[This book review is being published directly to this web site in March 2010 without first appearing in print elsewhere.]

 

Book Review 

The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U. S. Spy Ship

James Scott

Simon & Schuster, 2009 

 

          This is a book about a little-known and tragic episode that has contemporary relevance because it sheds light on fundamental incongruities in American internal politics and in the United States’ relation to Israel and the Arab nations.  The episode also raises profound questions about the obligations a country has to its men and women in uniform.

          The subject is the attack by Israel on the U.S. spy ship Liberty in international waters a few miles off the Gaza Strip during the 1967 “Six-Day War” between Israel and various Arab countries, including Egypt.  The ship was strafed with rockets and cannon, bombed with napalm, and torpedoed.  Thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 injured.  The reason for the attack has remained a matter of speculation, with Israel never offering an explanation other than to say the attack was made in error, a claim that most American leaders, both military and civilian, thought ludicrous. Despite considerable outrage expressed, mostly privately, among those leaders, and some passing attention given to the attack in the media soon after it occurred, the American response was muted, with limited investigation and a silencing of witnesses.  The effect was to drop the attack into a decades-long “memory hole.” 

          The author, James Scott, is a journalist who not coincidentally happens to be the son of Ensign John Scott, who was one of the officers aboard the Liberty who survived the attack.  The book’s subtitle refers to “the untold story” because a number of documents have now been declassified after being secret for several decades and he has been able to obtain considerable new information through the Freedom of Information Act.  The account of the attack and its aftermath is told calmly but grippingly as the book spells out in graphic detail the horrors the crew experienced as the assault went through its various phases. 

          It would be a good account for everyone to read who wants fully to comprehend what war and military service can entail.  Recruits going through naval boot camp will do well to read it, since it will give them a vivid grasp of how the rigors of their training relate to very real possibilities.

          Although the book is valuable for that purpose, its broader import lies elsewhere.  Scott does not dwell on the assault’s broader implications (he never mentions the Mearsheimer and Walt report on the Israeli Lobby, for example), but lets the facts speak for themselves.  Nevertheless, readers will easily see those implications. The assault illustrates:

          . the proud (or strident, depending upon ones point of view) independence Israel has shown toward the United States even as its continuing existence has depended upon enormous diplomatic, financial and military aid from the U.S. since Israel’s creation in 1948;

          . the fearfulness with which the American establishment (in the White House, the Congress, the media and elsewhere) have in effect “walked on eggs” in their desire not to offend Israel and most especially not to offend Israel’s critically influential friends within  the United States itself;

          . the profound imbalancing of American policy in what in recent years has become for the United States the world’s most entangling and dangerous region of conflict;

          . and the extent to which American leaders have been willing to throw the lives and well-being of their men and women in uniform “to the winds” if political fears demand it.

          Although Scott does not declaim on these subjects, some of those he quotes do.  One-time undersecretary of state George Ball, for example, captured the essence of the U.S.-Israeli relationship as illustrated by the attack on the Liberty when he wrote that “Israel’s leaders concluded that nothing they might do would offend the Americans to the point of reprisal.  If America’s leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of American citizens, it seemed clear that their American friends would let them get away with almost anything.”  Such an observation goes far toward explaining, among other things, the long-standing persistence of Israel in expanding its settlements on the West Bank and in Jerusalem in the face of the rather feeble remonstrances of American presidents.  It sheds light, too, on why it was virtually inevitable that the hopes of the Arab world be dashed after they were raised so high by President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech early in his presidency.

          The book reveals some interesting insights into the dynamic within Washington after the attack.  Lyndon Johnson, who was president at the time, was strongly pro-Israel and surrounded himself with a good many Jewish and pro-Israel advisers, so it may surprise some readers that there was considerable outrage among them toward Israel’s actions.  This anger remained “in house,” however, and did not stand in the way of the public cover-up.  Scott informs his readers that “senior American officials had contemplated sinking the ship at sea to block reporters from photographing the damage and sparking public outrage against Israel.”  The White House ordered the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean to issue no press releases, and State Department representatives “fanned out across Capitol Hill, assuring lawmakers that it was an accident.”  Even though the members of the ship’s survivors’ association “begged Congress to investigate the attack,… Congress failed to formally investigate… or hold public hearings.”  The closed-door discussion within Senator Fulbright’s Senate committee “would remain classified for the next forty years.”  The Navy conducted an investigation, but it was perfunctory and shallow. 

          Nothing encapsulates the aftermath quite so well as President Johnson’s own conduct.  Captain William McGonagle, the Liberty’s skipper, was awarded the United States’ highest award for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.  It was customary for the president to present any Medals of Honor in person in a White House ceremony.  But President Johnson had it done by the Secretary of the Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.  Admiral Thomas Moorer, then Chief of Naval Operations and later chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “years later… described the president’s refusal to present McGonagle his award as a ‘back-handed slap’…‘They had been trying to hush it up all the way through,’ Moorer said….”  

          Israel eventually paid reparations for the attack.  That it did so was, however,  something of a charade.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk expressed the reality when he wrote a 1981 letter to one of the Liberty’s officers that “in light of our aid programs for Israel, we would, in effect, be paying ourselves.”

          In light of its subject and the fact that the author is the son of one of the Liberty’s officers, the book is remarkably dispassionate.  It makes for calm but vivid reading.  Scott was named Journalist of the Year in 2003 by the South Carolina Press Association, and was later a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University.  His book deserves a wide readership.

                                                                                                                                                              Dwight D. Murphey