger at any one individual or group; but the information is all here for the reader to draw their own conclusion as to how this seizure could have taken place unavenged. Indeed, the American public was clamoring for action. And the South Koreans were understandably enraged to the point of going to war with North Korea again. Only the promise of more military aid; including ships; was able to deter President Park from leaving the UN coalition and declaring war on North Korea.

As you review the timing of the release of the Pueblo crew, you cannot help but make some comparison to the way the Iranian hostage crisis was used to influence an election. Remember that the back door diplomacy by Ronald Reagan kept those hostages captive until after Reagan was inaugurated; just as these men were held until after the Democrats had lost the election in November 1968. Richard Nixon was about to take mantle of leadership, promising to end the War in Vietnam and recognize China in the United Nations. A full examination of the Pueblo Incident would have to take that scenario into account.

Through skillful “negotiations” and some back channel diplomacy involving a group of neutral nations, talks were begun as early as one month after the Pueblo had been seized. The North Koreans used the time at the table to cajole and rant at the American negotiators, seeming to enjoy the embarrassment that they were causing the United States. With the War in Vietnam going at full tilt, and the Tet Offensive underway, the United States was in a precarious position in relation to ever getting the crew released alive, if at all.

Mr. Cheevers also takes the time to explore the backgrounds of each of the key players as the drama unfolds, which serves to lend a wider view of the whole affair. Fully explored are questions such as who was President Park and how did he come to power in South Korea? What were the thoughts and actions of the South Korean people in the wake of the attempted assassination of their President? How did the Soviets react, and what were the American people thinking?

The book is a wonderfully crafted look at not only the Pueblo Affair, but the entire region. It also examines how North Korea; with more than a little help from China and Russia; has managed to stay afloat in the midst of her economic difficulties, which at times have kept her from being able to sustain a viable economy, or even to feed her own people. There is much to be learned from this book and its author.

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