213. Notes of Meeting1


  • Notes of the President’s Tuesday National Security Lunch

Secretary McNamara told Clark Clifford 2 that “this is what it is like on a typical day. We had an inadvertent intrusion into Cambodia. We lost a B–52 with four H-bombs aboard. We had an intelligence ship captured by the North Koreans.”

Clark Clifford asked, “May I leave now?”

The President asked if there had been any reaction from the Soviets on the ship incident. Rostow said a message was coming up now.

Secretary Rusk said the Soviets had advised the U.S. Government that they had nothing to do with the incident and that the U.S. Government should talk with North Korea.3

[Page 461]

Secretary Rusk said the problem of rescuing the ship and its crew is considerably different from retaliation resulting from an attack.

The President asked what are the alternatives. The President said he was sure they included:

Hitting the North Koreans with U.S. forces
Getting a thorough explanation
Capturing one of their ships

The President said he was anxious to know exactly what happened.

Secretary McNamara said he had no explanation other than the information that the ship was in international waters, more than fifteen miles out.

Secretary Rusk said that his department is studying the Armistice Agreement on the definition of international waters. He said there is a close relation to waters “contiguous” to North Korea, but the armistice does not define new international boundaries for the high seas. Where the ship was before the incident is unknown.

General Wheeler said this was not necessarily the case. Using a map, General Wheeler pointed to the position of the ship at 9:25 the night before and at 12 noon it was 25 miles off shore and 16 miles away from the nearest land associated with North Korea.

Secretary McNamara said it was unclear whether or not the ship had strayed into waters near the coast of North Korea prior to the incident.

Secretary Rusk said the North Koreans put out a very bitter statement charging the U.S. Government with spying and aggression. General Wheeler said the North Koreans charged us with engaging in acts of aggression.

Secretary McNamara said the alternatives included picking up units of the North Korean fleet or units of the North Korean army along the DMZ or re-enforcing U.S. troops in South Korea. He said we could fly U.S. aircraft from the states to re-enforce units currently stationed there.

Secretary McNamara said if this incident indicates any new threat on South Korea, this would be [un]desirable because North Korean air power is stronger than South Korean air power. The opposite is true of ground forces. Another alternative is to send additional naval forces.

CIA Director Helms said this incident is one in a series of increased harassment. He cited the recent plot against Blue House and many violations along the demilitarized zone.

[Here follows a brief discussion of a B–52 crash in Greenland.]

Returning to the ship incident off North Korea, Secretary McNamara said there was a period beginning about 10 p.m. in which DoD is not aware of exactly what happened aboard the ship. Secretary Rusk [Page 462] said the commander of the ship did not ask for air cover or help or did not try to get out of the area quickly.

General Wheeler said at 12 o’clock Korean time (noon) the ship encountered a North Korean patrol boat. The Pueblo indicated it was a hydrographic ship when approached. At 13:45 hours the message came back that the ship was being boarded. General Wheeler said the machine gun aboard the ship was not uncovered. The General showed the President a photograph of the ship.

Director Helms said he advised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning of information about the incident.

Secretary Rusk then read from a cable which was brought into the meeting on a session which Ambassador Thompson had with the Soviets in Moscow. The Soviets said this was not their problem. They said the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea is a source of tension. They said they would not take action on the matter.4

The President asked what other channels are open to us.

Secretary Rusk said the Mixed [Military] Armistice Commission meets at midnight tonight to discuss the attack on Blue House. We will raise the matter of the ship at that time.

The President asked what has been the reaction of the South Koreans?

Secretary Rusk said the Minister of Defense chided us for urging them not to retaliate when they are attacked and yet now finding ourselves caught in this situation.

It is unclear whether our men were wounded by self-destruct devices or by enemy fire.

General Wheeler said the man who lost a leg was engaged in blowing up equipment. He said the use of the term “wounded” seemed odd unless enemy fire was involved on some of the casualties.

The President said we need to see what our options are in this situation.

Secretary McNamara said he had a couple of people working on this under Paul Nitze.

Secretary Rusk said the North Koreans may want to trade these sailors for infiltrators who have been captured crossing into South Korea.

The President said he thinks that this incident is related to the whole picture. He said he would not be surprised if something hap pened [Page 463] in Berlin to coincide with what is going on in Vietnam and in Korea.

[Here follows a brief discussion of the situation in Vietnam.]

Walt Rostow asked should the incident be referred to the United Nations, involving the ship.

The President said this would be protective and would show a lack of malice on our part.

Secretary Rusk said we might like to take this to the Security Council. First, we should see what comes from the Mixed [Military] Armistice Commission.

Director Helms said the Soviets have their own ships of this kind including two ships off the Korean coast to keep an eye on the Red Chinese. In addition, they have one ship off Guam.

[Here follows a discussion of various unrelated matters.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings, Pueblo I. Top Secret. Drafted by Tom Johnson. The meeting was held in the White House.
  2. Clifford was at this time Secretary of Defense-designate.
  3. The Soviet response is in telegram 2550 from Moscow, January 23. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US)
  4. Thompson met with Soviet Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Kuznetsov on January 23 to discuss the facts surrounding the incident. (Ibid.)