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  • The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy
  • George C. Herring
Mitchell B. Lerner , The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. 320 pp.

Mitchell B. Lerner's The Pueblo Incident is a first-rate analysis of an important, relatively unstudied, and, as it turns out, most revealing Cold War crisis. Lerner covers the incident from the assignment of the USS Pueblo's mission through its capture in January 1968 and the eleven-month diplomatic standoff that followed. The book is based on exhaustive research in sources now available. It is persuasively argued and very readable.

As described by Lerner, the ill-fated mission of the Pueblo seems a classic case of Murphy's Law in operation. The ship itself was a "small and dilapidated ex-cargo vessel" (p. 1) that had been refitted ostensibly for oceanographic research but in fact was intended for electronic eavesdropping along the North Korean coast. A long series of bureaucratic foul-ups, and the secrecy in which the mission was shrouded, left the [End Page 168] Pueblo woefully unprepared for its mission. Especially critical was the lack of adequate means to destroy documents and cryptological equipment. The crew was inexperienced and poorly trained; the translators were not even competent in the Korean language. The skipper, the unfortunate and controversial Captain Lloyd Bucher, was a submariner who had been given command of a bad surface ship rather than a submarine. Themission was deemed to be of minimum risk but turned out to be quite otherwise. The intelligence sought could have been acquired by other means and was probably not essential.

Bucher has often been blamed for the Pueblo's problems and ultimate capture, and the U.S. Navy later made him a scapegoat, but Lerner shifts most of the blame onto the Navy itself. Bucher's superiors ignored his repeated pleas for timely and competent attention to the ship's problems. Because similar missions had been conducted near the Soviet Union without incident, the Navy and U.S. National Security Agency (the agency responsible for signals intelligence) underestimated the risks, ignoring theextent to which North Korea might be an independent actor and not simply an instrument of Soviet policy.

Given all the problems, the results could have been predicted. The ship stumbled out of port and gathered little useful intelligence in its brief foray along the North Korean coast. It was easily captured, and the crew's inability to destroy documents and equipment produced what Lerner describes as an intelligence windfall for the Soviet Union "without parallel in modern history" (p.84). This was the first surrender of an American naval vessel since the War of 1812 and was an especially humiliating experience for a superpower already bogged down in Vietnam. The Navy blamed Bucher for the debacle, but Lerner argues that it actually resulted from failures up and down the chain of command. He defends Bucher for not trying to escape from or fight off his attackers, insisting that Bucher properly followed orders and acted in a manner best calculated to save his crew.

Lerner also contends that, despite the failure of the Navy to prepare the officers and crew of the Pueblo and despite the harsh criticism they endured later, they actually performed commendably under the most difficult captivity. They endured horrible conditions and brutal torture and eventually broke under the pressure. Nevertheless, as Lerner details, they carried out a "covert resistance within overt submission" (p.176), learning to commit symbolic acts of defiance and to recite forced statements in a way that undermined the credibility of what they were saying.

The major thesis of the book, which answers the fundamental questions of why the incident occurred in the first place and why it was so difficult to resolve, is that the United States completely misunderstood the foe it was confronting. Viewing the world through a narrow Cold War prism, the Johnson administration assumed that it was dealing with a Soviet satellite rather than an independent country. In a long and interesting commentary based on the work of experts on North Korea, Lerner argues that...