218. Notes of Meeting1


  • Notes of the President’s Meeting With the National Security Council


The President: The Security Council meeting was set up before the ship incident. I want Secretary McNamara to bring you up to date on this matter. In addition we have asked Cyrus Vance and Lucius Battle for their opinions and judgments on Cyprus.

Secretary McNamara: All of you know the information which has been published. I will not go over any of that. We do not know what happened except that this incident was pre-planned. The earliest date on which it could have been planned was January 10 since this was the first time the North Koreans knew that the ship would be in the area.

Three things are clear:

It was a conscious effort to provoke a response or a lack of response.
The Soviets knew of it in advance.
The North Koreans have no intention of returning the men or the ship. I view this situation very seriously.

There are three key questions which are unanswered:

Why did they do it?
What will they do now?
How should we respond? The President: Did the skipper ask for help?

General Wheeler: There was a message from the ship “These fellows mean business. SOS. SOS.” His next message was that they were boarding the ship.

At 1200 (noon) the first North Korean vessel made contact with the Pueblo. One hour later, 3 other North Korean vessels appeared and several MIG fighters were seen overhead.

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It is important to remember that we have harassments of this type all the time. The skipper probably considered it just that—an harassment—until between 1:00 and 1:45. This was when he recognized it as a very different situation from a normal harassment. At 1:45 he sent out the call for help.

Convert that to Eastern Standard Time, the first encounter was at 2200 (10:00 p.m. EST). This was when he was ordered to “heave to or I will open fire on you.”

At 2345 (11:45 EST) Pueblo radioed she was being boarded.

At 2354 (11:54 EST) the first SOS came.

We ceased to hear from the Pueblo 31 minutes later.

The President: Were there no planes available which were prepared to come to the aid of this vessel? Every press story I have seen this morning said that U.S. planes were only 30 minutes away.

Secretary McNamara: Air defenses in the Wonsan area are extensive. If we had sent airplanes to support and intercept, it is likely that these extensive air defense measures would be brought into play. In addition, it is necessary to consider the time of day and the approach of darkness.

General Wheeler: Aircraft would have needed to refuel in the air. Twilight comes at 5:09. Darkness comes at 5:38. There were only 3–1/2 hours of light. The Commander of the Fifth Air Force issued an order to dispatch aircraft but then reversed the order because of the approach of darkness and the superiority of enemy forces in the area.

Secretary McNamara: The North Koreans have a large air base in Wonsan.

Walt Rostow: We need to get together on these times. I have a document which agrees with yours that the first contact was at 2200. I have that the first SOS was received at 2328. McNamara said this was 2354. I have information that the ship went off the air 0032. Secretary McNamara said the ship went off the air at 0025. For a matter of historical accuracy, we need to determine what is the correct time.

The President: I want you to assemble for me all the facts on this matter. Until now, I have been under the impression that the ship did not ask for help. Get all the facts and document them well so I can study this matter further.

Secretary Rusk: The negative reaction of North Korea and the Soviet Union was to be expected. One would expect the Soviets not to take responsibility. The reaction of the North Koreans last night at Panmunjom was consistent with what I had expected. There are two conclusions:

It looks as if this incident was pre-planned.
The Soviets may have had advance notice of what was planned.2

The President: What were the reasons for it?

Secretary Rusk: It could be a number of things. They may be trying to put additional pressure on us with reference to Vietnam. They may be trying to open up a second front. I do not see much in it unless they had either of these two objectives in mind.

The President: Have you fully briefed the members of Congress?

General Wheeler: General Brown already has talked with Senator Russell. He will see Senator Mundt, Senator Dodd and Senator Thurmond later today as directed by the President.

Senator Russell seemed satisfied with the explanation given him today by General Brown. He was unhappy that an American ship was taken without a shot being fired on our side.

The House Armed Services Committee was briefed this morning at its regular meeting. I will give the President a full report on that as soon as possible.

The President: All of the Committees will begin investigations of this incident once it cools down. Should we do anything to head this off?

Secretary McNamara: Until we know precisely what we are going to do, I do not recommend meeting with the Congress. They are not interested as much in what happened, which I think has been explained, as in what we plan to do.

Secretary Rusk: In my meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee this morning, they were outraged at the action by the North Koreans. They realize it is a very serious matter. They were understanding and were not pushing any particular course of action.

The President: What other ways are there for us to find out more about exactly what happened?

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General Wheeler: We will receive additional information for continued research by NSA on intercepts. In addition we will learn more from statements by the North Koreans and the Soviets.

Leonard Marks: From North Korean press reports, it is obvious they are trying to create the following impressions:

They want to create fear among the South Koreans.
They are trying to create the impression that increased infiltration will take place.
They are making very flat statements about this being a “spy boat” which was carrying on hostile actions.

Richard Helms: I would agree with what has been said. This appears to be an effort by North Korea to support the North Vietnamese in their efforts. They want to distract attention from Vietnam.

The President: They may also want to detain the Carrier Enterprise.

The President then read the Reuters wire account of an alleged confession by Commander L.M. Bucher, Captain of the Pueblo. The text of alleged confession is attached at Appendix A.3

Secretary Rusk: We should analyze the tapes to determine if this is Bucher. I frankly do not see how they could get a U.S. Navy Commander to make statements like that.

The President: Look very closely at this record.

(General Wheeler and Secretary McNamara said this was being done.)

Secretary McNamara: It is important to remember that we did not know where this ship was prior to the time of this incident. Our best reports are that the ship was outside of territorial waters.

The President: Is there much chance of error?

Secretary McNamara: Admiral Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations, said there is less than 1% chance of error in daylight conditions such as existed at the time. The radio intercepts of the North Korean craft placed them in the same area reported by the Pueblo: that was between 15–1/2 and 17–1/2 miles from shore.

Richard Helms: Our fix is 15–1/2 to 17. Both of these figures are outside of territorial waters.

Secretary McNamara: The ship did destroy some of its classified equipment. We do know that not all classified equipment was destroyed.

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The President: How much of a problem does that create for us?4

Secretary McNamara: This is much less of a problem than the diplomatic problems and the prestige.

Walt Rostow: The confession by the Captain appears to have been written by the Soviets. This is not the language of an American ship captain. The Soviets may have had a hand in drafting it.

Secretary McNamara: The impression that the Soviets were informed in advance is supported by their actions in Moscow. When Ambassador Thompson went to the Soviets, he received a Soviet position on this quite promptly. It is unlikely that the Soviets could have reached [received] the information about the incident, conferred about it, and then taken a position so quickly without advance knowledge that the incident was to take place.

Richard Helms: This is a very serious matter. It appears the North Koreans are doing this in support of the North Vietnamese against us. It looks, at this time, like collusion between the North Koreans and the Soviets. It appears to be another attempt to divert us from our efforts in Vietnam.

Last August, the Polish Military Mission went to North Korea. It was learned [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] that the North Koreans have sent 30 pilots to North Vietnam. They also gave the North Vietnamese 10 MIG–21’s. North Korea wants to do all it can to help the North Vietnamese. In addition, they want to keep the ROK from sending more troops to assist the South Vietnamese.

[less than 1 line of source text not declassified] said the Soviets are putting pressure on North Korea to take some of the pressure off Vietnam. They advised that 2500 North Korean officers have been trained for sabotage and terrorism in South Korea.

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The President: Would not it be wise now that we have definite information where the incident occurred to tell Senator Fulbright so that he will be more responsible about his statements?5

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Tom Johnson’s Notes of Meetings, Pueblo II, 1:00 p.m. Top Secret. Drafted by Tom Johnson. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House. A memorandum of this meeting was also prepared by Harold H. Saunders, and summary notes of this and a brief meeting following the NSC meeting were prepared by Bromley Smith. (Both ibid., National Security File, National Security Council Meetings, Vol. IV, Tab 62, January 24, 1968)
  2. On January 24 the Bureau of Intelligence and Research issued Intelligence Note 67, which concluded that the Soviet Union “appears to have been caught unawares by the Pueblo incident,” based on a lack of evidence suggesting that “Moscow instigated the North Korean seizure of the Pueblo or that Moscow even knew in advance that the incident would take place.” In terms of Moscow’s response to the incident, the report suggested “that the USSR wants to avoid all direct involvement in the present differences between the US and North Korea.” (Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, Pueblo, 23 January 1968 through December 1968) An Intelligence Memorandum issued by the CIA on the same day rejected Chinese involvement and concluded that the Soviets were behind neither the Blue House raid nor the seizure of the Pueblo. (Intelligence Memorandum No. 0580/68, “Confrontation in Korea,” January 24; ibid.)
  3. Not printed.
  4. On January 24 the Director of the NSA cabled two reports to the Special Security Office of DIA and the JCS evaluating the impact of the loss of the ship and its equipment. Regarding the effect on communications security, the Director stated that the capture of the Pueblo represented “a major intelligence coup without parallel in modern history.” Similarly, the overall loss and impact on U.S. ability to conduct signals intelligence was deemed “very severe.” (Both in Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident, Codeword Material, Vol. I, Part B [through January]) An NSA analysis prepared after the crew had been returned and debriefed concluded that “The unnecessary capture of excess equipment and materials was the most significant loss sustained in the cryptographic area.” (“Cryptologic-Cryptographic Damage Assessment: USS Pueblo, AGER–2, 23 January–23 December 1968”; NSA, Center for Cryptologic History, Historical Files, Carton VIII)
  5. The memorandum for the record of this meeting by Saunders indicates that the discussion continued, focusing first on the Cyprus problem and then on the situation in Vietnam. At the conclusion of the meeting McNamara suggested the Pueblo Group meet to discuss a response to the confession apparently made by Commander Bucher. According to notes by Bromley Smith that brief meeting ended with Nitze being given responsibility for preparing a statement for release that evening.