tv 1968 North Korean Capture of the USS Pueblo CSPAN June 10, 2018 6:30pm-6:45pm EDT
failure of american foreign policy." we recorded this interview with the american historical association annual meeting in washington. it's about 15 minutes. >> mitch lerner teaches history at ohio state university. he teaches the institute for korea study. has written a book about one particular incident in u.s.-north korea history. the pueblo incident which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. let's start by asking you to give the story of the pueblo. mitchell: it is amazing to the extent which it has been forgotten by the american people. the uss pablo was an -- an old world war ii cargo carrier that had been retired. it was old and dilapidated. rusty old ship that naval intelligence and national security in the 1960's decide
they would pull out of retirement, scrape off the moth them carry out electronic intelligence interception. but mechanically and communicatively, it was a disaster. in january, 1968, the national security agency and the navy decided a good first mission for it would be to send it off the coast of north korea in january, 1968. the ship got out there actually a couple weeks of operations that had gone pretty well but on the morning of january 23, 1968, as you say, almost the 50th anniversary right now, the public -- public low was operating when it was approached by a number of north korean ships and m.i.g. planes. the captain thought it was a routine harassment. in the end, the north korean ships ordered the public low to
surrender. they tried to escape but the engines didn't work very well. they were hardly outgunned, couldn't maneuver well, not prepared in any capacity. in the end they surrendered. there was a brief gun battle. the public low was fired upon by korean ships. one american was killed. a number wounded. the ship was surrendered. tied it one a tow land and drove it into wonton harbor. they were in prison for almost a year when they were released by this crazy diplomatic solution and the ship remains. it's still in north korea now where it is a leading tourist attraction. >> that was a surprise to me hat it's a popular tourist area. what should we take away about north korean culture than? -- -- then?
mitchell the stands as a great symbol of the cold war. the american policy and intelligence committee -- community never really thought of this as a dangerous mission. the soviets ran these kind of operations. we can run them. soviet ships would spy on the united states ships, they were never captured. his was treated as part of a massive communist bloc. where the soviets, the chinese were like the puppet master pulling strings. the reality is north korea never had been like that. north korea has been a difficult element in the communist block and we know now since the fall of the soviet union we have gotten access to some of the soviet block archives and we see in the 1960's, late 1960's, when this nt to which north korea was the a problem inside the communist block now. american policymakers today like to dismiss north korea as either a pawn of china. we hear a lot of that now. or a crazy, lunatic place. they have their own history,
values, ideological presips. when you take from the public w, what you can take -- pueblo, what you can take from the pueblo is that a country's reasons for doing things has to be taken seriously on its own merits. until policymakers start to do that we will have the same unsuccessful efforts we had with the public low. -- pueblo. susan: going back to the story of the capture, you said there were airplanes involved. anything by a russian pilot? mitchell: no. this was north korean stuff. we haveto the soviet bloc gotten access security. north koreans did not talk to anyone about this. none of their allies knew about it or were consulted about it , negotiations. we have records of the soviets and east germans being furious, publicly attacking north koreans for this. they thought it was a terrible
idea. it was risky. it risked giving the united states an excuse to escalate the american involvement i south korea. they were irate about all of this. there's even these funny moments where the soviets are trying to get information what's happening inside north korea in 1968. where are they being held? when are you going to release them? they won't meet with them, talk to them. it's astounding where we think it's a black hole for information for the united states. it is a black hole of information for their allies as well. susan there were 83 onboard? mitchell one of them tragically killed. susan: what was life like for them? mitchell: horrible. for the first couple of weeks, they were beaten and tortured mercilessly. really primitive kind of stuff.
beaten with clubs, forced to sit on radiators, terrible things in order to get confessions out of them. what the north koreans wanted was propaganda. they wanted to humiliate the united states, the kim family, which was in charge then as now could demonstrate to the people how strong they were. they would sign confessions saying they were so sorry they had done this. the american government had sent them on this terrible mission they never wanted. to go. they were apologizing to the korean people and they were so impressed what they had seen in north korea. the first couple weeks while the men are being beaten into these confessions it's pretty brutal. after that they are locked in a prison camp. things become a mundane daily life in a north korean prison camp. still absolutely horrible but not that bad. there's another wave of beatings towards the end that the men say is the most brutal, horrible experience any could have imagined. they are released in december right before christmas but in a way the scars always say because the navy drums them out
of the service. they're given very little, in some cases no medical treatment, psychological treatment. they are not given job training. and i've gotten to know some of these men. alcoholism, divorce, inability to hold jobs. and the fact that the navy swept it under the table and the american people ignored it is another great tragedy of the pueblo. susan: thinking of the parallel of the iranian -- u.s. hostages in iran and how nightline became -- keeping track of them every day. what was the american media doing? mitchell: really, it's funny. for about a week or so this was the center of the nation's attention. everyone was outraged. people are demanding war. there's protest in the streets. the media is covering it. there are sorts of these powerful stories about these innocent men being captured by the soviets -- sorry -- the north koreans. when they start signing the confessions there's a lot of attention on that. the biggest problem for them,
suddenly america's eyes shift back to vietnam. it's 1968. there's civil rights and there's riots and protests and assassinations and it sort of fades away. it never comes back. here we are on the 50th anniversary and we are starting to get -- i have done a couple stories like this one. people want to talk about it. by and large there's been north. there has been this incredible silence for years. susan: why would the navy or u.s. government not declare them p.o.w.'s? they clearly were? mitchell: the navy just wanted it to go away. the navy was really culpable in this. naval intelligence and national security agency did a terrible job analyzing the risk assessment for the mission. didn't have support forces on call. this is a chain of error that is hard to believe. they just wanted this to go away. when the men came home there was a court of inquiry. there was talk of a court marshall.
there were some public hearings, congress got involved. it was a nasty situation. navy clearly wanted the captain to take the blame. when there was a public outcry, you are scapegoating these men, the answer was make everybody go away and that was it. susan: during the course of the year when they were captured, what happened to the commander? mitchell: he was the one that was tortured first. they started with the captain and his story was pretty terrible. they beat him, tortured him, threatened to kill him. they would put a gun to the head and pull the trigger. empty chambers but just to really get him to collapse. they threatened to kill his men. they beat and tortured some of them in front of him. it was really terrible. and while he was then in the camps, people back home just sort of forgot. his wife did a really good job as did some of the other crew men families, trying to keep the american government keep focus on him. he faded away. when he got home, the navy drew him out of the -- drummed him out of the service.
he went back to nebraska eventually and did sort of odd jobs the rest of his life. susan: there are two incidents you talk about when these crew men were drawn into propaganda efforts and they managed to communicate their disgust with their situation, can you tell me those stories? mitchell: the most famous one, of course, i won't make an obscene gesture on your show but the men realized one day -- they were watching a north korean propaganda film. they showed the north korean soccer team competing at an international match. i think it was in london. as the team runs out a number of the people in the stands from london give them the finger. their middle finger. the north koreans bow and smile and wave and don't realize it's a sign. so after they saw that the men started giving them the finger all the time. they explained to them this was a hawaiian good luck symbol. they would appear in public and give them the finger.
it got so bad at one point the men held a press conference, they were forced to hold a press conference for these communist reporters and as the men walked in, the colonel who was in charge of the captivity, gave them the finger and said, good luck, have a great press conference. the problemith that became some of the publicity photos that the north korean people were using went out -- there was a photo in "time" magazine. eight men. five of them while they were sitting and the north koreans want them to look good and healthy. they have their middle fingers extended. and when this was in "so the american people recognized this right away. if the north koreans know what this symbol means they will kill the men. they kept it quiet. the caption made a reference to it. and that set up what they called hell week. the men were beaten for a week when they found out about this. a beaten that was worst than anything we have seen in the past.
susan: what should we know about the pueblo incident we would learn today? mitchell: the essential thing for policymakers, take north korea on its own merits. as we look at some of the communist archives and that's a great thrill for me as a historian, access what the other side of the cold war story was. what we're seeing is the extent they were never a puppet of the chinese. i see a government official or media figure talking about how china has the answer and the solution to the china -- north korean nuclear problem now lies in china. the reality it doesn't. north korea operates for its own reasons and those reasons are usually driven by the desire by the kim family to rally the people behind them and prop up their government. usually in times when they are facing internal weakness. what i wish if there is anything we can take from this, treat all nations as independent countries that act for their own domestic internal reasons and we in the united states at a policymaking level have looked for a lot of years
easy solutions to north korea that involve dismissing them as crazy or simply saying the stalinism and tied to the soviets, chinese, whoever the enemy is. we need to take them seriously on their own merits. susan: how concerned are you about the current situation? mitchell: i am concerned. i am not concerned maybe as you might think. the reality is the military consequences of a conflict in north korea, in korea would be so devastating that they're really not a rational option. no matter what the bluster is coming out of the compaps of both countries, everyone knows how devastating this conflict would be. for all of our hatred about the kim family and god knows the reason for that. the world will be much better when it's gone. but the kim family also likes life. they drive expensive cars and have expensive tastes and like to have a good time. they are not suicidal. they understand if they push things too far it -- they are going to be wiped out. what worries me is war in the
20th century isn't always fought for rational reasons, where policymakers say this is in our best strategic interest. it happens because unanticipated events spiral out of control. that worries me a little bit. we have leaders on both sides who maybe don't have a lot of experience in foreign policy and are known to be a little hot-headed. sometimes emotional. there is always the risk that something is going to spiral out of control. nevertheless, the reality is a conflict there will be so devastating that i really don't think it's likely to happen. susan: last question is life lessons in the mission of the pueblo, have they learned them? mitchell: every situation is unique. there were some disastrous issues as part of the risk assessment process. part of covering the mission when the pueblo was out there, to some extent those lessons are somewhat irrelevant because now the collection is done at a different level. whether it's satellites or drones or whatever. there are every once in a while something happened.
someone is captured somewhere and it's clear we didn't have support forces on alert and clear we hadn't anticipated because we didn't consider the localized nature of the events over there. so maybe for me the most important thing that i'd say to the military if i can get them to listen to me about the pueblo is 82 really good men went out there and they paid a price for your mistakes and they're still paying the price. step up and take caref the people once they leave the service also. susan: thank you for your time. mitchell: thanks for having me. [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> you're watching "american history tv" all weekend every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation, like on facebook at c-span history. >> veteran tom riley talks about his vietnam war service including his time as harmy radio operator and war correspondent for the stars and stripes newspaper. he also describes his close encounters with a land mine and a ha