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.
We are examining 1968 and the seizure of the Pueblo only because of an anniversary -- the 60 years that have passed since the signing of the armistice that ended the most forgotten of American wars, the Korean conflict. President Barack Obama had the good grace the other day to offer a crisp little commemoration, saying that the veterans of that war "deserve better," which they did and do.
But in Pyongyang, where a fantasy-eyed 29-year-old ruler is outdoing his progenitors in the ludicrous, the festivities were more lavish, the rhetoric more ridiculous and the ballistic missiles planted on mobile launchers more menacing. Last weekend the North Koreans unveiled the ship, smartly freshened with a new coat of paint for a new star turn on the global stage. It's the centerpiece of the country's Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
Unspoken is the torture endured by the men of the Pueblo. The men of the Pueblo -- one died in the incident, eventually were given medals as prisoners of war. That was only after they suffered 335 days of captivity and a daunting diet that consisted mostly of turnips.
The 67 who remain alive would like to see the ship -- the only commissioned Navy vehicle in captivity -- back home, maybe in San Diego, maybe in Pueblo, Colo., the city and county for which the onetime light-cargo ship was named in 1944.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.