On Christmas 1968, as Apollo 8 orbited the moon and the astronauts on Christmas Eve broadcast to the enthralled world the words of Genesis from Scripture, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan was even more elated at events occurring in San Diego, which were rapidly bringing closure to one of the most disturbing events in American history — the hijacking of the USS Pueblo.
In January of 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the ship had been hijacked in international waters by North Korea. The crew was imprisoned and tortured.
The administration of President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), a Democrat, seemed paralyzed with indecision.
Ronald Reagan, Republican governor of California, was running for president for the first time and was being mentored on foreign affairs by former president Dwight Eisenhower, whose forceful actions and hidden threats had stopped the fighting in Korea a generation earlier.
Reagan was incensed by Johnson's inaction. At the Sparks Hotel in Reno, Nevada, on Jan. 29, Reagan railed against Johnson:
"I am ashamed of the way we have failed to take a position, and many Americans feel the same."
Reagan declared that America should have entered the North Korean port where the USS Pueblo was held, and continued, "No American should rest easy until he is told action will be taken unless that ship and those men sail out of Korea."
Besides being disgusted with Johnson's failure to stand firm against North Korea's state-sponsored terrorism, Reagan had a very personal reason for speaking out: he was a close friend of the ship's captain. A decade earlier during the filming of Reagan's movie, "Hellcats of the Navy," actors Ron and Nancy Reagan had met the executive officer of the submarine which had been used in the shooting of the film — Lloyd M. Bucher.
Reagan would recall that he and Nancy had developed an "astonishing friendship" with the Buchers and had become "very fond of them." When the ship's capture was announced in January 1968, the Reagan's had a "special concern and interest."
Over the next eleven months, daily headlines updated the nation on the crew's horrendous imprisonment. Reagan felt the hijacking and Johnson's inaction to be, "the most disgraceful thing to happen in my memory of America."
During that first quest for the presidency during the spring and summer of 1968, Reagan often would refer to the Pueblo. He would broaden his analysis to the broader question of how to deal with hostage crises. After discussions with Eisenhower and with former British prime minister Harold MacMillan, Reagan would conclude that the critical period is the first 48 hours.
Ronald Reagan would remember that lesson well.
Finally in late December, the crew was freed. Capt. Bucher and his emaciated men were flown to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.
There to greet him were his old friends, Gov. and Mrs. Reagan. Bucher spoke to families of those whose sons had died during their hijacking and tortured imprisonment.
Then Bucher and Reagan reminisced about their 1957 film. Bucher was astonished when Reagan recalled the name of his submarine which had been used during the filming: the USS Besugo. Then at the welcoming ceremony, Reagan formally introduced Bucher to the crowd and reporters.
Later, the crew was driven by bus to a naval hospital in Balboa Park. They were greeted by cheering hometown crowds. The welcoming celebrations would go on for more than a month. Later, the crew revealed the horrors they had endured: starvation, beatings, and threats of execution.
The Pueblo incident slowly faded from America's historical memory.
It did not in the mind of Reagan. When running for president for the third time, in 1980 against Democrat Jimmy Carter, candidate Reagan would see the same failure to deal forcefully with the Iran Hostage Crisis as had occurred a decade earlier with Democrat Johnson and the USS Pueblo.
Exactly as Republican Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in early 1981, Iran saw the handwriting on the wall and immediately freed the American embassy hostages.
As President Reagan greeted the former hostages, he would note that they had "entered the ranks of those who throughout our history have undergone the ordeal of imprisonment: the crew of the Pueblo, the prisoners in two world wars and in Korea and Vietnam."
In the tradition of forceful dealing with terrorists — which had begun by President Jefferson and the Barbary pirates and continued by President Theodore Roosevelt and the Perdicaris Affair — President Reagan ended his speech by presciently warning the world:
"Let the terrorists be aware that when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution."
Ronald Reagan's decades-long calling for the forceful dealing with terrorists and state-sponsored terrorism can serve as a useful historical reminder for today, as President Donald Trump acts firmly against terrorists and terrorist states in our time.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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