by Ron Unz, The Unz Review:
I’m not exactly sure when I first heard of the Liberty incident of 1967. The story was certainly a dramatic one, the attack upon an almost defenseless American intelligence ship by Israel’s air and naval forces late in the Six Day War fought against several Arab states. Over 200 American servicemen were killed or wounded by Israeli machine-guns, rockets, napalm, and torpedos, representing our greatest naval loss of life since World War II. Only tremendous luck and the heroic actions of the sailors prevented the Liberty from being sunk with all hands lost.
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The Israeli government quickly claimed that the attack had been accidental, a consequence of mistaken identification and the fog of war, but none of the survivors ever believed that story, nor did many of America’s top political and military leaders, notably Secretary of State Dean Rusk, CIA Director Richard Helms, and numerous top officers, including a later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Although a brief investigation ordered by President Lyndon Johnson quickly endorsed the Israeli account, over the next half-century the Liberty survivors regularly condemned that official verdict as a cover-up and a whitewash. Their deep outrage was only slightly assuaged by the flood of medals they had received from our guilt-ridden government, which established the Liberty as perhaps the most highly-decorated ship in American naval history, at least with regard to a single engagement.
The real-life events of that day almost seem like a script out of Hollywood. The first wave of unmarked attacking jets had targeted and destroyed all of the Liberty’s regular transmission antennas while also trying to jam all standard American broadcast frequencies to prevent any calls for help. A flotilla of torpedo boats later machine-gunned the life-rafts to ensure there would be no survivors. These relentless attacks lasted for more than an hour and completely perforated the vessel, with the sides and the decks being pitted by more than 800 holes larger than a man’s fist, including 100 rocket-hits that were six to eight inches wide, and a 40 foot hole below the waterline produced by a torpedo strike. Only a miracle kept the ship afloat.
But the desperate sailors braved constant enemy fire to jury-rig a single transmission antenna, allowing them to send out an urgent plea for help. Their SOS was finally received by our nearby Sixth Fleet, whose commanders immediately dispatched two waves of jet fighters to rescue the Liberty and drive off the attackers, only to have both flights recalled by order of America’s highest political leadership, which chose to abandon the Liberty and its crew to their fate. At the end, two large helicopters filled with commandos dressed in full battle gear and armed with assault weapons were preparing to board the Liberty, sweep its decks clear of any resistance, and sink it. But at that moment their headquarters apparently discovered that the ship had managed to report its plight to other American military forces, so the enemy broke off the attack and retreated. The first American assistance finally arrived seventeen hours after the first shots had been fired, as two destroyers reached the stricken vessel, which was still desperately trying to stay afloat.
This story combined so many elements of exceptional military heroism, political treachery, and success against all odds that if the Liberty had been attacked by any nation on earth except Israel, the inspirational events of June 8, 1967 might have become the basis for several big-budget, Oscar-nominated movies as well as a regular staple of television documentaries. Such a patriotic narrative would have provided very welcome relief from the concurrent military disaster our country was then facing in its Vietnam War debacle. But events involving serious misdeeds of the Jewish State are hardly viewed with great favor by the leading lights of our entertainment industry, and the story of the Liberty quickly vanished from sight so that today I doubt whether even one American in a hundred has ever heard of it.
Our news media has been almost as silent on the subject. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, there was naturally some coverage in our major newspapers and magazines, with several of the reports expressing considerable skepticism of the Israeli claims of having made an innocent mistake. But the Johnson Administration quickly imposed an extreme clampdown to suppress any challenges to the official story.
An American admiral soon met with all of the survivors in small groups, including the many dozens still hospitalized from their serious injuries, and he issued fearsome threats to those terrified young sailors, most of whom were still in their teens or early twenties. If any of them ever mentioned a word of what had happened—even to their mothers, fathers, or wives, let alone the media—they would immediately be court-martialed and end their lives in prison “or worse.”
With our journalists having great difficulty finding any eyewitnesses willing to talk and our government firmly declaring that the attack had been an unfortunate instance of accidental “friendly fire,” the newsmen quickly lost interest and the story faded from the headlines. Our government still remained so concerned about the smoldering embers of the incident that the surviving sailors were distributed across the other ships of our navy, apparently with efforts made to avoid having any of them serve together, which would have allowed them an opportunity to discuss the events they had barely survived.
The ensuing decade of the 1970s saw the Watergate Scandal unfold, culminating in the impeachment and resignation of a president, and numerous other sordid governmental scandals and abuses of power came to light in the years that followed, greatly eroding popular faith in the honesty of our government.