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Three Presidents and a Hijacking at Sea

Lessons from LBJ, Ford and Reagan on what to do -- and what not to do.

By 4.9.09

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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.

Now what?

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.

The Mayaguez was decidedly not a spy ship, but as with the Pueblo it was well within international waters, this time off the coast of Cambodia. By now, the Khmer Rouge had begun the mass slaughter that liberal activists insisted would never occur if Americans left the area, winning the name for the time period as "the Killing Fields." The President was acutely aware the forced withdrawal from Southeast Asia had begun causing questions about American resolve in the Cold War. He made up his mind that "as long as I was President…the U.S. would not abandon its commitments overseas. We would not permit our setbacks to become a license for others to fish in troubled waters. Rhetoric alone, I knew, would not persuade anyone that America would stand firm. They would have to see proof of our resolve."

Ford, the House Minority Leader during the Pueblo incident, also said that he was "determined" not to repeat LBJ's mistakes. He was particularly disturbed that the crew of the Pueblo "had languished in a North Korean prison camp for nearly a year." He was not going to let the Mayaguez crew suffer the same fate.

The seizure of the Mayaguez, said Ford publicly, was nothing less than outright "piracy." Literally, the President called in the Marines. But just as LBJ faced obstacles, so too did Ford. U.S. destroyers and the aircraft carrier Coral Sea were too far away to be of immediate help. The Marines would have to be airlifted from bases in Okinawa and the Philippines, and thus would have to use Thailand as the "jumping-off" point for a rescue. The Thais, as they made plain, were not happy about this. Responded the plain-spoken Ford: "I didn't give a damn about offending their sensibilities."

In went the Marines. The Navy. The Air Force. There were air strikes. There was a battle, a battle costing the lives of 14 Marines, two Navy corpsmen, two Air Force crewmen. Estimates put Khmer Rouge casualties at 360. Every single member of the Mayaguez was rescued, as was the ship.

Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, sneered that Ford was simply trying to "impress the world." Ford felt terrible at the casualties, yet went to his grave believing his critics were "hopelessly naïve." The view of America, so severely damaged by the forced retreat from Vietnam and Cambodia only a month earlier, began to rise once again as the character of the relatively new American president was noted by both American friends and foes. The rise of the doctrine known as "peace through strength" began further to define itself.

Finally, in 1985, there was the tale of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Sailing off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, to Port Said, it was taken over by four terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Making demands for the release of 50 terrorists held by Israel, the group sought out American passengers. They elected one, an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew named Leon Klinghoffer. They shot him dead, in his chair, then threw Klinghoffer, still in his chair, into the sea.

Ronald Reagan was furious. By the time the U.S. could react, the Egyptians were already involved, and the terrorists were not only back on land -- Egyptian soil -- but had been ushered to an airport and a getaway plane that would fly them to Tunisia and freedom.

In an instant Reagan decided this would not stand. Flying back to Washington on Air Force One, Reagan demanded to know what was possible for him to do, turning to a young Marine Lieutenant Colonel named Oliver North to coordinate his options. Options in hand, the President acted. From the decks of the aircraft carrier Saratoga, F-14 Tomcats launched, ordered to divert the Egyptian charter plane carrying the terrorists not to Tunisia but to a NATO air base in Sicily. They were ordered not to shoot, but rather "persuade" by whatever airborne means other than shooting down the plane, which, of course, carried others than the terrorists. Shortly afterwards the word was flashed to the White House: the plane had been "acquired" by the F-14's. The Americans instructed the pilot to accompany them to Signolla, Italy, the site of the NATO base. They did. The Italians objected -- they didn't want this problem in their lap. They began scrambling F-104's from the Italian air force to keep the America jets and their captured prey out of Italy. Arguments ensued. The President picked up the phone and called the President of Italy. He got what he wanted, saying he was prepared to just do it -- land the planes at the base -- regardless. The plane landed, bad guys in hand. "Good enough" snapped Reagan.

The four terrorists went to jail, although the mastermind, Abu Abbas, got away. To Iraq, where he died during the American invasion. But even without his capture in 1985, the point was made. Said Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz later: "Terrorists and their sponsor states [read, the Soviet Union] were now on notice that the United States would and could take action and that the rule of law could apply to them."

This policy of Reagan's, the same principle invoked by Ford and disregarded by LBJ, was by 1985 known as "peace through strength." As former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would say at Reagan's funeral, it was a policy that enabled him to win the Cold War "without firing a shot."

LBJ, and later Jimmy Carter, never understood the importance of this principle. They lost their presidencies because of it.

Now, it's Barack Obama's turn to face a hijacking at sea.

The world is watching.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.