The winter of 1968 was a very bad time for the United States. The My Lai massacre. The Battle of Khe Sanh. The Tet Offensive. The individual executed by a South Vietnamese soldier and the photograph of the killing flashed around the world.
Amid all that, North Korea seized an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo. If you are old enough to remember where you were when you first heard “Hey Jude” or if you actually know the words to “Love Is Blue,” then you do not have to be told the significance of the loss of the Pueblo. You also do not have to go to wikipedia.com to identify Lloyd M. Bucher.
Bucher, who died nine years ago, was the captain of the Pueblo, which was no prize, except to the North Koreans, adept then as now in transforming the symbolic into the dramatic. There were demands for the court martial of Bucher, who, against maritime doctrine, gave up the ship, though the Navy finally acknowledged the captain might have been more canny than cowardly.
In retrospect, we now see that while the seizure of the Pueblo was mortifying and maybe avoidable, Bucher did assure that a relatively minor incident didn’t become the War of Jenkins’ Ear of 1968, when the United States had bigger worries, like keeping the country from falling apart in a year that would soon include two assassinations, violence at a national political convention, a series of urban riots and the withdrawal of a president from his re-election campaign.
In this year of 50th anniversaries of all things 1963 — we are only weeks away from the commemoration of the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr., the first of the 1968 assassination victims — it may seem premature to linger on events of 1968. They will have their commemorations in five years.