From two until almost four o’clock on a sunny afternoon in June 1967, in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israeli jets and motor torpedo boats mercilessly pounded the virtually defenseless U.S.S. Liberty, killing 34 sailors, seriously wounding 171 (two thirds of the crew), and leaving the ship with a nine-degree list and a huge torpedo hole in the starboard side. Though still afloat, the ship was a total loss other than her scrap value in a Baltimore breaking yard, where she ended her days after slowly steaming, via a Malta dry dock, to her home port of Norfolk, Virginia.
“The specter of the Liberty,” James Scott writes,
has haunted the U.S. Navy and intelligence community for decades. The underlying question the attack raised in 1967 still resonates: How do politics and diplomacy impact battlefield decisions? In the case of the Liberty, the White House, afraid of offending Israel’s domestic backers at a time when it needed support for its Vietnam policy, looked the other way. Likewise, Congress failed to formally [sic] investigate the attack or hold public hearings. No one was ever punished.
Over the years the response from Israeli sources has been that the strike was simply a tragic accident caused by misidentification in the fog of war. Though Scott (the son of a survivor of the attack) refrains from interjecting his opinions, his many interviews and his disclosure of recently declassified documents show clearly that Israel’s response is not plausible.
Soon after the event, Adm. John McCain, Jr., father of Sen. John Mc-Cain and, in 1967, commander of the Navy’s European and Middle East forces, convened a court of inquiry. Scott writes,
McCain understood the geopolitical challenge . . . This was no typical collision at sea or a ship fire . . . The attack involved an American ally, one that commanded significant support from American Jews. A court of inquiry report critical of Israel would trigger diplomatic ramifications for the State Department and create domestic political trouble for the beleaguered White House, which now wanted to de-emphasize the attack.
McCain appointed RAdm. Isaac C. Kidd, Jr., president of the court but allowed it only one week to investigate, though the court’s lawyer would later admit that a proper investigation would have required six months. McCain also barred the investigators from traveling to Israel to interview the attackers. The court of inquiry began its work in the Liberty wardroom two hours after the ship was installed in a British navy dry dock in Malta. Scott notes that reporters had watched the Liberty’s arrival from a nearby hillside by the Grand Harbor in Valletta, Malta, jotting notes about her riddled hull and superstructure, torched life rafts, and the torpedo hole that yawned above the waterline. That same day, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered a news blackout.
For the next year, until the Liberty was decommissioned in June 1968, stories and discussion about the attack on the ship diminished as the war in Vietnam dominated the news. President Johnson continued to downplay the event and even declined to present in person the Medal of Honor to Captain McGonagle, who had remained on the Liberty’s bridge throughout the attack and, though badly wounded, conned his ship under extraordinary conditions to deeper water and a rendezvous with units of the Sixth Fleet the following day.
James Scott provides an interesting and detailed account of how President Johnson tried to control the politically sensitive award ceremony a year after the attack, and even after the President’s announcement that he would not run for reelection:
James Cross, the president’s senior military aide, delivered McGonagle’s citation and a Presidential Unit Citation for the rest of the crew to the president for his signature on May 15, 1968. Cross urged Johnson not to present either award in person. The president signed both citations that afternoon, then followed Cross’s advice.
Both awards were returned to the Department of Defense for presentation, and no press release regarding them was issued by the White House.
The president instead visited former president Dwight Eisenhower at the Walter Reed Army Hospital the morning of McGonagle’s ceremony. . . . The president returned to the White House afterward, less than four miles from the Washington Navy Yard, where he presided over the graduation ceremony of the Capitol Page School in the East Room. Too concerned about domestic politics to present the nation’s highest award for heroism, the commander in chief instead handed out diplomas to high school students.
Thus, at 11:30 on the morning of June 11, 1968, Adm. Thomas Moorer, then chief of naval operations, and Secretary of the Navy Paul Ignatius conducted the ceremony in the sail loft of the Washington Navy Yard and presented the Medal of Honor to Captain Mc-Gonagle. Moorer described the President’s refusal to present the award to McGonagle as a “back-handed slap.” He added that “the way they did things I’m surprised they didn’t just hand it to him under the 14th Street Bridge.”
Far more egregious was Johnson’s meddling in the Navy’s court of inquiry report, which sparked outrage among military leaders in the Pentagon and a handful of congressmen who rallied for action and were slammed by the media, including the Washington Post. Scott notes that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. David McDonald seethed when, on June 28, 1967, he read the findings prepared for the public by Cyrus Vance, the top aide to Secretary of Defense McNamara. The report left McDonald “with the feeling that we’re trying our best to excuse the attackers . . . I myself do not subscribe to it.”
The author’s father, John Scott, served aboard the Liberty as the damage-control officer and was awarded the Silver Star for his role in keeping his ship afloat and leading the firefighting teams during the attack. The book is dedicated to John Scott and his shipmates: “For my father, John Scott, who lived to tell about it. And in memory of the thirty-four, who didn’t.”
[The Attack on the Liberty, by James Scott (New York: Simon and Schuster) 384 pp., $27.00]