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

by Abigail Pfeiffer on April 28, 2014

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

By Jack Cheevers – Published by the Penguin Group, 2013

Act of War by Jack Cheevers

I just finished reading an excellent Cold War era naval history: Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers. Cheevers has produced a riveting account of the USS Pueblo that was captured by North Korea in January 1968 off the shores of Wonson. 1968 proved to be a tumultuous year – in America and for the crew of the USS Pueblo.

The Cold War dominated United States foreign policy during the 1960s. It was not uncommon for both sides to seek intelligence about military operations. This was precisely the Pueblo’s mission – to collect intelligence on North Korea but remain in international waters. The Pueblo was led by a boisterous and outgoing leader – Commander Lloyd Bucher. The Pueblo was Bucher’s first command and he was eager to take the reins of his first command. Little did he know that he would become one of the most controversial figures in United States military history.

Cheevers described the physical characteristics of the Pueblo and the nature of its spy operations. He detailed the Pueblo’s imperfections and the attempts of Bucher to fix the Pueblo’s issues prior to the beginning of its mission. Commander Bucher is a central character in the book and Cheevers did a wonderful job describing the dynamics between Bucher and his officers and enlisted men.

Cheevers followed the progress of the Pueblo and its preparations while still stateside, to Hawaii, to Japan, and then finally to North Korea. There were parts of the Pueblo’s preparations that left Bucher ill at ease. There was a substantial amount of classified documents loaded onto the Pueblo, yet not enough destruction equipment to destroy the material in the case of communist attack. There was also a distinct lack of munitions on the Pueblo, and the two machine guns on board took significant time for the crew to enable. This became a problem when the Pueblo was surrounded by North Korean boats and MiG fighters, as the Pueblo did not have the firepower to defend itself. Another issue was naval support in the event of aggression – which obviously never came to the rescue of the Pueblo and its crew.

Cheevers, a former political reporter, spent a significant amount of the book detailing the political and diplomatic side of the Pueblo ordeal. Obviously the seizure of the Pueblo was an embarrassment to the United States, especially considering it was at the hands of North Korea and not a larger communist state like Russia or China. North Korea was adamant that in order for the release of the Puelbo’s crew, the United States needed to offer a full apology. Naturally North Korea wanted to use an apology for propaganda purposes. Almost the entire year of 1968 – from the capture of the Pueblo and its crew in January to their release in December – was spent in diplomatic lingo. Countless meetings between the United States and North Korea led to nothing but a diplomatic stalemate. Finally, after an agreement between the US and North Korea, the crew of the Pueblo was released on December 23, 1968.

When the crew arrived in San Diego, they were met by exuberant family members and live television cameras. They received a hero’s

Lloyd Bucher

welcome and reunited with family after an extremely difficult year. One sailor met his infant son for the first time. After arrival, the crew went to their next destination – the United States Naval Hospital at Balboa Park in San Diego. Most of the sailors needed medical attention for physical injuries sustained in North Korea. In addition to physical issues, the emotional and psychological health of the men needed attention.

However, their ordeal, especially for Bucher, was far from over. Bucher’s actions, specifically how he surrendered the Pueblo without firing a shot, were scrutinized by the Navy. Bucher’s actions were investigated by a Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by five Navy admirals. Their recommendation after the inquiry included a court martial for Bucher for five particular offenses. Nevertheless, with public opinion squarely on the side of Bucher and his crew, the top naval leaders realized that putting Bucher on trial was not a possibility. Bucher escaped a court martial and spent a few more years in the Navy before his retirement. Despite the criticism he received from the Navy, his crew stood behind him and credited his bravery as a key factor for survival despite brutal beatings and torture endured in a North Korean prison camp.

The Cold War era was an important part of American history, indeed, it spanned almost half of the twentieth century. As tensions increase yet again between the West and Russia, it is crucial to have an understanding of Cold War politics and key events. Act of War does just this and gives the reader an in depth glimpse into one important Cold War event and the effect it had on the people involved and United States foreign policy.  Act of War can be enjoyed by anyone interested in history – not just professional historians or Cold War enthusiasts. However, historians will find this book valuable as the book is rich with primary sources. The reader does not need an in depth knowledge of naval operations, nor do they need to be politically astute in order to enjoy this story of survival and perseverance.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

JM June 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm

No matter how describe it, Bucher was basically a coward. What he did fits the profile of what a coward would act like in that kind of situation.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: