The Attack on the Liberty: The Lessons Never Learned

34 American sailors lost their lives and the 171 others were injured in the Israeli attack. (Photo: File)

By Jeremy Salt

In the seven decades of savagery of the Israeli state one incident stands out, because the victims were not Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Tunisians or other ‘Arabs’ whom Israel has regularly slaughtered but Americans.  An examination of this episode can only end in the conclusion that the ‘unshakeable bond’ between the United States and Israel is a very sick bond, destructive of US interests and ultimately destructive of Israel’s as well, if these interests are to be defined at living at peace with the Palestinians and peacefully in the Middle East.

In 1967, Israel again went to war against the Arab world.  Its prime targets were Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The central objective was territorial conquest but along the way the armed forces of Israel’s most dangerous enemies, Egypt and Syria, would be shattered and the paramount Pan Arab leader, Gamal abd al Nasser, the idol of his generation, humiliated if not destroyed.

Israel started the war with provocations along the Syrian ceasefire line in 1966.  Sooner or later, it knew, Nasser would be dragged into this conflict and then it would have him where it wanted him. By the spring of 1967 the provocations had developed into a crisis centring on Nasser’s closure of the Straits of Tiran leading to the Israeli port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba.  This was a war Israel’s generals wanted but not a war that Nasser wanted, behind the rhetoric of destroying the enemy.  All western intelligence agencies knew that Israel could easily defeat one or any combination of Arab armies.   Israel knew it, too, behind its own rhetoric of being threatened with extermination.

The US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, bought time by pledging to give Israel more money and more weaponry but in early June, with Egyptian Vice President Zakaria Mohieddin about to arrive in Washington to settle the crisis, Israel’s generals knew it was now or never.  The ‘window of opportunity’ they had opened was about to be closed. Accordingly, on the morning of June 5 swarms of Israeli fighter jets went into action and destroyed virtually the whole of the Egyptian air force as its planes sat on the tarmac or in hangars.  At that point the war was effectively over.  The conquest of Sinai, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank soon followed, leaving only the Golan Heights among the territory yet to be taken.

It was at this point, on June 8, that Israeli planes and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, a ‘spy ship’ cruising off the Egyptian coast.  At 5am Israeli planes began flying reconnaissance flights over the ship.   They were flying low and as the flights continued during the morning the men sunbaking on the deck waved to the pilots of a supposedly friendly country.   The large Stars and Stripes fluttering in the wind – ‘you could see it a mile off’, one of the officers later remarked –  and the code number on the bow (GTR-5) left no doubt that this was an American vessel.   Audio communications between the pilots and the Israeli control tower were to show that the Israelis fully understood what and whom they were attacking.  Just before 11am Pinchas Pinchasy, an Israeli naval liaison officer with the air force had reported to naval headquarters that the ship cruising just off the Sinai coast was ‘an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy, named Liberty, whose marking was GTR-5.’

Just before 2pm, after nine hours of reconnaissance without the Liberty crew realising they were in any danger, two Israeli Mirages, later joined by two Super Mystere fighters, began strafing the Liberty with rockets and armor-piercing cannon shells. The communications mast was shot up, preventing the Liberty from sending out distress calls, this alone constituting a war crime.   Armed only with heavy calibre machine guns installed to prevent boarding from the sea the Liberty was defenceless against an attack from the air.  At 2.03 pm, with several of the crew already dead, the following crude exchange took place between one of the Israeli pilots and the Control Tower:

Pilot: ‘Does he screw her or not?’

Control tower: ‘He goes down on her with low napalm.’

With napalm then being dropped on the ship the conversation then turned to the question of who should actually sink the Liberty.  Control Tower: ‘We don’t need more aircraft for the attack. Enough.’ Pilots or Control Tower: ‘Let’s leave something for the navy to do.’

With the planes running out of ammunition and three torpedo boats approaching, the control tower confirmed to one of the pilots that the ship was American.  The torpedo boats machine-gunned everything in sight, including life rafts dropped into the water and even life rafts sitting on the deck but the greatest damage was done by one of five torpedos fired at the Liberty. It punched a huge hole in the hull, instantly killing 25 crewmen on duty below deck.

The ship was in a desperate situation when a signals officer managed to wire up a connection to the communications mast. The distress signal was picked up by the Sixth Fleet, then engaged in manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.  It was presumably also picked up by the Israelis as the attack stopped immediately: but for this call there is no doubt Israel would have continued the attack until the Liberty had sunk without trace.   The strafing of life rafts indicates the intention to make sure there would be no survivors.  As no-one could possibly believe that America’s trusted ally would destroy a US naval vessel, the way would be clear for Israel and the US to attribute blame to whomever it wanted, Egypt, no doubt, probably with the Soviet Union implicated.   The planes sent to the rescue of the Liberty from the Sixth Fleet were recalled on the direct orders of Lyndon Johnson, already preparing to cover up the attack.

Strafed and badly holed from stem to stern, the ship managed to limp to Malta, where in dry dock the body parts of dead crewmen were washed out of the hole in the hull with tons of gallons of sea water.  Along with the 34 dead, 171 crew had been wounded, many severely, amounting altogether to more than two thirds of the 300 servicemen on board.  Apart from the torpedo damage the ship had been holed more than 800 times by armor-piercing shells.   Designed to destroy tanks they cut into the ship as if it were cardboard.   In dry dock the holes were repaired and the ship repainted so that when it arrived back in the US there would be no visible signs of the attack, which, Israel insisted, had been a ‘terrible mistake.’

Various theories have emerged to explain why the ship was attacked.   One was the ‘false flag’ intention to sink the Liberty and blame Egypt, another that Israel was about to launch a ground attack on Syria and did not want the US to know.  While Johnson had given Israel the ‘green light’ to attack Egypt and humiliate the Soviet Union in the process, he seems, for all his sly complicity, to have been kept in the dark as to the true nature of Israel’s objectives. A further possible motive was the need to hide a war crime.  Only a few miles from the coast, the Liberty was in a position to pick up military communications relating to the murder of Egyptian prisoners of war in the town of El Arish.   Either there or elsewhere in Sinai hundreds of Egyptians were either massacred or hunted down and killed, in a repeat of the ‘Gazelle Hunt’ of fleeing Egyptian soldiers in the 1956 war, as they tried to make their way back to the Suez Canal.

In public Johnson chose to believe Israel but he had been deceived and in private –  behind the backs of his supposed friends in the Israeli lobby – he must have been furious.  He was known to be the source of a leak to Newsweek that the attack was no accident. According to an Al Jazeera documentary account of the attack and its consequences (‘The Day Israel Attacked America’), when Israel and its lobbyists found out that Johnson had talked to Newsweek the message was passed on to the White House that he would be accused of blood libel, ensuring that there would be no Jewish backing should he decide to stand in the presidential elections due at the end of 1968.   Despite his anger at Israel, Johnson himself did not want the relationship with Israel jeopardised.  As usual, he was thinking of his own domestic interests.

Of all US presidents since 1948 Johnson had been most attentive to Israeli wishes and demands, even more so than Truman.  He had curried favour with leading Zionists, including the lobbyist Abe Feinberg, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and Mathilde Krim, while appointing Arthur Goldberg as US ambassador to the United Nations.   In search of money and votes he missed no opportunity to stress the ‘unshakeable bond’ with the ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’

The cloying affection may have had some roots in the parallels Johnson drew between the pioneers of the Old West and the Zionist pioneers in Palestine.   The deeper reality was his awareness of the choice he had between what the lobby could do for him and what it could do to him.  All the same, for all his pandering, in search of votes and money, his craven response to the attack on the Liberty remains as contemptible today as it was more than half a century ago.   Israel was a small state heavily dependent on US aid and diplomatic support and thus susceptible to any pressure Johnson might have chosen to exert but he exerted none:  on the contrary, he gave Israel more military and economic aid than ever.

To prevent the truth about the attack on the Liberty coming out Johnson set in motion an ‘inquiry’ that was a complete cover-up.  The ship’s crew were warned that they would be prosecuted if they spoke out:   journalists were kept away from them and their families and to this day the survivors of the attack and their families have to put up with the refusal of their government to tell the truth.

In January, 1968, the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong launched their Tet offensive on more than 100 cities the length and breadth of South Vietnam.  In late March Johnson announced that he would not stand as the Democratic Party’s candidate in the presidential elections due in November.  Officially, the reason was declining health but the failure of military intervention in South Vietnam and mounting public outrage at the conduct of the war and mounting US casualties (infinitely heavier on the Vietnamese side) clearly had pushed him to the point of wanting to step out of public life.

Throughout the remaining months of his presidency and into the Nixon years Israel continued to benefit from American largesse. It got the planes and tanks it wanted.  By the time it launched its attack on Egypt it had already developed nuclear weapons to the point where the parts could be quickly assembled.    Johnson had blocked attempts by State Department negotiators to tie weapons sales to Israel’s adherence to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.   They did not know what Johnson had told the Israelis in advance, that he would never compel them to sign the NPT in return for receiving US weaponry.  In the coming years the truth was hidden behind a screen of official opacity: Israel never admitted that it had developed nuclear weapons and the US administration pretended that it did not know.

The assault on the Liberty was followed by espionage.  In 1986 naval intelligence officer Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to 30 years in prison for passing hundreds of classified documents to Israel and in 2006 Defense Department analyst Lawrence Franklin was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for passing on classified information to the Israeli embassy in Washington.

AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) was implicated in the transfer. The FBI raided its offices and seized the computers and files of four officials.  Two other AIPAC officials were charged.  However, in a pre-trial hearing a judge ruled that it was not enough for the prosecution to show that classified information had been passed on to a foreign government.  He declared that the theft and transmission of such information to a friendly government was not of itself a criminal act.  It would have to be shown that US interests were damaged.   In 2009 this extraordinary undermining of the prosecution’s case was followed by the dropping of all charges.

Numerous other episodes sully this ‘special relationship.’ In 2007 John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their book The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy.  It was the first mainstream exposure of the anomalies in the relationship between the US and Israel, put into print, significantly, by a prestigious New York publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and written by two conservative and eminently respectable (Harvard and the University of Chicago) scholars.

The lobby responded with outrage, ignoring the warning signs of a changing mood in the US if not yet by the administration.  The book raised the obvious point that while the foreign policy interests of two governments may coincide some of the time, they will not coincide all of the time. Furthermore, they showed that while endlessly benefitting Israel, the ‘special relationship’ had done serious damages to US interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world over decades.  Finally, and most damagingly perhaps, they questioned the moral basis of this relationship, arguing that the US should distance itself from a state living in breach of international law.

Officially the US still stands four square behind Israel but the cracks in the ‘special relationship’ are spreading.  Israel’s behaviour is so outrageous that many American Jews are distancing themselves from its polices even if not actively opposing them.  Barack Obama clearly loathed having to deal with Benyamin Netanyahu but the man who has followed him, Donald Trump, seems determined to make the relationship more special than ever.   He has pledged full support for the settlements and has appointed as US ambassador a man who refers to the ‘alleged occupation.’  On top of this there is the nepotism of the appointment of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a special envoy whom Trump apparently believes will succeed where all others have failed by bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The massacre of the Liberty crewmen stands as an example of how far an American president was prepared to go to protect a relationship that will remain ‘special’ only as long as the US continues to give Israel whatever it wants.  It may continue giving indefinitely but if (or when) the day comes when it stops giving, Israel will turn on the US as it eventually did against an earlier great power, Britain, without whose support the Zionists would never have got their feet on the ground in Palestine in the first place.  Two decades before the attack on the Liberty it was British soldiers and police that the Zionists were killing in Palestine.

The price Americans have had to pay for the ‘special relationship’ includes at least $248 billion in ‘aid’ since 1948.   The continuing manipulation of US foreign policy through pressure in the media and on the White House and Congress has ensured American involvement in wars in which behind the puffery of the ‘special relationship’, ‘the unbreakable bond’, ‘our great ally’ and ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ the only real interest is Israel’s.

This is a state that has been allowed and even encouraged to recognise no limits.  It has never been punished for any crime it has committed, so there is no reason for it to stop, not that it sees anything it does as criminal.   It wanted Iraq destroyed and hoped to see the Syrian government destroyed also, supplying, towards this end, the ‘rebels’ with weapons, treating their wounded in its hospitals and bombing Syrian military positions as and when it saw fit.   Refusing to accept failure, Benjamin Netanyahu, in talks with Vladimir Putin, threatened to bomb the presidential palace in Damascus.  He regards Syria and Hezbollah as no more than Iranian proxies.  It is the total package Israel wants destroyed but where should the next attempt begin?

All the indications point to Lebanon. The signals coming out of Israel have been growing stronger for months with the Israeli army now embarking on its biggest military exercise in two decades.  The ‘Light of Grain’ manoeuvres close to the Lebanese armistice line will continue for ten days.   Tens of thousands of soldiers, including reservists, will be involved in a mock war against Hezbollah above and below the ground, to prepare for fighting in tunnels.   Planes, helicopters, drones, gunboats and submarines will be deployed,  with electronic warfare given a central role.  The civilian population in the north will be removed for the duration of the exercise.

In the coming real war Israel has given advance warning that the target would be the whole of Lebanon and not just Hezbollah bases or the Shia suburbs of Beirut. The message it is sending to Washington is that Lebanon is no more than a Hezbollah enclave remotely controlled from Iran:  senior military figures have made it clear that in the next war the ‘Dahiyeh strategy’ of 2006, when the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh was pulverized from the air, would be applied across Lebanon.  Hezbollah knows the attack is coming and is constantly preparing for it.

Had the truth about the attack on the Liberty come out at the time it would have been the ‘special relationship’ that would have sunk without trace, taking the false symmetry between US and Israeli interests down with it.  Failing to stand up to Israel even after an atrocity directed against its own servicemen, the US has sunk deeper into a situation of semi-dependence on Israel in its Middle East policies.   It seems incapable of identifying its own interests let alone acting on them. This reversal of the usual great power-client state relationship has to be one of the most curious in history.

Given Israel’s refusal to accept defeat in any situation, Syria’s successful resistance to the most determined attempt ever made to destroy an Arab government does not diminish the regional dangers but, rather, sharply increases them.  Israel is in an angry, thwarted and frustrated mood: Netanyahu’s domestic problems, including the possibility of corruption charges against he and his wife, add another twist to a volatile situation.  Israel is preparing for war, but then it always is: this has to be the existential condition of a fortress state living beyond the law.

The law of unintended consequences has again prevailed.  Not only has the Syrian government survived but Russia is back in the picture in the Middle East.  Its policies have been defined clearly and carried out successfully, so far, while the US seems in a complete muddle.  For its part Israel’s military superiority has declined steadily since the 1967 war.  Its adversaries have steadily caught up.  The performance of Israel’s ground troops in the 2006 war on Lebanon was close to abysmal, underlining the significance of the current manoeuvres.  The Israelis could not hold positions only a few kilometres from the armistice line and repeatedly had to be rescued by air power.  Again, this will decide the outcome of the next war, as Hezbollah fully understands.

The walkover war is a thing of the past. The next time Israel starts a war it is going to suffer military and civilian casualties way beyond anything it has experienced before.  Hezbollah has added thousands of missiles to its arsenal and Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence system is not going to be able to stop all of them.  As Israel’s ‘security’ posture is based on never losing a war, the lengths to which this nuclear-armed state might go to win the next war – or the one after that –  have to be imagined.  The attack on the Liberty, future historians may conclude, was one of many wasted opportunities to rein Israel in while there was still time.

– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to

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  1. “Only a few miles from the coast, the Liberty was in a position to pick up military communications relating to the murder of Egyptian prisoners of war in the town of El Arish. Either there or elsewhere in Sinai hundreds of Egyptians were either massacred or hunted down and killed,…”

    See ‘The Six Day War Censored Voices’

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