217. Summary Minutes of Meeting1


  • Summary Minutes of Pueblo Group


  • Secretary McNamara
  • Deputy Secretary Nitze
  • Assistant Secretary Warnke
  • Richard Steadman
  • General Earle Wheeler
  • Under Secretary Katzenbach
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Samuel Berger
  • CIA Director Helms
  • [name not declassified]
  • Walt Rostow
  • Clark Clifford
  • George Christian

Prior to the beginning of the meeting, George Christian raised the question of how to deal with the press. In response to his question as to what should be said about our going to the Russians with the request that they ask the North Koreans to return the Pueblo and its crew, it was suggested that he say the U.S. has been in touch with Moscow, is not satisfied with the Russian response and will be in touch with the Russians again. The suggestion was made that the press could be told that Ambassador Goldberg was seeing U Thant this morning. As to what could be said about U.S. reaction to the incident, it was suggested that he say the capture of the Pueblo, because it was a matter of great gravity, was being closely studied prior to the President’s decision on his course of action.

[Page 469]

Secretary McNamara said the purpose of this meeting should be defined and further organizational arrangements decided. He felt that we should try to answer three questions:2

What were the North Koreans trying to do by capturing the Pueblo?
What do we think the Koreans will now do?
How does the U.S. respond to this incident?

Secretary McNamara suggested that an organization similar to that which handled the Cuban crisis should be set up. He felt we needed to close promptly the gaps in our knowledge and to gather the considered views of those attending the meeting so that recommendations could be made to the President before midnight. He said we must respond firmly and promptly to the North Korean action.

Under Secretary Katzenbach suggested an interdepartmental group under the chairmanship of Deputy Assistant Secretary Berger.

In response to a question by Mr. Rostow, Secretary McNamara said the seriousness of the incident was made clear by our belief that the North Koreans are not about to give up the Pueblo soon.

Director Helms, in answer to the question of why the Koreans captured the Pueblo, suggested two motivations:

To hinder the movement of Koreans to South Vietnam, and
To harass the U.S. in its conduct of the war in Vietnam.

He referred to several reports from Bloc sources concerning proposals to open a second front in Korea. He also had a report that China would like to see the war in Korea reopened. He concluded that their present estimate was that the North Koreans would not reopen the war now but would make the situation as tough as possible for us. He said essentially it is a question of whether we or they have the tougher will.

Secretary McNamara doubted that the North Korean purpose was to reduce the level of Korean forces in South Vietnam. He said that [Page 470] there were 1,200,000 free world forces in South Korea, and that the risk involved in capturing the Pueblo was much too high if the purpose was to effect the level of forces by 10 to 15,000 troops. He wondered whether they did not have another objective which involved tying down the U.S.—a much more serious objective.

Mr. Helms said he agreed that one objective would be to create the appearance of a second front which would reduce U.S. freedom of action. Mr. Rostow pointed out that the Soviets had this objective in the Middle East crisis but that it hadn’t worked very well. Mr. Helms called attention to the response of Soviet Foreign Office official, Kuznetsov, when asked by Ambassador Thompson to convey our concern to the North Koreans. He noted that Kuznetsov replied negatively without reference to anyone and without promising to consult his superiors.3 It was obvious that the Russians knew what was going on in North Korea. Secretary McNamara agreed that the Russians were knowledgeable.

Mr. Berger said it may well be that the Russians assumed we could not respond very effectively to North Korean provocation and that they agreed that the North Koreans should take advantage of the “target of opportunity,” i.e., the presence of the Pueblo off North Korea.

Secretary McNamara responded that there is a great deal we can do, including mining, conducting a quarantine, blocking shipping into North Korea, etc.

Mr. Berger said that possibly the North Koreans wanted to create a second Vietnam. They knew that we were holding down the South Koreans who are anxious to retaliate for recent North Korean raids. Both Secretary McNamara and Mr. Helms agreed that this was a possible motivation for the action.

Mr. Rostow said that possibly they were thinking that the U.S. would be reluctant in an election year to make a major response involving such actions as calling up the reserves. It is possible that they are challenging us and trying to make our problems more difficult. He noted that their action had already led us to divert the aircraft carrier Enterprise from South Vietnam by putting it into the Sea of Japan off North Korea. He said it is possible that the attempt to assassinate President Park was part of this plan.

Mr. Katzenbach described the action as a calculated attack on a target of opportunity. He noted that the North Koreans didn’t know the Pueblo was coming their way before the 10th of January. After that date they may have planned to capture it, acting when the Pueblo was off Wonsan. He said that what the North Koreans do now depends a [Page 471] great deal on what the U.S. does. He doubted that the North Koreans would return the ship or the crew.

The North Koreans, according to an intercept, will hold the crew for ten days at least in order to interrogate them. General Wheeler noted that the North Koreans had held some of our pilots for a year and had treated them very roughly before releasing them. Secretary McNamara added that the fact that they will be holding the U.S. crew increases the seriousness of the situation.

Deputy Secretary Nitze said the North Korean motivation might be their hope that pressure on us might lead us to take a weaker position on Vietnam negotiations. Thus, it might be necessary for us to ask Congress for additional authority to take military action in order to make clear to the Soviets that they must not misunderstand our attitude toward the Pueblo incident.

Secretary McNamara said if their effort was aimed at tying our hands in other areas, they had succeeded since we cannot move in South Vietnam until the Pueblo incident is resolved.

Both Mr. Christian and Mr. Rostow mentioned the large number of telegrams from private U.S. citizens which had already been received by the White House. These messages, spontaneously sent, were demanding immediate U.S. action.

Mr. Rostow suggested that the North Vietnamese [Korean] action may have been timed with the North Vietnamese military action at Qhe Sanh.

Mr. Katzenbach doubted the relationship. The North Korean Premier, Kim Il-Song, is opposed to negotiation of the Vietnam war. If there is a relationship, he did not understand why the Russians were opposed to doing anything about North Korea.

Mr. Rostow said he assumed that the Soviets knew of the North Vietnamese action. Considerable pressure was being exerted on us, both in Vietnam and in Korea.

Mr. Helms commented that North Korea wants to be in the hands of neither the Russians or the Communist Chinese. Mr. Rostow added that Soviet influence is more effective in North Korea than it is in North Vietnam. One far-out possibility was that the North Korean action was prompted by the Chinese in an effort to cross up the negotiations on Vietnam. Mr. Helms commented that the attack on the South Korean President’s home had been planned for at least two years.

Mr. Katzenbach said the most plausible position is that the Pueblo incident was a North Korean action which had been undertaken with the consent of the Russians and Communist Chinese. Mr. Rostow restated his view that the Pueblo incident may be tied in with numerous Communist actions in the Pacific area. He added that the Russians may have been interested in getting the equipment from the Pueblo.

[Page 472]

Mr. Berger said that the North Koreans may be stepping up harassment of all kinds. It could be that the Soviets knew of the North Korean campaign and decided against interfering.

All agreed that the North Koreans will hold the ship and the crew and that they will not respond to diplomatic pressure alone.

Mr. Rostow reviewed some of the diplomatic actions being taken or which could be taken:

Ambassador Goldberg is to see UN Secretary General U Thant at 11:00 A.M. He is to try to interest U Thant in a solution of the Pueblo incident but is not to request the Secretary General’s good offices.4
We could take the issue to the UN Security Council in order to buy time in which a decision can be made as to what U.S. military action is to be taken. There would be no expectation that a solution could come out of the UN Security Council meeting.
A letter from the President to U Thant might be used to give the Secretary General a sense of the gravity of the situation. The letter would link North Korean infiltration, including the Blue House effort, to the Pueblo capture.
A second effort to enlist the Russians in promoting a solution might consist of a Presidential letter to Kosygin.

Secretary McNamara said we must first decide what we will do. Mr. Berger pointed out that although Korean President Park has agreed not to retaliate for the present, the Koreans will do so no matter what we say if harassments continue to increase. General Wheeler said our commander in Korea is already deeply concerned and had asked whether he should play the current situation hot or cool with the Koreans.

General Wheeler said he was not now prepared to recommend specific military actions but we could do any or all of the following:

Reinforce our military strength in South Korea and in the area nearby. We could send additional air and naval units to Korea and to areas closer to Korea. One question was whether we could use Japanese facilities in this reinforcement activity. If we can, it would make a great deal of difference. Mr. Berger replied that we could use Japanese facilities. Mr. Katzenbach said we should consider sending a Presidential letter to Sato or possibly a Presidential emissary.
We could use our naval preponderance in the area, both surface and under sea, to do any of the following:
find North Korean shipping at sea which could be seized or sunk. The purpose would be to seize or destroy something of value to North Korea which was at sea.
blockade North Korea by mining selected harbors, either with standard mines or with MARK 36 bombs. Submarines could also be used in this effort.
punitive activities against North Korean coastal ocean-going traffic and the blocking of all such traffic.
air and naval strikes against selective targets. The port of Wonsan was a tough target because it was well defended. Railroad and POL storage were other targets.
a raid in force on an isolated outpost along the Korean DMZ. Although General Wheeler did not favor this suggestion, he said it would be possible to destroy such an outpost and capture the garrison.
photo reconnaissance should be undertaken before any other action. A drone unit had been moved to Okinawa and RF 4 planes are in South Korea. These could be used if weather permits. Mr. Helms said that Black Shield could be available for use within 24 hours.5

Secretary McNamara suggested two general types of action:

A general military movement into the Korean area which would signal our present intentions and be an indication of things to come.
A buildup of U.S. military forces which could include the call up of military reserves and a request of Congress to authorize the extension of the terms of service of those now in the military.

Mr. Rostow said one thing we might do would be to direct the South Koreans to seize the Soviet hydrologic ship which is now following the Enterprise. This action would be symmetrical with the North Korean action and it would get the South Koreans involved in the situation.

Mr. Nitze said such an action would provide an obvious reposte; i.e., the Soviets might shoot back.

Mr. Clifford asked whether there was any merit in trying to get the ship back. General Wheeler responded that this would be very difficult to do because of the air defense around Wonsan and the shallow waters of the port. Mr. Katzenbach said an effort to get the ship back would create psychological problems, i.e., that we placed greater value on the ship than on the personnel.

General Wheeler said that he hated to see a U.S. ship in the hands of an enemy. In addition, there was some equipment still on board the ship, [Page 474] including a computer which would be compromised. He repeated that an effort to sink the Pueblo by submarine would be very difficult because of the shallow water. An air attack on the ship would encounter stiff North Korean resistance.

Secretary McNamara said there were three areas in which action should be taken:

on the diplomatic track;
reinforce our total military strength, using existing Presidential authority such as extending the term of military service;
applying U.S. military power in the area such as restricting foreign shipping, the use of mines, blockade, etc.

Mr. Katzenbach said one idea would be to put another U.S. ship in the area where the Pueblo was seized and give this ship full air and naval protection. This would indicate that we believed we had a right to put the Pueblo where it was, but also have a beneficial effect on U.S. prestige. General Wheeler said the U.S.S. Banner would be available for such a mission.

Mr. Helms said that for some weeks we have wanted to know more about North Korean troop dispositions. However, the State Department had opposed a Black Shield mission. Current developments would probably alter this earlier judgment.

Mr. Rostow said we should put in writing what we know about the incident, what things we are not sure about, and then instruct the intelligence community to focus on whether the Pueblo incident is related to Qhe Sanh or the attack on the Blue House; also, whether the motive is diversionary.

Secretary McNamara agreed with this method of proceeding. He thought we should have a plan for photo reconnaissance, including authorization of a Black Shield mission, by the end of the day.

Mr. Rostow said that at the 1:00 P.M. NSC meeting, we should be prepared to report to the President on the work already done—the intelligence situation, the reconnaissance option, diplomatic moves, reinforcing military moves, including existing Presidential powers. He said that military and diplomatic moves should be used to convey to the North Koreans and the Russians that they have miscalculated the effect of the Pueblo incident on the U.S. In addition, we should initiate a military build-up on the scene.

Mr. Katzenbach suggested that we must answer the question: “What next.” All agreed that before we start down the road, we must carefully look at where it will end.

Mr. Clifford said the North Koreans will say that the Pueblo was within their territorial waters. He asked how we could prove to everyone that the ship was in international waters.

[Page 475]

Mr. Katzenbach noted that the South Koreans seized a North Korean ship some 40 miles offshore. General Wheeler added that this was a case of hot pursuit; therefore, would not be applicable to the Pueblo incident.

There followed a discussion of how we could prove the exact location of the Pueblo. The ship had been on its track since January 10 but had maintained radio silence. It had instructions to go no closer than 13 nautical miles from shore. Mr. Clifford asked whether we could use intercepts to disprove the North Korean claim that the Pueblo was within its territorial waters. Mr. McNamara said we would have to use such intercepts because of the seriousness of the actions we would be taking. He added that we would need the fullest justification for our action which would have to be based on proof of the exact location of the Pueblo when it was attacked. Mr. Nitze added that the North Koreans had 83 of our military personnel to brainwash and possibly make confessions.

Turning to the photo reconnaissance problem, Mr. Nitze noted that one pass with the Black Shield was quite safe but two or three passes would make it vulnerable. Mr. Berger asked what we would do if the North Koreans fired on the photo reconnaissance plane. General Wheeler noted that the North Koreans have been practicing with SAMs against targets flying at altitudes used by Black Shield. The drone would create no problem but its reconnaissance was of a limited usefulness. Mr. McNamara added that Black Shield was essential.

Mr. Rostow reviewed the work to be done by 1:00 P.M. and the papers to be prepared for the group when it meets again at 6:00 P.M. in State Department. Mr. Helms will have the reconnaissance plan. Defense will list our military capabilities for action in the area. Existing Presidential authority will be compiled by Defense.CIA will prepare intelligence refinements including why the Koreans took the action and what their present intentions are. State will prepare the diplomatic options and the decisions to be taken in this area. State will also prepare the basis for U.S. action and its presentation to the public. An overall scenario or plan of action will be pulled together by State.

Mr. Clifford said in his view the question was whether the loss of a U.S. ship with its crew was worth a major military confrontation with North Korea.

Secretary McNamara felt that by this afternoon we would be able to narrow the options open to us to apply military pressure. We could probably reach agreement on how the North Koreans would react and what we would do, depending upon their further reaction. However, it is necessary to give the North Koreans promptly a clear message of our firmness.

Mr. Christian asked that consideration be given to whether the President should inform the public as to what we are doing.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Bromley Smith, Meeting of Pueblo Group, January 24, 1968, 10:30 a.m. Top Secret. Notes of this meeting were also drafted by George Christian. (Ibid., Meeting Notes File, Meeting at State on Pueblo) When McNamara informed the President of this meeting and its participants in a phone conversation earlier the same morning, the President suggested that Clifford also attend, explaining that “he ought to learn it, cause it’s gonna be heavy.” (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of Telephone Conversation between President Johnson and McNamara, January 24, 1968, 9:18 a.m., Tape F68.01, PNO 1)
  2. In his phone conversation with the President that morning McNamara raised the importance of the three questions. In response to the President’s query concerning the actions of the Pueblo’s commander, McNamara replied: “Mr. President, I honestly don’t know. I called Nick [Katzenbach] this morning and later Walt [Rostow] and said I think we need a Cuban Missile Crisis approach to this, and, goddamn, we ought to get locked in a room and you ought to keep us there, insist we stay there, until we come up with answers to three questions: What was the Korean objective? Why did they do it? Secondly, what are they going to do now—blackmail us, let it go, you know, what? And, thirdly, what should we do now? There are a whole series of things we’ve thought of here—quarantine them, steal one of their ships, etc., etc., etc. But we just have got to act quickly. I don’t think we can let the day go by before reporting to you our at least tentative views on those three questions.” The President commented, “I told Walt that I thought we ought to have done that beginning at 2 o’clock night before last and yesterday and then today too,” to which McNamara responded, “I think you’re right.” (Ibid.)
  3. As reported by Thompson 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. Goldberg provided a summary of his meeting with U Thant in telegram 3481 from New York, January 24, at which U Thant expressed a willingness to use his good offices to seek Soviet views about the Pueblo incident. U Thant told Goldberg that since “North Korea is ’75 per cent in Sov camp’” the Soviets should be contacted first. U Thant also observed that the incident underscored his belief that the United Nations should have North Korean and North Vietnamese observers. (Ibid.)
  5. Black Shield missions consisted of intelligence-gathering overflights to conduct photographic reconnaissance. A memorandum prepared by the Directorate of Intelligence, CIA, January 29, assessing the results of the Black Shield mission over North Korea on January 26 and discussing the photographic information obtained by the flight is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident—Miscellaneous, Vol. I.