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LISTEN: North Korean Crisis, 1968

Many find Donald Trump’s statements on North Korea unnecessarily provocative. The general thinking has been that the North Korean regime periodically flexes its muscles, and that the US President would be wise to to resist reciprocating. North Korea's belligerent posturing rarely comes to anything. In this way, US-North Korean relations have usually been, if not warm, then at least not threatening. But the US has in fact experienced dangerous episodes with North Korea before, one of which—the “Pueblo incident”—took place exactly fifty years ago.

On January 23, 1968, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and its crew of 82 (one member was killed in the preceding attack). The Presidential Recordings web site, published by our Rotunda electronic imprint in collaboration with the Miller Center, allows users to listen in on the Oval Office as the early stages of this incident played out. On January 24, President Johnson discusses the seizure with his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. You may read and listen to the entire conversation here. The two men ponder how the Pueblo captain’s actions are being perceived (some felt Captain Bucher could have avoided capture) and express concern that the government and military must be consistent in their explanations of the events. One is always aware, listening to conversations from the Johnson White House, of a balancing of the practical and the political. On January 28, by which time the incident had become a full-blown hostage situation, Johnson spoke on the phone with America’s ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, who proposed a legal resolution to the crisis in the International Court. Their conversation is a fascinating look inside LBJ’s way of listening and weighing any option, and how it might impact other attempts in the works.

The president and McNamara have their hands very full when they converse on the 31st about McNamara’s looming exit interview with the Pentagon, an interview they feel will be dominated by discussion of the Pueblo seizure and the just-unleashed Tet Offensive, which many see as the turning point of the Vietnam War. World-crisis mode does not come much heavier than this.

Further conversations, on February 5 and February 7, cover an erroneous report in the press on the prisoners’ “imminent” release and the State Department’s report on the situation. In the end, the Pueblo incident took nearly an entire year to be resolved. The crew, after dismal treatment, was released on December 23. The Pueblo itself remains in North Korea to this day, converted into a museum marking North Korea’s military victories.

Rotunda is making all of these conversations open to the public, to share the rich history in the Presidential Recordings web site.

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