USS Liberty: Review of The History Channel Documentary





Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East.

Editor's Note: The independent documentary,"Cover Up: Attack on the U.S.S. Liberty," was shown on The History Channel, August 8.

The History Channel aired its documentary in the midst of the latest round of public debate on the fate of NSA ship USS Liberty, engendered by James Bamford’s new book, Body of Secrets. The facts are straightforward: On June 8, three days into the Six Day War, Israeli forces attacked the American spy ship. Israel immediately asserted that the attack was an error caused by the fog of war, apologized, and proceeded to pay compensation to the families. However, in a manner reminiscent of the Kennedy assassination, repeated American-Israeli investigations reaffirming the original Israeli claim failed to close the case. A group of activist members of the Liberty’s crew, along with sympathetic ex-officials and writers, continues to argue that Israel attacked the Liberty on purpose and that the American government covers it up because of its friendship with the Jewish state.

This is the argument forwarded by Bamford’s recent book and by the History Channel’s documentary. It is proven by bold-face lies. It is proven by telling the truth but not the whole truth. Both the Bamford book, and the documentary, ignore the context of the 1967 war. The longer ago events are, the easier it is to do. Filling the documentary with the vivid memories of men who feel betrayed is a very effective way to avoid the painful truths: The Johnson administration mismanaged the Vietnam War. That war caused the Soviets to urge their Arab clients to open a second front in the Middle East. Israel found itself on the front line of the Cold War. To save itself, it was forced to fight a war which also saved the American strategic hide. Many Americans never forgave Israel the favor.

Lets examine these charges within their strategic context. First, Why would Israel attack the Liberty at the time it was fighting a war against Soviet clients? Because it wanted to cover up its plans to attack Syria argue some documentary pundits. The reality was that the United States wanted Israel to take the Golan Heights because it had to prove that Moscow was no more able to protect its Syrian client than Washington was able to defend its Jordanian one. McGeorge Bundy (who returned to the administration to coordinate Middle East policy) told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that “it would seem strange that Syria – which had originated the war – might be the only one that seemed to be getting off without injury.” When Israel finally obliged, Washington demonstrated its approval by ordering the Sixth Fleet eastward and suspending for the two days of fighting on the Syrian front the moratorium on bombing Hanoi!

Second, did the Johnson administration cover up the Liberty incident in order to protect Israel? Not likely. On the day of the attack Lyndon Johnson asked McGeorge Bundy to come up with anti – Israeli cards. Bundy reported that the attack on the Liberty was the strongest American card, though “it was of more use in the Middle East than in the United States.” Yes. The United States was searching for such cards for both strategic and political reasons:

First, on the day of the attack Israeli leader Levi Eshkol was quick to remind the world that President Johnson promised great things but was unable to deliver. Indeed, in 1967 it was the US, not Israel, which suffered from a credibility gap. In January 1957 the United States had committed itself to keep the Straits of Tiran open. President Eisenhower publicly reaffirmed it in 1967. Mired in Vietnam, and finding itself unable and unwilling to engage in a two-front war, Johnson failed to live up to that commitment. This failure was clear to American allies everywhere. It is important to note that the Liberty was the closest American vessel to the fighting. The rest were kept far away. Soviet pilots and ships were much closer. On May 28, the Soviet defense minister told his Egyptian counterpart:"We received today information that the Sixth fleet in the Mediterranean returned to Crete the marines it had been carrying on landing vessels. Our fleet is in the Mediterranean near your shores.”

On June 5, American papers showed photos of the marines sunning themselves on the beaches of Malta! The Sixth Fleet was three days away from the Israeli and Egyptian coasts. At the same time, four additional Soviet destroyers and a frigate sailed through the Dardanelles. Senators John Stennis and Mike Mansfield explained that Vietnam had undermined American military capabilities. The order to the Six Fleet to avoid helping the Liberty was given on the assumption that it was a Soviet not an Israeli attack.

The American fear of investigating the incidence had probably much more to do with the reluctance to expose the American strategic weakness than to protect Israel. Charging Israel with a deliberate attack helped redirect attention from the administration's willingness to sacrifice the ship to avoid confronting the Soviets. Let us remember the fate of the Pueblo!

The Johnson administration also needed cards against Israel because, as Dean Rusk told the participants in the June 7 NSC meeting,"If we do not make ourselves attorneys for Israel, we cannot recoup our losses on the Arab world." His comment was followed by his colleagues questioning Israel's willingness to grant the US such a role after the American failure to live up to its 1957 and post 1957 commitments. Encouraging Israel to attack Moscow’s closest client, Syria, helped increase Israeli dependence for it caused Moscow to break relations with Israel and, later, to place Israeli cities on its nuclear targets list.

Interestingly, the documentary suggests that the Liberty’s mission may have been to collect additional anti-Israeli cards. It is significant that neither the NSA nor the navy had any interest in stationing the Liberty so close to the shore. Both concluded that their needs could be met 100 miles from shore. What were their needs? They needed information about Soviet movements in the region.

Who wanted Liberty to be so close that it could be privy to tactical communications between Israeli tank commanders and their men? The documentary asserts it was the American National Security Council. The unanswered thundering question is why?

After all, such information could have been useful only to the Egyptians planning their counter attack. Did the US plan to give the Egyptians the information in order to diminish the Israeli victory? It should be noted that Egypt's acceptance of the cease fire followed the attack on the Liberty, and came somewhat as a surprise to Dayan and led him to agree to retaliate against the heavy Syrian bombardment of the Israeli kibbutzim by taking the Golan Heights. Anyone watching the documentary would think that Syria, Egypt, Jordan and the PLO, were innocent victims of the aggression of a powerful Israeli army. In short, if there was a cover-up, it was NOT for the sake of Israel.

Second, the Israeli victory presented Johnson with a public relations nightmare. As New York Times columnist Tom Wicker remarked, it was going to be difficult for Washington to present the"war in Vietnam as necessary to honor its commitment and as one for the protection of small nations" after"finding itself unable or unwilling to assist the Israelis." Most upsetting to Johnson was James Reston's remark: 'the Israelis are very popular in Washington. They had the courage of our conviction, and they won a war we opposed.” Ironically, as Rusk admitted at the NSC meeting and Cy Sulzberger told the public: while the US role had been" confined to waffling," American"prestige" had risen.

So devastating was the credibility gap that the American effort to convince the Arabs of Washington's innocence took back seat to the need for damage control.

Consequently, apparently as the result of some confidential briefings, on June 14, 1967 Reston wrote a column entitled"Washington: 'And God Spake Unto Israel'" in which he revealed that Israel"had an ally after all" because the best kept story on the Middle East so far is in the 46th chapter of the Book of Genesis . . . . Fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will be there make thee a great nation."

Still, the documentary proved how naïve Bundy was to think that the Liberty card was of"more use in the Middle East than in the United States." Little did he know how useful it would be in the United States once polemicists were given the opportunity to revise history. Those keeping the memory of the Liberty alive are not truth seekers but political activists with an anti-Israeli ax to grind, just like the Chinese who refuse to accept the American apology for the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade are anti-Americans with an ax to grind. Difficult to explain events often happen in the fog of war. Conspiracy theorists are not created by such events. They are strategic political thinkers who exploit them for their own ends. It is a pity to see historians in their ranks.


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Gary L. McWhorter - 11/26/2010

I must strenuously object to your calling the crew of the U.S.S, Liberty, as "conspiracy theorists." I certainly have no political. or anti-Israel ax to grind.

Nor I am the pawn of some "political strategists."

And yes, I am a truth-seeker, as are the members of the crew of the U.S.S. Liberty.

And I cannot fathom why you are not a truth-seeker, also. What do you have to fear? Israel will not be embarrassed. Nor Adm. McCain, Adm. Kidd, or President Johnson. Yes, some U.S. agencies may be embarrassed, but only rightfully so. Lie to the public. Pay the price.

Shall I parade some Rabbi's around as character witnesses, to dodge your soon to come allegation, that I am anti-Semitic?

You can continue to attack anyone, who disagrees with you, with your ad hominem attacks, but that will never change the truth

You, Sir, have no concept of honor, and would not even recognize that trait in others. This you have proven.


Charles S Young - 6/5/2007

Dr. Klinghoffer's article gives many interesting suggestions as to why a deliberate attack would be unlikely.

But besides examining evidence against, it is also necessary to look at evidence for. That is the way to be thorough about any question. But this the article does not do, except to say dismiss them as "proven" to be "lies." But the proof is no where to be seen.

Skipping one side makes the article half an argument. Hers is a tendentious essay designed to get people to NOT look at evidence.


William Heimiller - 4/7/2007

I'll have to back Mr. Meadors on this. That list of "many investigations" is in great contention. To not acknowledge the contentions of the survivors when listing them is not proper when offering comments on a history website(there are many other websites where such comments are acceptable though). I'm not going into exactly why the survivors discount those supposed "investigations". Their objections are well documented and were touched on by Meadors. The fact is that now Mr. Weeks is on record as not following proper methods, as he did not include the essential objections(or access to such) that the survivors offer, when posting on a history website.

I will say that the essence of what the survivors claim now about the attack conflicts less than the testimony of Holocaust survivors. The Liberty survivors were ordered to NOT comment on the attack itself when interviewed for the one inquiry[the Naval Inquiry] on that "investigations" list that provided the basis of information for the other "investigations". NEVER were the survivors interviewed about the attack....relevant?-apparently not to Mr. Weeks, and others.

'Sincerely' indeed, Mr. Weeks


William Heimiller - 4/7/2007

I'll have to back Mr. Meadors on this. That list of "many investigations" is in great contention. To not acknowledge the contentions of the survivors when listing them is not proper when offering comments on a history website(there are many other websites where such comments are acceptable though). I'm not going into exactly why the survivors discount those supposed "investigations". Their objections are well documented and were touched on by Meadors. The fact is that now Mr. Weeks is on record as not following proper methods, as he did not include the essential objections(or access to such) that the survivors offer, when posting on a history website.

I will say that the essence of what the survivors claim now about the attack conflicts less than the testimony of Holocaust survivors. The Liberty survivors were ordered to NOT comment on the attack itself when interviewed for the one inquiry[the Naval Inquiry] on that "investigations" list that provided the basis of information for the other "investigations". NEVER were the survivors interviewed about the attack....relevant?-apparently not to Mr. Weeks, and others.

'Sincerely' indeed, Mr. Weeks


jmeadors - 11/2/2001

Mr. Weeks makes the oft-made claim that the US government has made a myriad of investigations into the attack on the USS Liberty and even goes to the trouble to list a number of reports in an apparent attempt to prove his allegation.

It matters not how many times that list is posted the fact remains those reports were not prepared as a result of a complete and comprehensive investigation of the attack on the USS Liberty.

Apparently Mr. Weeks is of the opinion that one or two questions that may or may not have been asked during a meeting or investigation constitute a complete and comprehensive investigation of the attack on the USS Liberty.

Having said that, I will agree with Mr. Weeks in that nobody should accept the statement blindly.

Read the reports along with the supporting evidence and testimony and you will find that not only has the US government not conducted a complete and comprehensive investigation of the attack on the USS Liberty -- the government of Israel has not either.

Warmest regards,

Joe Meadors


Mike weeks - 8/22/2001

Perhaps Mr. Meadors is confused after so many years following the event to understand that a great deal of what was stated by the interviewed survivors is not only in conflict with what the crewmen testified to and the ship reported following the incident, but also later statements made by survivors at various times. Perhaps that's why Ms. Klinghoffer's article simply ignored the changed stories as presented on the History Channel. As to the often-repeated erroneous statement that "The attack on the USS Liberty has never been investigated by the US government" one only has to list the following: USN Court of Inquiry CIA Reports (2) JCS (Russ) Report Clifford Report Salans report NSG Report Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Defense Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations Senate Armed Services Committee House Appropriations Committee House Armed Services Committee Senate Select Committee on Intelligence NSA Report Subcommittee of Investigations of the House Armed Services Committee to show that indeed a good deal of material is available in one form or other, if one wishes to simply look, and not accept blindly the above claim. Sincerely, Mike Weeks


Jay Misiano - 8/15/2001

Judith Klinghoffer’s response to The History Channel documentary on the unprovoked and cowardly attack upon the USS Liberty is typical of the automatic response by people who think it was an accident.
First the USS Liberty was a naval vessel not a NSA ship, and second it was flying a US Flag, when the Israeli Air force began attacking the ship. Third we who know that the IAF attacked the USS Liberty on purpose have a problem with the official Israeli position that they thought they where attacking an Egyptian freighter that was supposed to conducting shore bombardment. I guess it never occurred to the highly trained IAF that the ship Egyptian ship had no large caliber armament on the deck, despite the fact that the Egyptian freighter in question was tied to pier in Alexandria and was not seaworthy. The Israeli’s attacked that ship deliberately and with the purpose of trying to sink a US Navy ship so the US who trying to broker a cease fire would not no about the Israeli plans to seize the Golan heights from Syria. 11
It must should not be forgotten that the Israelis started the 6 day war by violating Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian airspace and attacking those countries air forces. The Israelis will do anything to defend themselves and their citizens including turning the only country that has stuck by them since the start. It should also be remembered that it was the US that save the Israelis in 1973 when the Egyptians and Syrians where in the process of defeating them.
The only people who acted more despicable then the Israeli’s who ordered and conducted the air and sea attack was the US government who wanted to keep the sorry affair as quiet as possible. The USS Liberty crew both those who murdered by the Israeli Air Force and the Navy and those who survived and their families should be compensated by both the Israeli Government and the US Government.


jmeadors - 8/15/2001

When I viewed the History Channel program I thought the survivors spent most -- if not all -- of the time discussing the conduct of the Israelis during the attack, not in the theory of why they attacked.

In reading Ms. Klinghoffer's article she completely ignores the tactics used by the Israelis during the attack and focuses entirely upon trying to refute the claim that the attack was deliberate.

Reminds me of an argument that may be presented by an attorney who has no foundation with which to make an argument so he presents a long-winded argument about something that Liberty survivors didn't even discuss to any great detail.

Having said that, I would like to take her to task to produce those "repeated American-Israeli investigations reaffirming the original Israeli claim".

The attack on the USS Liberty has never been investigated by the US government.

Warmest regards,

Joe Meadors

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