The annals of US history record that, on Jun 8, 1967, the Israelis mistakenly attacked by air, and torpedoed by sea, an unarmed US intelligence ship, killing 34 sailors and wounding 171 others. 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of that attack.
Following are some details of the ship, of the episode and of its aftermath. For, similar to occasions that perhaps we all have felt, a detail that uncalled returns to mind, rekindles fuller memories of a larger connected event, not otherwise spontaneously recalled. And I think that the attack on the Liberty should not be forgotten.
Here, as in most cases involving Israel, any attempt to give a factual account of an event, fails in its promised impartiality (1). For in the corrupted currents of the world (2), the very terms ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish,’ unless associated with praise or deference, taint their utterer with an invisible halo of anti-Semitism.
That is, there is no neutral use of the words. The issue is very, very old and well explained, for example, by Jewish writer Joshua Trachtenberg in his book “The Devil and the Jews.” Where he documents how there has been a propensity at large, dating back to medieval times, to ascribe a legendary element of a biblical and obscure nature to the word ‘Jew’. That propensity has sunk into what Jung called “collective unconsciousness.”
I should also add that two men observing the same object will describe it differently, according to the point of view from which either beholds it. In the eyes of one it shall be a fair prospect, to the other a barren waste, and neither may see right. Wherefore, truth being the legitimate object of history, it is better that she should be sought-for by many than by few. Lest, for want of seekers, among the mists of prejudice and the false lights of interest, she is lost altogether.
The Liberty was first launched at the end of WW2 in Oregon and named then “Simmons Victor.” It belonged to a fleet of cargo carriers quickly built (one every 10 weeks), to replace the losses to submarine attacks during WW2.
Reconverted into a spy ship in 1964, she was renamed “Liberty”. On May 24, 1967, she was dispatched from the Ivory Coast to the Eastern Mediterranean, to monitor radio signals from both Egyptians and Israeli sources, as tensions grew between Israel and the Arab world.
While it is now acknowledged that Israel started the 1967 war, the only and univocal information channels of the time told the public that Egypt attacked and that Israel “had the right to defend itself” – a sentence now imprinted in the US collective mind, and repeated every time when Israel mounts an aggression, carpet bombs Gaza, demolishes Palestinian homes, builds Jewish “settlements” in Palestinian land, and erects walls to keep the Palestinians out of the way.
In May 1967, McNamara, the famous defense secretary, rendered infamous for his role in the Vietnam war, had informed Israel’s foreign minister that American intelligence showed Egypt did not plan to attack. And Johnson, then US president, had feebly called on Israel not to start a war. A call with as much effect as the “concern” of succeeding US presidents, whenever new massive Jewish colonial settlements are established on Palestinian land.
1967, in my view, is a historical milestone for the US and its vassalage to Israeli interests – for previous administrations were more reserved.
For example and for a time, the Jews hailed Roosevelt as a modern-day Moses, until some of his actions and unofficial records surfaced from the archives. Vice President Henry Wallace annotated in his diary a discussion between Roosevelt and Churchill (May 1943), on how to settle the “Jewish question.”
The notes say, “The President approved a plan to ‘spread the Jews thin’ all over the world. He said he had tried this experiment in the Meriweather County in Georgia (where he lived in the 1920s,) by adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.” This was enough for the Jewish community at large to label Roosevelt a ‘traitor.’
In 1948 Truman recognized Israel but did not sell arms to the Jewish state. And in 1956, when Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal, Eisenhower threatened intervention and a halt to all foreign aid, if Israel did not withdraw.
But by 1960, President Kennedy had well understood Jewish power and its influence on domestic policies – he delivered sophisticated armaments and strengthened relations with Israel.
Johnson equaled or bettered Kennedy. After Kennedy’s assassination he said to an Israeli diplomat, “You have lost a very great friend, but you have found a better one.” And he chose and appointed a full cadre of Jewish and pro-Israel advisers to the White House.
On Jun 8, 1967, reconnaissance flights over the Liberty, sailing about 15 miles off the Egyptian coast, began at 5.15 AM, the next round at 8.50 AM and several other Israeli planes and jets circled the ship until 12.45 PM.
At 1.30 PM three Mirage jets began the attack. Completely taken by surprise, Liberty’s skipper William McGonagle ordered the only two 0.50 mm guns manned and fired – they were quickly taken out by the jets and the gunners pulverized before they could fire the first shots, however ineffective could the shots be anyway.
The attacks continued, one every 45 seconds, as the jets strafed the ship and circled back for another round. They hit with cannon and rockets. Then they aimed at the engine room below the smoke stack. Next came Napalm bombs that turned the deck into an inferno.
Six minutes into the attack, the Liberty, with whatever communication resources were left, radioed for help to the Sixth fleet located further west. “Any station, any station, this is Rockstar, we are under attack” The operator on the aircraft carrier Saratoga could not understand the message. On the Liberty they changed transmitter. After some interminable minutes Saratoga replied “Roger” and Liberty screamed, “We are under attack and need immediate assistance.”
But now the Saratoga operator asked for the identification code. The Liberty’s operator, with cannon from three jets strafing the ship, had to retrieve the code from a book, and finally Saratoga replied reassuringly, “Authentication is correct. I am standing by for further traffic.”
Meanwhile, before the air attack began, the Liberty’s radar operator had spotted three unidentified ships approaching fast, and alerted the captain. In the confusion and carnage that followed, as the dead and wounded piled on deck, no one thought of the approaching ships. Now Captain McGonagle saw through his binoculars that the three boats, maneuvering in attack formation, were Israelis. Up to that moment he and everybody else thought that the attackers were Egyptians.
In the meantime the original mast with the US flag had been hit – and the Liberty sailors raised a new larger American flag.
The forward torpedo boat opened fire on the defenseless ship. This would provide cover for the attacking boats to get close and launch their torpedoes. Though crippled himself and with a crippled ship operating with one engine, McGonagle attempted evasive maneuvers. Of the 5 torpedoes launched by the Israelis, one hit – creating a gash 24 ft high and 39 ft wide. The Liberty listed by 8 degrees; the entire intelligence section was instantly flooded trapping and killing 20 people.
Now the torpedo boats halted fire while remaining at less than 800 yards from the Liberty. Still shocked, amazed and in disbelief, the Liberty signaled repeatedly with a hand-held Aldis lamp, “US Naval Ship.” “
Do you need any help?” signaled the Israelis. A response that, in the circumstances, was almost adding insult to injury. “No” signaled back the Liberty.
The torpedo boats had not yet departed when two oncoming Israeli helicopters circled the ship. Fearful of more attacks, McGonagle had the international flag hoisted signaling “Not Under Command.”
At 6.40 PM another Israeli helicopter arrived and dropped a bag containing a business card from the US Naval Attaché at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Ernest Castle. On the back of the card there was a hand-written question, “Have you any casualties?” Which seemed another insult added to injury. The Liberty’s deck was a wreck, still strewn with blood and some dead sailors… impossible to miss.
How about the call for help from the Sixth Fleet? After the signal was authenticated, the Saratoga launched some fighter jets but, moments later they were unexpectedly and inexplicably recalled, waiting for the arrival of another aircraft carrier, the America.
Eventually, the planes from the America took off and the squadron leader, while reassuring the Liberty radio operator, asked a logical question, “We are on the way, who is the enemy?” Good question. For the sailors on the Liberty, as well as Captain McGonagle could not as yet believe their eyes that the enemies were the Israelis.
At that moment, 4.14 PM, both the Saratoga and the America received a message from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, as follows, “Israeli aircraft erroneously attacked US ship. Israel sends apologies and wants to know which other US ships are near the war zone.” The US carriers immediately recalled all air strikes.
The first US ship to reach the Liberty to carry away the dead and wounded arrived at 6.40 AM the next day. It took three days for the crippled vessel to arrive at Malta. 20 corpses had remained unreachable in the area hit by the torpedo, drenching the ship with a smell of death.
The plan was to repair the Liberty, enabling her return to the US. It was the beginning of a tortuous public relations battle.
While the ship was still en route to Malta, some White House advisers in Washington suggested sinking it, to avoid or minimize embarrassment.
In Malta, a large tarpaulin-looking cover hid the gash caused by the torpedoes. All crewmembers, injured and uninjured were ordered, under threat of punishment, not to answer any questions from the press.
Meantime in the US, the Administration struggled to find what to say and what to do. The press was jubilant about Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. The Jews organized a rally in Washington to celebrate it. Placards said “Moses led us out of the land of Egypt, now Moshe Dayan has led us back.” Jewish White House aids Levinson and Wattenberg, in a memo to the President, suggested that he express his full support for Israel. David Ginsburg, a president’s friend and leader of the Jewish community even wrote the encomiastic speech that the President would later deliver at the rally.
In the jubilation for Israel’s victory, the Liberty affair appeared a minor incident. The press completely bought the idea that the Israeli attack was an error. Senator Jacob Javits, the same Jewish senator who, a few years before, managed to carry through the ‘open immigration’ policy stated, “With Israel we know it was a mistake, a miscalculation could take place in any place in the world.”
In the meantime, Egypt had accepted the cease-fire, but Israel had opened another front in Syria, to occupy the Golan Heights. As for the Liberty, the main interest of the media was not the attack, the dead and the wounded, but why the Navy had a ship in the area. Which shows how often trifles excite an exuberance of interest, while the core of an event receives lesser or little attention.
The first official White House explanation said it was a scientific research ship doing its job, but this did not satisfy the press. If so, why not inform the Israelis of the ship’s presence?
The administration then concocted an even more unbelievable story. The Liberty was verifying if communications exchanged by bouncing signals off the moon were reliable. In scope and absurdity, the explanation parallels the answer given by the head of NIST (National Institute of Research and Technology), Shyam Sunder, while presenting the official NIST report on 9/11.
During the conference, a physics teacher, David Chandler, had clearly demonstrated with a video, that building 7 had fallen at the acceleration of gravity, the signature of a controlled demolition. Unable to challenge the basics of physics, the director said, “Gravity is the force that keeps the universe together.” (I am not making it up)
As the number of reported Liberty casualties mounted, one reporter, during a press meeting, asked what was the President’s reaction. The WH spokesman replied that the President was “deeply grieved.”
In the meantime, Israel claimed that the Liberty, when spotted, appeared to escape at high speed toward Egypt, flew no flag and looked like an Egyptian cargo ship, the “El Queseir”, which was actually half the size of the Liberty and designed to carry 400 men and 40 horses.
Though almost incredible today, the Liberty attack stirred little interest or controversy at the time. But we must remember the moment, filled with enthusiasm about Israel’s victory, which, thanks to the Jewish sponsored massive celebrations, made it almost appear as an American victory. And, more ominously, the moment was filled with concerns about the mounting problems in Vietnam.
Besides, the dead and wounded of the Liberty were less than the price paid in one day by America, in life and limb, to ‘defend democracy’ in Vietnam.
The New York Times called the attack one of the “many mistakes that invariably occur in war…. the Israeli, flushed with victory made an error in identification… accident rather than design snuffed out (sic) the lives of some and caused injuries to others of the Liberty’s crew.”
One other striking aspect of the aftermath was the almost total lack of concern for the victims, whose reported number increased each day, while many sailors faced catastrophic injuries and a life of disability, impairment and pain. Proving how everything, on this side of the grave, is regarded rather in consequence of the habit of valuing it, than from any opinion that it deserved value. For the relative indifference to the victims is proof of the relative indifference to their value.
The main objective (inside the White House and notably with Johnson and McNamara), was not to antagonize Israel, along with the fear of not appearing sufficiently pro-Israel with the cadre of Israeli-firsters that comprised advisers, consultants, aids and secretaries within the Administration.
There were multiple meetings and exchanges between Jewish members of White House and the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Cynically, some suggested that the attack on the Liberty could help weaken the accusations of American support for Israel, and gain some credibility with the Arabs.
It was now clear that the Administration had (or for that matter has) no leverage with the Jewish state. The US had urged Israel not to launch a war. Just 20 days before the attack, Johnson had affirmed America’s commitment to the “political independence and territorial integrity of all Middle Eastern nations.” Israel itself had claimed that it had no territorial ambitions. The reader can decide for himself on the value or worth of those words.
But in the fevered exchanges with the Israeli US embassy, the Administration achieved one success. Namely, the Israeli embassy agreed to tone down and backdate an official statement, ready to be released, essentially accusing the US of being responsible for the attack on the Liberty.
The Israeli ambassador had suggested to Tel Aviv to at least hold responsible some of the attackers – suggestion fiercely rejected by Israel. The official Israeli court inquiry was, expectedly, a joke. So, for that matter, was the official inquiry conducted in the US, which mainly centered on discrepancies in the timing of the attacks as reported by the surviving sailors called to depose.
The final transcript mirrors the shallowness of the investigation. Many officers said the court seemed afraid of uncovering information that could prove that Israel deliberately attacked the Liberty. A sailor, Scott, photographed the first reconnaissance plane in the morning of the attack. He thought he had given the court a critical piece of information, but the court was uninterested. They dismissed his testimony stating that reconnaissance flights began much later. Declassified Israeli records show that the plane photographed by Scott, was indeed the first to conduct a reconnaissance flight. Nor the American government even asked Israel to let its pilots, torpedo boat skippers or commanders, testify in the US Court.
In the end, the “conspiracy theorists” of this tragic event are, officially, those who do not believe that the attack on the Liberty was a mistake. In this regard, it was almost a return to the future of 9/11 – when 19 fumbling Arabs scored a checkmate on America, and displayed unbelievable acrobatic maneuvering skills in piloting jumbo jets for the first time in their life.
In 1980 Israel paid 6 m$ to the families of the Liberty’s dead and wounded (in 3 yearly installments of 2 m$/each). This is a fraction of a fraction of what constitutes America’s yearly aid to Israel.
The final telling episode involves the wounded skipper of the Liberty, William McGonagle. He received the Medal of Honor for bravery, but Johnson refused to give it to him in person, which is the tradition. An Admiral commented, “I am surprised they didn’t just hand it to him under the 14th Street Bridge.”
On June 8, 1997, McGonagle met the remaining survivors of the Liberty at the Arlington Cemetery. Through the years he had been publicly silent, though he did not believe in the error of identification. In what was to be his last and only related public address, he told the survivors, “It’s about time that the State of Israel and the US Government tell what happened to the crewmembers of the Liberty and the American people.” He died less than two years later.
The first terrorist attack and burning of a TWA plane on the ground occurred in 1970, when it became clear that Israel would not return the lands occupied in the 1967 war.
That was the beginning of hijackings, terrorist attacks, murders, Intifadas, genocides in Gaza and Lebanon, wars and more wars. During the 1980s the new Israel’s Oded-Yinon Plan called for a greater Israel, from the Nile to the Euphrates. In the late 1990s came the call for a “New Pearl Harbor.” In 2001 we had the “New Pearl Harbor”, followed by the destruction of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and countless other wars against sundry “terrorists.”
As far as we can know, the plan for a Greater Israel has not been canceled. During his administration, Obama declared that peace with the Palestinians should be achieved on the basis of returning to Palestine the lands occupied in 1967. Next day, uninvited, the Prime Minister of Israel, flew to Washington to deliver a counter-speech to the joint audience of Congress and the Senate. He received 29 standing ovations.
And how about Jewish influence? Here is a quote from the Los Angeles Times from Joel Stein, “I don’t care if Americans think we’re running the news media, Hollywood, Wall Street or the government. I just care that we get to keep running them.”
I attempted to relate the main events of the attack on the Liberty, the related opinions of some among the victims of the attack, and of some among the managers of its aftermath. To the best of my knowledge the information is correct.
I think that much injustice has been done, and much justice left undone by the parties involved after the attack on the Liberty.
However, I am equally aware that when truth intrudes uncalled, and brings unpleasant memories in her train, the passes of the intellect are barred against her by prejudice and passion. If sometimes, she forces her way by undisputable evidence, she seldom keeps possession of her conquests, but is ejected by some favored enemy or, at best, obtains only a nominal sovereignty, without influence and without authority.
(1) … fails in the promised largeness (Troilus and Cressida)
(2) … In the corrupted currents of the world (Hamlet)