Act of War

Title:                      Act of War

Author:                Jack Cheevers

Cheevers, Jack (2013). Act of War : Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, And The Capture of The Spy Ship Pueblo. New York: NAL Caliber

LCCN:    2013021620

VB230 .C44 2013


  • “In 1968, a small, dilapidated American spy ship set out on a dangerous mission: to pinpoint military radar stations along the coast of North Korea. Packed with advanced electronic-surveillance equipment and classified intelligence documents, the USS Pueblo was poorly armed and lacked backup by air or sea. Its crew, led by a charismatic, hard-drinking ex-submarine officer named Pete Bucher, was made up mostly of untested sailors in their teens and twenties. On a frigid January morning while eavesdropping near the port of Wonsan, the Pueblo was challenged by a North Korean gunboat. When Bucher tried to escape, his ship was quickly surrounded by more patrol boats, shelled and machine-gunned, and forced to surrender. One American was killed and ten wounded, and Bucher and his young crew were taken prisoner by one of the world’s most aggressive and erratic totalitarian regimes. Less than forty-eight hours before the Pueblo’s capture, North Korean commandos had nearly succeeded in assassinating South Korea’s president in downtown Seoul. Together, the two explosive incidents pushed Cold War tensions toward a flashpoint as both North and South Korea girded for war-with fifty thousand American soldiers caught between them. President Lyndon Johnson rushed U.S. combat ships and aircraft to reinforce South Korea, while secretly trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis. Act of War tells the riveting saga of Bucher and his men as they struggled to survive merciless torture and horrendous living conditions in North Korean prisons. Based on extensive interviews and numerous government documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, this book also reveals new details of Johnson’s high-risk gambit to prevent war from erupting on the Korean peninsula while his negotiators desperately tried to save the sailors from possible execution. A dramatic tale of human endurance against the backdrop of an international diplomatic poker game, Act of War offers lessons on the perils of covert intelligence operations as America finds itself confronting a host of twenty-first-century enemies”—Provided by publisher.


Date Posted:      September 29, 2015

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

On 23 January 1968, the USS Pueblo was conducting a SIGINT mission in international waters off the coast of North Korea when it was attacked by North Korean naval gunboats. After one member of his crew had been killed, the ship’s captain, US Navy Commander Lloyd Bucher, surrendered the outgunned Pueblo without firing a shot. Bucher and his crew spent the next 11 months imprisoned under awful conditions. They were released on 23 December 1968. Although welcomed home sympathetically by the US public, a naval court of inquiry recommended that Bucher be court-martialed for surrendering his ship without a fight. The secretary of the navy overruled the court and returned Bucher to active duty.

In Act of War, former Los Angeles Times journalist Jack Cheevers tells the Pueblo’s story from several angles. The first concerns the crew—its selection, its personal relationships, its overall admirable behavior in captivity, and the impact of the stress its members endured. The second deals with senior naval officers responsible for the mission and addresses the many shortcomings in planning and training (especially in emergency destruction procedures for the top-secret communications equipment) and the inadequate refurbishing of the Pueblo, which left it incapable of effective combat. The third examines the US government at policymaking levels, which were dealing with a particularly stressful period on the Korean Peninsula—the North Koreans had just made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the South Korean president on 21 January 1968, and in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive was about to erupt. Cheevers describes how North Korea’s demands for an apology and President Johnson’s refusal were finally satisfied by a “diplomatic legerdemain.” (p. 229)

Finally, Cheevers reviews the damage caused by the loss of the top-secret NSA communications equipment. Drawing on a recently released NSA history of the incident, he shows that attempts to destroy the gear before capture were not totally effective. The North Koreans were able to recover and make serviceable some of the crypto gear thrown overboard and to reassemble much of what had been smashed. They shared the results with the Soviet Union. The NSA assumed that possession of the equipment itself did not endanger security since the encryption keys were not compromised. Thus the NSA did not replace its other communications equipment that was in use throughout the military. Only when the espionage of John Walker was discovered in 1985—he supplied the keys—was it realized how vulnerable the Navy had been. Act of War follows commander Bucher’s post-Pueblo naval career and his retirement years. Despite the lasting admiration of his crew, Bucher would never overcome the stigma in navy circles of having surrendered his ship without a fight.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, p. 130 )Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

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