Lessons from LBJ, Ford and Reagan on what to do — and what not to do.
Hijacked at sea.
President Barack Obama has just joined an exclusive club of three modern presidents of the United States who were all faced with a version of the same problem: what is the right response for the United States when an American ship, or a ship with American passengers, is hijacked at sea?
The three other members of the club are Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. The ships and incidents were:
1. The USS Pueblo — A US Navy intelligence ship captured by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968, in what the United States insisted was international waters off the coast of North Korea.
2. The S.S. Mayaguez — An American merchant ship seized by the Khmer Rouge Communists in international waters off the coast of Cambodia on May 12, 1975.
3. The Achille Lauro — An Italian cruise ship sailing the Mediterranean hijacked on October 7, 1985, by four heavily armed Palestinian terrorists.
The three incidents provide the dovish Obama with vivid examples of not only what to do but what not to do. First, the Pueblo and LBJ.
On January 23, 1968, Lyndon Johnson was virtually under siege in the White House for his conduct of the Vietnam War. The American left, in what is now a reflexively dovish pattern stretching all the way back to its beginnings in the late 1960s, was in full cry. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota was mounting an unexpectedly strong challenge to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was waiting in the wings. Former Vice President Richard Nixon, the hard-line nemesis of Communists from Alger Hiss to Khrushchev, had not only begun to stage a startling comeback from two earlier defeats but was now the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
At 2:34 in the morning, a haggard LBJ was awakened by the duty officer in the Situation Room. The USS Pueblo, which LBJ would later describe as “a highly sophisticated electronics intelligence ship” — a.k.a. a spy ship — was boarded and captured in international waters off the coast of North Korea. The ship was over 15 miles from the North Korean mainland, well outside the 12-mile territorial claim of the Koreans. Of the crew of 6 officers, 75 enlisted men and 2 civilians, 1 was killed and 3 injured.
The ship was “virtually unarmed,” LBJ said. Which Nixon, furious at hearing this, immediately described as a “tactical blunder,” in turn infuriating Johnson. Why? Tellingly, the outline of mistakes emerges that in retrospect shine the light on the difference in mindset between even the relatively hawkish LBJ and the emerging conservative consensus on what would be described in the Reagan era as “peace through strength.”
The reason the Pueblo was so vulnerable was LBJ’s belief that “the cost of providing military protection for all our sea and air intelligence operations would have been prohibitively expensive, and under any circumstances such armed protection so close to their shores would have been provocative to foreign governments.” In other words, LBJ, already losing the Vietnam War for precisely the same reason — a fear of antagonizing the Chinese and the Russians — now found that the North Koreans had read his reluctance with precision. So, they boldly sent out two sub chasers, four patrol boats and two MiG 21 fighters. Surrounding the Americans, the North Koreans charged aboard the Pueblo with guns blazing, capturing the ship.
The ship was taken into the port of Wonsan, the crew blindfolded, beaten and stuck with bayonets. Next they were shifted off the ship to POW camps, where they were repeatedly tortured. The Pueblo’s Commander, Lloyd Bucher, told that his crew would be executed unless a confession was forthcoming, finally signed a “confession.” This went on for almost the rest of the year. In November, Nixon was elected president. In an eerie foreshadowing of the Reagan-Carter transition, in which American hostages were released literally as Reagan was being sworn in, the North Koreans set out to humiliate LBJ. In the Nixon-Johnson version, with the legendary hardliner Nixon getting closer and closer to Inauguration Day, the North Koreans agreed to release the Pueblo crew — for a price. LBJ must sign off on an apology, a written admission that the Pueblo was spying and a promise the U.S. would not do it again. Defeated, humiliated as would be Carter in a similar position twelve years later and for the same reason, Johnson gave in. Two days before Christmas, December 23, 1968 — 28 days before Nixon would be sworn in with full command of the U.S. military — North Korea released the crew of the Pueblo.
But they kept the ship. In 1999, during the Clinton presidency, the North Koreans decided to move the Pueblo to the capital of Pyongyang, which meant a trip back out into international waters. The Clinton administration decided not to try and take it back, so the ship is now on exhibit in the North Korean capital — as a symbol of victory in defeating America.
Next to be hijacked at sea was the S.S. Mayaguez, an American merchant ship hijacked on May 12, 1975. It was barely a month after what President Gerald R. Ford would call a “humiliating retreat” from South Vietnam and Cambodia, a retreat that came specifically as a result of the left-leaning Democrats in Congress cutting off funding over Ford’s objections.
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