Readers who assume that North Korea’s reputation as an international nut case is a recent development must read this painful account of its 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo and abuse of its crew.
Former Los Angeles Times political reporter Cheevers has done meticulous research, including tracking down survivors of this half-forgotten outrage that made headlines at the time. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union stationed eavesdropping ships in international waters off each other’s coasts. Both observed a gentleman’s agreement to keep hands off, a sensible policy since a nation who attacked an enemy spy ship could expect retaliation on one of its own. Ignoring the fact North Korea had no spy ships was the first of many American blunders. As a vessel, the Pueblo was slow, feebly armed, and crammed with secret machines, manuals and documents. Suddenly attacked by multiple North Korean ships, the crew’s frantic efforts destroyed only a fraction of this material, resulting in an intelligence bonanza for the captors. Then, the North Koreans tortured and brutally beat the prisoners. They were starved, refused medical care, forced to sign bizarre confessions, filmed and paraded in public. Emaciated and sick, the men returned after a year of maddening negotiations. They were acclaimed national heroes: a godsend that prevented the Navy from court martialing the captain and his staff for surrendering. “As we unleash spies and covert operations against a growing list of twenty-first-century adversaries,” writes Cheevers, “we’d do well to remember the painful lessons of the Pueblo.
Although the crew behaved reasonably well under terrible conditions, this is a story where dimwits and villains dominate, and Cheevers does a fine job of rescuing from obscurity a painful Cold War debacle.