A NEW LESSON IN THE LIMITS OF POWER
[TIME The Weekly Magazine, April 25, 1969 Vol. 93, No. 17]
The weak can be rash. The powerful must be restrained.
So said William Rogers last week after North Korean MIGs shot down a NAVY EC-121 reconnaissance plane. The Secretary of State's observation was precisely to the point. The attack was the second atrocity perpetrated by North Korea in 15 months. Again the U.S. found it prudent not to strike back, and this time 31 Americans were dead. There was anger and embarrassment in the Pentagon at this new humiliation. On Capitol Hill, Mendel Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, proclaimed: 'There can be only one answer for America-retaliation, retaliation, retaliation!' But the predominant reaction in Congress and across the U.S. was to smother outrage with common-sense restraint. In this, the nation took its cue from Richard Nixon.
Range of Risks. For three days after the U.S. aircraft was officially declared missing, the President went ahead with business as usual at the White House. The matter did not even come up at a Cabinet meeting the morning of the announcement; it scarcely could have, because the Cabinet wives had been invited to sit in for the first time .
As with the Pueblo incident 15 months ago, the U.S. found its alternatives severely limited. The EC-121 flights over the Sea of Japan were suspended briefly as Nixon and his advisers weighed the possibilities. Because Viet Nam has first claim on U.S. Resources in the Far East, and because more than 5000,000 U.S. troops are still committed there, the U.S. could hardly open a second front in Asia without massive mobilization, which no one wants. Even an air strike against North Korea's MIG bases might well have provoked a new invasion of South Korea and created a range of risks including war with China and deterioration of relations with Moscow. The deliberations in Washington were not made any easier by widespread bafflement about North Korean intentions. Pyongyang could have been trying to help Hanoi by diverting U.S. Forces from Viet Nam. The North Koreans could have been hoping to provoke retaliation, thus providing an excuse to renew ground war against South Korea. The most likely explanation is that they resented U.S. intelligence operations, feared that the Americans were learning too much and saw an easy way to discourage the flights while scoring a propaganda coup.
The diplomatic possibilities seemed no more attractive or useful than military ones. An appeal to the U.N. might force the Soviet Union to side with the North Koreans and lead to a Security Council deadlock. The U.S. went through the motion of protest at a Panmunjom meeting, but after it was lodged, North Korea's representative, Major General Ri Choon Sun, simply inquired: 'Whom does the aircraft belong to?'
Jumpy and Pugnacious. In the end, Nixon chose a course between backing down by discontinuing the flights permanently, thus conceding the field to the North Koreans, and plunging into a military contest that the U.S. might not be willing to sustain. He announced that the flights would resume. 'They will be protected,' he pledged. While he refused to divulge details, it later appeared that fighter plane cover would be made available if needed-either from land bases in South Korea or from a naval task force that was being assembled, which will include several aircraft carriers.
Nixon's handling of the crisis won praise from diverse quarters. Hubert Humphrey lauded the President's restraint; Senator Barry Goldwater reluctantly went along, saying he personally favored taking 'an eye for an eye,' but conceding that the U.S. cannot afford to fight wars simultaneously in Viet Nam and Korea. Senator William Fulbright thought Nixon had no alternative, but repeated his doubts about the usefulness of the kind of spying mission Pueblo and the downed EC-121 were engaged in. In the wake of the Pueblo incident, there was surely a legitimate question, as to the prudence shown by the U.S. in sending slow, unprotected planes to spy on a jumpy Communist nation already notorious for pugnacity and unpredictability. President Nixon admitted that 190 such flights had taken place since Jan.1.
Vengeful Fire. At his press conference, the President explained why he considered the flights necessary: it is his responsibility as Commander in Chief to look after the security of the 56,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, and in view of North Korea's growing belligerence the flights provide some insurance against surprise thrusts. 'Going back over 20 years, he said, 'We have had a policy of reconnaissance flights in the Sea of Japan similar to this flight.' More generally, any President has the duty to provide his military forces with the best information obtainable about potential adversaries. Ignorance of the other side can not only make U.S. forces vulnerable to surprise attack, but also lead to unnecessary military precautions resulting from uncertainty.
The mission of the ill-fated ED-121 seemed routine. So had the last voyage of Pueblo. Piloted by Lieut. Commander James Overstreet, 34, the EC-121 took off from Atsugi Naval Air Station near Tokyo with a full crew of 30 Navy-men and one Marine. For nearly seven hours, the aircraft followed a clockwise course around the Sea of JapanThen a ground station in South Korea radioed a sudden warning: two North Korean MIG jet fighters had taken off from a base normally used only for training and were headed toward the EC-121. The Navy plane acknowledged that message, and turned seaward from a position well outside the twelve-mile limit claimed by North Korea. It was to end its mission prematurely and return to Atsugi. On monitoring radars in Japan the blips of a North Korean jet and the U.S. aircraft met and passed; then the EC-121 disappeared from the screen altogether. It was not heard from again.
Radio Pyongyang announced: 'The Air Force unit of our People's Army instantly spotted the plane of the insolent U.S. imperialist aggressor army, which was reconnoitering after intruding deep into the territorial air of the northern half of the Republic and scored the brilliant battle success of shooting it down with a single shot by showering the fire of revenge upon it.' Pyongyang might well crow its triumph. In an important sense, the new loss was graver than that of Pueblo early in 1968: only one of Pueblo's 83-man crew was killed during its capture.
Reading Other's Radar. If there had been some question at the outset whether the Pueblo might have violated North Korean waters, there was no such doubt about the EC-121. Its crew had orders to stay at least 50 nautical miles off the North Korean coast. Some wreckage from the aircraft turned up 85 miles at sea. Nixon insisted that American, Russian and North Korean radar had all shown the EC-121 clearly over international waters. His remark revealed for the first time that the U.S. has electronic gadgets that can read what other nations' radars are reporting.
In a gesture of cooperation indicating that the Russians had not intention of supporting the North Korean claim of intrusion, two Soviet destroyers on patrol in the South China Sea joined U.S. air and sea search efforts for the missing EC-121. Later the U.S. destroyer Tucker, carrying the only two bodies recovered, obtained from the Soviet destroyer Vdokhnovenie pieces of the downed aircraft that the Russians had collected. President Nixon said the U.S. was 'most grateful' for the Russian help, but there were ironies on both sides. The Russians were presumably interested in having a look at any pieces of the downed plane's electronic gear that they could turn up. The U.S. spy planes often fly along the Soviet littoral near Vladivostok during their rounds of the Sea of Japan. Russia, as well as North Korea, may be a target for their inquisitive electronic ears.
Above Oratory. If the Russians seemed particularly helpful, it was
perhaps because they themselves were growing
leery of the erratic North Korean Communists. Even so, the Soviets may benefit from North Korea's attack on the U.S.
Plane. Jampan's Premier Eisaku Sato took an unusually forthright pro-U.S. position after the EC-121 went down, but Japan's citizenry has become increasingly edgy about the risk attendant on playing host to the U.S. military. Moscow-as well as Peking and Pyongyang-would like to see American strength reduced in the far Pacific. With the U.S.-Japanese mutual security treaty open to renegotiation next year, Sato's position is extremely delicate.
So is Richard Nixon's. He was widely reminded last week of his campaign rhetoric denouncing the Johnson Administration for having allowed Pueblo to be seized by 'a fourth-rate military power like North Korea'; in the campaign. Nixon had said that 'what we can do is not let this happen again.' Nonetheless, confronted with a recurrence, he managed to rise above summer oratory and ensure that there was, in fact, less tension generated this time than by the Pueblo incident. Lyndon Johnson mobilized 14,787 reserves last year and managed to create a crisis atmosphere with no immediate result. Nixon, who had built much of his reputation on militant anti-Communism, kept his response to the minimum consistent with national honor and domestic politics. As Secretary of State Rogers acknowledged, great power-and responsibility- often imposes narrow limits on national choice.
SPY PLANES: WHAT THEY DO AND WHY
NOTE: To learn more about the shoot down of US Navy VQ-1, WV-2 on April 15, 1969, visit the following: