North Korea shot down a U.S. spy plane in 1969, Trump might be appalled by the response

  07 November 2017    Read: 887
North Korea shot down a U.S. spy plane in 1969, Trump might be appalled by the response

On​ ​April​ ​15,​ ​1969,​ ​a​ ​U.S.​ ​Navy​ ​reconnaissance​ ​plane​ ​took​ ​off​ ​in​ ​from​ ​an​ ​airbase​ ​in​ ​Japan​ ​on​ ​a​ ​routine​ ​mission​ ​to​ ​spy​ ​on​ ​an increasingly​ ​belligerent​ ​threat​ ​-​- ​North​ ​Korea.

The flight ​commander​ ​was​ ​nervous.​ ​Four​ ​months​ ​earlier,​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​had​ ​captured​ ​the​ ​USS​ ​Pueblo​ ​spy​ ​ship,​ ​holding​ ​more​ ​than 80​ ​crewmen​ ​hostage​ ​at​ ​a​ ​prison​ ​camp.​ ​Preflight​ ​intelligence​ ​reports​ ​indicated​ ​the​ ​North​ ​Koreans​ ​were​ ​still​ ​agitated ​about the​ ​snooping.

​The​ ​plane​ ​had​ ​been​ ​flying​ ​over​ ​the​ ​Sea​ ​of​ ​Japan​ ​for​ ​about​ ​five​ ​hours​ ​when​ ​two​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​MiGs​ ​pounced,​ ​firing​ ​a missile that​ ​killed​ ​all​ ​31​ ​crew​ ​members.​ ​

Nearly​ ​50​ ​years​ ​later,​ ​the​ ​incident​ ​has​ ​been​ ​mostly​ ​forgotten.​ ​But​ ​now,​ ​with​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​girding​ ​for​ ​war​ ​–​ ​conducting​ ​frequent missile​ ​tests,​ ​threatening​ ​to​ ​shoot​ ​down​ ​U.S.​ ​planes,​ ​trading​ ​insults​ ​with​ ​President​ ​Trump​ ​–​ ​historians​ ​and​ ​national​ ​security analysts​ ​are​ ​reexamining​ ​the​ ​1969​ ​attack,​ ​particularly​ ​declassified​ ​documents​ ​that​ ​reveal​ ​President​ ​Richard​ ​M.​ ​Nixon’s​ ​struggle to​ ​retaliate​ ​amid​​the​ ​Vietnam​ ​War.​ ​

Short​ ​of​ ​all-out​ ​destruction​ ​of​ ​North​ ​Korea,​ ​Nixon’s​ ​national​ ​security​ ​team​ ​couldn’t​ ​promise​ ​that​ ​even​ ​targeted​ ​airstrikes wouldn’t​ ​escalate​ ​the​ ​conflict,​ ​leading​ ​to​ ​untold​ ​deaths​ ​in​ ​South​ ​Korea​ ​and​ ​a​ ​wider​ ​conflict​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region, perhaps​ ​drawing in​ ​China​ ​and​ ​Russia.

“I​ ​think​ ​it’s​ ​a​ ​problem​ ​that’s​ ​still​ ​present​ ​today,”​ ​said​ ​Robert​ ​A.​ ​Wampler,​ ​a​ ​senior​ ​fellow​ ​at​ ​the​ ​National​ ​Security​ ​Archive, a​ ​George Washington University think​ ​tank​ ​that​ ​successfully​ ​pushed​ ​for​ ​release​ ​of​ ​documents​ ​related​ ​to​ ​the​ ​incident.​ ​”What​ ​can​ ​you​ ​do​ ​to​ ​ensure​ ​that​ ​nothing else​ ​will​ ​happen?”

From​ ​Truman​ ​to​ ​Trump,​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​has​ ​vexed​ ​13​ ​presidents​ ​–​ ​during​ ​the​ ​bloody​ ​Korean​ ​War,​ ​which​ ​claimed​ ​the​ ​lives​ ​of​ more than​ ​33,000​ ​U.S.​ ​military​ ​service​ ​members;​ ​in​ ​1976,​ ​when​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​attacked​ ​and​ ​killed​ ​several​ ​American​ ​soldiers​ ​with​ ​axes in​ ​the​ ​demilitarized​ ​zone;​ ​in​ ​1994,​ ​when​ ​a​ ​U.S.​ ​military​ ​helicopter​ ​was​ ​shot​ ​down,​ ​leaving​ ​the​ ​co-pilot​ ​dead;​ ​in​ ​2009,​ ​when North​ ​Korea​ ​sank​ ​a​ ​South​ ​Korean​ ​warship,​ ​killing​ ​46​ ​crew​ ​members.​ ​

Only​ ​now,​ ​there’s​ ​a​ ​new​ ​wrinkle:​ ​nuclear​ ​missiles.​​ ​

Just last week, the Pentagon warned lawmakers that a ground invasion would be required to secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites and that U.S. forces could face biological and chemical weapons.

A​ ​pre-emptive​ ​U.S.​ ​military​ ​strike​ ​on​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​would​ ​trigger​ ​”a​ ​large-scale​ ​peninsular​ ​and​ ​regional​ ​conflict,​ ​involving hundreds​ ​of​ ​thousands​ ​of​ ​troops​ ​and​ ​potentially​ ​hundreds​ ​of​ ​thousands​ ​of​ ​civilian​ ​casualties,”​ ​a​ ​recent​ ​Brookings Institution report​ ​concluded.​ ​​

Both​ ​sides​ ​are​ ​amping​ ​up​ ​the​ ​rhetoric.

Trump,​ ​who​ ​will​ ​visit​ ​South​ ​Korea​ on Tuesday ​as​ ​part​ ​of​ ​a​ ​12-day​ ​trip​ ​to​ ​Asia,​ ​has​ ​taken​ ​to​ ​calling​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​leader​ ​Kim Jong​ ​Un “Little​ ​Rocket​ ​Man.”​ ​Kim,​ ​in​ ​return,​ ​has​ ​called​ ​Trump​ ​a​ ​”mentally​ ​deranged​ ​U.S.​ ​dotard.”​ ​Beyond​ ​the​ ​name​ ​calling,​ ​the leaders​ ​have​ ​each​ ​threatened​ ​horrific​ ​destruction​​upon​ ​the​ ​other,​ ​with​ ​Trump​ ​promising​ ​”fire​ ​and​ ​fury.”

To​ ​the​ ​families​ ​who​ ​lost​ ​relatives​ ​that​ ​day​ ​in​ ​1969,​ ​the​ ​verbal​ ​missiles​ ​have​ ​been​ ​a​ ​traumatic​ ​flashback​ ​to​ ​the​ ​very​ ​real rocket​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​fired​ ​at​ ​the​ ​Navy​ ​plane.​ ​Many​ ​belong​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Facebook​ ​group,​ ​sharing​ ​old​ ​photos​ ​and​ ​memories​ ​–​ ​and,​ ​lately, their​ ​views​ ​on​ ​the​ ​conflict.

“Someone​ ​just​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​be​ ​silent​ ​(president),”​ ​one​ ​member​ ​wrote,​ ​”and​ ​surprise​ ​the​ ​crap​ ​out​ ​of​ ​them​ ​like​ ​they​ ​did”​ to​ ​the downed​ ​spy​ ​plane.

Joe​ ​Ribar,​ ​a​ ​Texas​ ​police​ ​officer,​ ​was​ just three months old​ ​when​ ​his​ ​father,​ ​Lt.​ ​Joseph​ ​R.​ ​Ribar,​ ​was​ ​killed.​ ​His​ ​body​ ​and another were​ ​the​ ​only​ ​ones​ ​recovered​ ​in​ ​the​ ​rough​ ​waters​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Sea​ ​of​ ​Japan.​ ​

Ribar​ ​has​ ​a​ ​hunch​ ​about​ ​where​ ​the​ ​tensions​ ​are​ ​headed.

“I’m​ ​fully​ ​expecting,”​ ​he​ ​said,​ ​”another​ ​plane​ ​to​ ​be​ ​shot​ ​down​ ​out​ ​there.”

‘Vehement and vicious language’

The​ ​plane​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​shot​ ​down​ ​was​ ​an​ ​EC-121​ ​–​ ​hulking​ ​and​ ​armed​ ​only​ ​with​ ​high-tech​ ​surveillance​ ​gear​ ​that​ ​monitored​ ​sensitive communications​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region,​ ​including​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.

Lt.​ ​Cdr.​ ​James​ ​H.​ ​Overstreet​ ​led​ ​the​ ​operation,​ ​code​ ​named​ ​”Deep​ ​Sea​ ​129.”​ ​He’d​ ​been​ ​on​ ​dangerous​ ​missions​ ​before,​ ​including harrowing​ ​flights​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.​ ​But​ ​something​ ​about​ ​this​ ​flight,​ ​over​ ​less​ ​dangerous​ ​international​ ​waters,​ ​made​ ​the​ ​34-year-old pilot​ ​from​ ​Mississippi​ ​anxious.

“He​ ​told​ ​my​ ​mother​ ​he​ ​might​ ​not​ ​be​ ​coming​ ​back,”​ ​said​ ​his​ ​son,​ ​Joe​ ​Overstreet,​ ​who​ ​was​ ​six​ ​years​ ​old​ ​at​ ​the​ ​time.​ ​”There​ ​was something​ ​different​ ​about​ ​this​ ​mission.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​it.”

Documents​ ​declassified​ ​in​ ​2010​ ​explain​ ​why.

Before​ ​the​ ​attack,​ ​military​ ​commanders​ ​”were​ ​aware​ ​of​ ​anomalous​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​behavior,”​ ​according​​to​ ​a​ ​2015​ ​unclassified​ ​article​ in ​a​ ​CIA​ ​intelligence​ ​journal.​ ​National​ ​security​ ​officials​ ​knew​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​was​ ​becoming​ ​increasingly​ ​agitated​ ​by U.S.​ ​intelligence gathering​ ​missions,​ ​but​ ​there​ ​were​ ​disagreements​ ​about​ ​the​ ​seriousness​ ​of​ ​the​ ​threats.

[What if the president ordering a nuclear attack isn’t sane? An Air Force major lost his job for asking.]

Overstreet​ ​briefed​ ​crew​ ​members​ ​before​ ​the​ ​flight.

“He​ ​discussed​ ​a​ ​message​ ​from​ ​the​ ​commander​ ​of​ ​US​ ​Forces​ ​Korea,​ ​warning​ ​of​ ​unusually​ ​vehement​ ​and​ ​vicious​ ​language​ ​used​ ​by the​ ​North,”​ ​the​ ​CIA​ ​paper​ ​said.

What​ ​the​ ​commander​ ​didn’t​ ​know:​ ​In​ ​the​ ​days​ ​leading​ ​up​ ​to​ ​the​ ​attack,​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​had​ ​been​ ​quietly​ ​moving​ ​fighter​ ​jets​ ​to a​ ​base​ ​just​ ​off​ ​the​ ​coast.​ ​U.S.​ ​intelligence​ ​identified​ ​the​ ​activity​ ​as​ ​preparation​ ​for​ ​pilot​ ​training.​ ​They​ ​were​ ​wrong.

The​ ​EC-121​ ​took​ ​off​ ​unaccompanied​ ​by​ ​any​ ​protection.​ ​An​ ​Air​ ​Force​ ​tracking​ ​station​ ​monitored​ ​the​ ​flight​ ​on​ ​radar.

“Suddenly,​ ​two​ ​new​ ​blips​ ​appeared​ ​on​ ​the​ ​radar​ ​screen,”​ ​according​ ​to​ ​a​ ​1969​ ​Newsweek​ ​article​ ​on​ ​the​ ​attack.​ ​”A​ ​pair​ ​of​ ​supersonic North​ ​Korean​ ​MIG’s​ ​were​ ​closing​ ​in​ ​fast​ ​on​ ​the​ ​EC-121.”

An​ ​urgent​ ​warning​ ​was​ ​sent.​ ​But​ ​the​ ​North​ ​Koreans​ ​fired,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​American​ ​plane​ ​was​ ​destroyed.

‘Force must be met with force’

Henry​ ​Kissinger’s​ ​phone​ ​rang​ ​at​ ​1​ ​a.m.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​duty​ ​officer​ ​at​ ​the​ ​Pentagon​ ​notifying​ ​him​ ​of​ ​the​ ​attack.

Kissinger​ ​was​ ​then​ ​a​ ​special​ ​assistant​ ​to​ ​Nixon​ ​on​ ​national​ ​security​ ​affairs.​ ​He​ ​raced​ ​to​ ​his​ ​basement​ ​office​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West Wing​ ​to​ ​gather​ ​facts​ ​before​ ​phoning​ ​the​ ​president​ ​around​ ​7​ ​a.m.,​ ​according​ ​to​ ​his​ ​memoirs.

It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​first​ ​national​ ​security​ ​crisis​ ​Nixon​ ​faced​ ​in​ ​office​ ​beyond​ ​the​ ​ongoing​ ​conflict​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.

Nixon​ ​certainly​ ​knew​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​was​ ​a​ ​growing​ ​threat.​ ​The​ ​Pueblo​ ​incident​ ​occurred​ ​during​ ​the​ ​campaign.​ ​He​ ​assailed​ ​President Lyndon​ ​B.​ ​Johnson​ ​for​ ​not​ ​forcefully​ ​responding​ ​to​ ​what​ ​many​ ​saw​ ​as​ ​an​ ​act​ ​of​ ​war.​ ​Now​ ​Nixon​ ​faced​ ​the​ ​same​ ​dilemma.​ ​​ ​

“We​ ​were​ ​being​ ​tested,”​ ​the​ ​president​ ​wrote​ ​in​ ​his​ ​memoirs.​ ​”And​ ​therefore​ ​force​ ​must​ ​be​ ​met​ ​with​ ​force.”

But​ ​what​ ​type​ ​of​ ​force?​ ​

Johnson​ ​had​ ​considered​ ​a​ ​variety​ ​of​ ​military​ ​responses,​ ​including​ ​naval​ ​blockades​ ​and​ ​even​ ​nuclear​ ​strikes,​ ​according​ ​to​ ​declassified documents.​ ​He​ ​eventually​ ​decided​ ​it​ ​was​ ​too​ ​dangerous​ ​to​ ​respond.​ ​

In​ ​Nixon’s​ ​case,​ ​declassified​ ​documents,​ ​administration​ ​memoirs,​ ​and​ ​other​ ​scholarly​ ​research​ ​reveal​ ​an​ ​extraordinary​ ​effort throughout​ ​the​ ​government​ ​to​ ​identify​ ​a​ ​military​ ​response​ ​not​ ​just​ ​to​ ​the​ ​attack​ ​on​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​plane,​ ​but​ ​to​ ​any​ ​future​ ​provocations by​ ​North​ ​Korea.

The​ ​options​ ​ranged​ ​from​ ​a​ ​single​ ​targeted​ ​airstrike​ ​on​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​airfields​ ​to​ ​a​ ​limited​ ​nuclear​ ​attack​ ​– ​code​ ​named​ ​FREEDOM DROP​ ​– ​to​ ​a​ ​full-scale​ ​nuclear​ ​war.

But​ ​it​ ​quickly​ ​became​ ​clear​ ​that​ ​even​ ​the​ ​most​ ​limited​ ​responses​ ​risked​ ​wider​ ​conflict​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region,​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​depleting U.S.​ ​military​ ​power​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.

A​ ​memo​ ​to​ ​Nixon​ ​in​ ​the​ ​hours​ ​after​ ​the​ ​attack​ ​warned​ ​of​ ​”vigorous​ ​defense​ ​measures”​ ​from​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​targeting​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​military and​ ​South​ ​Korean​ ​airfields.​ ​Even​ ​as​ ​Kissinger​ ​pushed​ ​for​ ​retaliation​ ​-​- ​in​ ​his​ ​memoir,​ ​he​ ​called​ ​the​ ​administration’s​ ​response “weak”​ ​–​ ​​ ​Nixon​ ​and​ ​Pentagon​ ​officials​ ​pushed​ ​back.

“It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​calculated​ ​risk​ ​that​ ​the​ ​North​ ​Koreans​ ​would​ ​not​ ​escalate​ ​the​ ​situation​ ​further​ ​if​ ​we​ ​retaliated​ ​with​ ​a​ ​single​ ​strike against​ ​one​ ​of​ ​their​ ​airfields,”​ ​Nixon​ ​wrote.​ ​”But​ ​what​ ​if​ ​they​ ​did​ ​and​ ​we​ ​suddenly​ ​found​ ​ourselves​ ​at​ ​war​ ​in​ ​Korea?”

[Before North Korea had nuclear missiles, it had wild and often deadly plots]

That​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​disaster​ ​the​ ​first​ ​time​ ​around.​ ​More​ ​than​ ​5​ ​million​ ​died​ ​in​ ​the​ Korean​ ​War.​ ​

In​ ​the​ ​end,​ ​Nixon​ ​ordered​ ​a​ ​show​ ​of​ ​naval​ ​force​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region​ ​and​ ​the​ ​resumption​ ​of​ ​reconnaissance​ ​flights​ ​–​ ​with​ ​protection.

Many​ ​people​ ​couldn’t​ ​​ ​fathom​ ​why​ ​Nixon​ ​didn’t​ ​respond​ ​with​ ​force,​ ​Overstreet,​ ​the​ ​son​ ​of​ ​the​ ​EC-121​ ​commander,​ ​recalls​ ​his mother​ ​telling​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​later​ ​became​ ​a​ ​Navy​ ​pilot​ ​and​ ​learned​ ​the​ ​military​ ​reasons​ ​why​ ​Nixon​ ​sat​ ​on​ ​his​ ​hands.

“It​ ​probably​ ​hasn’t​ ​changed​ ​that​ ​much​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years,”​ ​he​ ​said.

But​ ​Overstreet​ ​also​ ​wonders​ ​whether​ ​the​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​a​ ​forceful​ ​U.S.​ ​response​ ​for​ ​decades​ ​just​ ​keeps​ ​emboldening​ ​North​ ​Korea.

“Now​ ​they’ve​ ​gone​ ​nuclear,”​ ​he​ ​said.​ ​”I​ ​guess​ ​at​ ​the​ ​highest​ ​level,​ ​I​ ​prefer​ ​a​ ​strong​ ​stance​ ​toward​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​over​ ​letting them​ ​do​ ​what​ ​they​ ​want.”

Nixon​ ​swore​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​would​ ​be​ ​dealt​ ​with​ ​eventually.

“They​ ​got​ ​away​ ​with​ ​it​ ​this​ ​time,”​ ​he​ ​told​ ​Kissinger,​ ​”but​ ​they’ll​ ​never​ ​get​ ​away​ ​with​ ​it​ ​again.”

Now,​ ​decades​ ​later,​ ​another​ ​president​ ​is​ ​talking​ ​tough.​ ​Trump​ ​responded​ ​to​ ​North​ ​Korea’s​ ​threat​ ​to​ ​shoot​ ​down​ ​U.S. military planes​ ​by​ ​vowing,​ ​”I’ll​ ​fix​ ​that​ ​mess.”

“It’s​ ​called​ ​the​ ​military​ ​option,”​ ​Trump​ ​said.

He​ ​insists​ ​there​ ​is​ ​one.

The original article was published in the Washington Post.

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