June 8, 1967. Two Israeli Mirage III fighter jets converge on an unknown vessel in the eastern Mediterranean. It is the height of the Six-Day War, and Israeli forces are under the impression that the vessel is an Egyptian destroyer. It is not. The USS Liberty, a U.S. Navy research ship, awaits its destiny, and an episode of mistaken identity which remains controversial today.
As if the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict wasn’t controversial enough, now we’re throwing Americans in. Throughout the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel launched surprise attacks against its menacing Arab neighbors and trounced them, the United States remained officially neutral. (We’ll get to that.) There were two major incidents, however, which tested American neutrality to the outright limit in the course of the Six-Day War. One was the Liberty Incident; the other was the Big Lie. We’ll deal with each today, but the USS Liberty comes first.
The USS Liberty was an “auxiliary technical research” ship with a crew of about 358 officers and men and only a few machine guns as its armament. “Auxiliary technical research” is a nice way of saying “signals intelligence” – essentially, listening on radio communications in order to gather intelligence on the low. Several days before the Six-Day War began, the Liberty posted to the eastern Mediterranean to patrol and gather signals on the north coast of Egypt, within neutral waters. Once the war began, American commanders became concerned for Liberty’s safety, and ordered it to pull back from the Egypt-Israeli coast – orders which would be received too late.
At the beginning of the war on June 5, Israeli General Yitzhak Rabin told American diplomats that Israel would sink any unidentified ships near its coast, but did not ask if any American ships were in the area. The next day, June 6, the American U.N. Ambassador proclaimed publicly that no American ships were in the area; though this was true at the time, the Liberty was on its way towards the warzone with no orders to change course. While the Pentagon issued orders that the Liberty was supposed to change its course, the orders only arrived too late; by June 8, the Israeli High Command likely had no idea an American ship was near the warzone.
June 8, 1967 was a stressful day for everyone in the Israeli leadership. The Egyptian Army had been defeated in the Sinai, the West Bank had been overrun and the Old City had been taken from Jordan, and now their army was pivoting to face the Syrians at the Golan Heights. Most of the top brass had not rested in days, and they were, like anyone with a great amount of responsibility on their shoulders over a period of days, probably not in top form mentally. What happened next must be understood in that light.
At about 5:45am, an Israeli pilot spotted the Liberty, reporting it as “apparently a destroyer 70 miles west of Gaza.” By 6am, the pilot reported that he believed it was an American supply ship, but this information only made it to headquarters at about 9am. On the “big board,” the Israeli command’s control table, it was marked with “green” for “neutral.” By 11am, though, the marker was removed because its sighting had been too long ago to be called current. This meant that when someone looked at the “big board,” they would see no neutral ships in the vicinity – an oversight on the part of overworked, tired staff officers that would have fatal consequences.
At 11:24am, June 8, the Israeli port of El-Arish reported naval gunfire from the sea. The origin of this report is obscure; the Liberty only had a handful of machine guns and could not have shelled El-Arish. More reports of ships approaching the coast bred fear in Israeli command that the Egyptians were planning to launch an amphibious assault. From the Israeli perspective, their victory over Egypt had come so quickly and been so brilliant that it seemed almost too good to be true. What if they had been wrong all this time, and Egypt had really been preparing for a seaborne invasion on Israel’s coast?
General Rabin repeated the standing order to sink any unidentified ships in the area, but to look out for and avoid any Soviet ships that might have been sent to aid Egypt. No need to start World War III. He did not inform his men to keep an eye out for American ships. Probably taking a glance at the “big board,” he saw no reason for concern, and had no reason to think that American ships were in the area.
At 1:41pm, Israeli scout boats reported a fast-moving vessel moving west near El-Arish. Since Israel’s commanders believed that the Egyptians had attacked Arish – never confirmed – it was not a big leap to assume this was an Egyptian destroyer fleeing from its raid. On request from the Navy, the Israeli Air Force sent two Mirage III planes to intercept the “fleeing Egyptian ship.”
The “fleeing Egyptian ship,” of course, was the USS Liberty, and as the Mirage jets approached the pilots attempted to identify it. They only saw that it looked like a military vessel, but saw no distinctive markings or insignia. After an exchange for record, in which the chief air controller brought up and then dismissed the idea that the ship might be American, the Mirages dove to attack at 1:57pm.
Commander William L. McGonagle, U.S. Navy, gaped as the Israeli jets hammered away at his ship with machine gun and 30mm cannon fire. Most of the crew was above decks, having just completed a drill, and were completely unprepared for the strike. The Liberty lost eight crewmen dead and 75 wounded, including McGonagle himself who suffered wounds to his limbs. Soon the Liberty was ablaze, and McGonagle reported that he was under attack by unidentified aircraft.
Two more Israeli planes – Dassault Super Mysteries - with napalm bombs arrived to strafe the ship, and had set more portions of the Liberty afire when they received a sudden report that the ship could be Israeli. When Israeli control confirmed that they had no ships in the area, the Mysteries prepared to attack again when one of the pilots questioned why the ship didn’t fire back. As they made another pass, one pilot spotted Latin letters on the side of the ship – an Egyptian ship would have Arabic letters. Air control immediately ordered the attack to stop.
Israel had torpedo boats approaching the ship, but the cease fire order reached them just as they approached to sink the Liberty. The Liberty’s crewmen had hoisted a large American flag, and one can imagine the sinking feeling in the stomach of every Hebrew upon seeing it. At first Rabin had been terrified that the ship was Soviet, but an American ship was hardly better. The Israelis may have just alienated one of their only semi-friends in the world.
Nevertheless, the ordeal was not over. The Liberty, seeing enemy ships approaching, opened fire, and the Israeli torpedo boats returned fire and launched a torpedo that ripped into the side of the Liberty. 25 more crewmen died before one of the torpedo boats picked up survivors and realized they had attacked an American ship. The Liberty’s identity was not confirmed by Israeli high command until 3:30pm, by which time it was adrift and too badly damaged to move.
At 4pm, Israel officially informed American diplomats that they had mistakenly attacked a Navy ship. When President Lyndon B. Johnson heard that the Liberty had been attacked, he assumed it was a Soviet action, and was on the hotline with Moscow just before Israel communicated this message. Within 48 hours, the Israelis had offered deep apologies and promises of compensation.
The “Liberty Incident” has been a flashpoint for criticism ever after. Many Americans found it frankly unbelievable that the Israelis could have missed clear markings on the ship, as well as an alleged U.S. flag flying above it. The records show that it had been spotted, confirmed as American, and disappeared off the radar before it was mistaken for Egyptian and attacked. Johnson accepted the Israeli excuses congenially, to the rage of some of his advisors. McGonagle received the Medal of Honor for his actions in trying to save the ship, and multiple other crewmen were awarded as well. Israel eventually paid almost $13,000,000 in compensation to the families of the killed and wounded, as well as to the U.S. government.
What is bizarre, to my mind, is that it did not end there. There is a deep, deep conspiracy lore about the “Liberty Incident.” Despite the United States government and Israel launching multiple investigations, and both stating multiple times that “the Israeli attack upon the USS Liberty had been the result of error, and nothing more,” many refuse to believe this assertion. At least one high-ranking Admiral, Thomas Moorer, refused to accept the claim that it was a case of mistaken identity. Many prominent American politicians and Washington insiders believed the attack was obviously deliberate. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation.
Conspiracy theories include:
1. Israel was trying to conduct a “false flag” attack to trick the U.S. into declaring war on Egypt. (Unlikely, since Israel had just kicked Egypt’s ass.)
2. Israel attacked Liberty because it was spying on Israel and passing information to Egypt as part of a “secret” anti-Semitic war against the Jews. (No.)
3. Israel attacked Liberty to prevent the discovery of the Israeli murder of Egyptian POWs in El-Arish. (A wild claim of 400 people has been bandied around, which has been thoroughly debunked.)
I cannot exaggerate how many people have crazy theories, how every new tape, new interview, new tiny piece of info causes new crazy theories and the nuts come out of the woodwork. Al Jazeera broadcast a documentary in 2014 – yes, that late – arguing that Israel sank the ship on purpose.
My take? Awake for days and under intense stress as the existence of their country was at stake, fatigue and human error caused Israeli commanders and pilots to attack the USS Liberty. People screwed up and mistakes happened. This is far more likely than a nefarious plot, especially since none of the nefarious plots make any sense, and fits with all the evidence. The uncertainties, the obscure points of argument, the topics of dispute, are innumerable and will keep us here all day. There are entire books written on the thinnest of details, and a whole USS Liberty Veterans’ Organization exists to beat a vaguely horse-shaped pile of remains into a pulp. Occam’s Razor: the solution with the fewest assumptions is most likely the correct one.
So what about that OTHER incident?
The reason the USS Liberty Incident did not destroy U.S.-Israeli relations is because the Arabs had done much worse. As Arab armies crumpled under the weight of Israeli attacks, Arab leaders such as Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan needed an explanation for their unprecedented loss at the hands of a smaller, weaker country. They also hoped to find a way to bring in the Soviet Union to assist them in the war.
By June 6, radio stations in Amman, Cairo and Damascus were reporting that the United States and Britain were launching air strikes in support of Israel from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. LBJ was disgusted by the lie and immediately severed diplomatic relations with Egypt, losing any sympathy he might have had for the Arab cause in the Middle East. British diplomats dubbed it the “big lie.” It was a disastrous political gamble by the Arabs; they had lost almost all credibility with the West.
It became even worse when, on June 8, Israeli diplomats revealed that they had tapped Arab telephone lines and recorded Nasser and Hussein planning to coordinate their misinformation. It was timed to embarrass Arab leaders, overshadow the Liberty incident, and divert international attention from the ceasefire talks – Israel had unfinished business with Syria that it wanted to conclude before the armistice line was drawn.
In any event, the “Big Lie” was the only explanation that the Arab leaders had for their people, who they had promised victory over and over. They had even reported massive triumphs in the opening days of the war as Israeli planes destroyed the Egyptian Air Force and the Israeli Army expelled the Arabs from Sinai and Gaza.
Either way, the world had turned upside down. The United States was able to overlook the Liberty Incident because Israel had offered immediate apologies and reparations; the Arab leaders, on the other hand, had tried to blame their defeat on the Americans and British. Nasser’s prestige never recovered, and King Hussein had lost Jerusalem and the West Bank – a terrible humiliation. All the Arab countries vowed to continue the struggle, recover their lost territories, and free Jerusalem from the Jewish state.
For Israel, the Six- Day War seemed like a miraculous victory against overwhelming odds. The outcome was stunning to the whole world, no less for Israel since it had defensible borders for the first time in its history. Despite this, trouble was on the horizon. When Israel offered to return the entirety of Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a binding peace, they were met with silence. The Arab world passed the “Three Nos” resolution – no recognition, no negotiations, no peace with Israel.
Even as the Arabs leaned on the excuse of mythical Western intervention as the explanation for their defeat, they planned revenge. Israel, awash in victory and feeling invincible, lost the insecurity that had guarded them well so far. As Nietzsche said, “War makes the victor stupid.” Soon they would clash again – and on Yom Kippur, 1973, it was the Israelis who would be surprised.
Note of caution: if you Google "USS Liberty Incident," like 80% of it is going to be anti-semitic Neo-Nazi propaganda with titles like "Evil Jew Attack to Slaughter Americans." So be forewarned.