Behind the USS Liberty Incident
By Jay Holmes
USS Liberty, Official US Navy Photograph
In 1967, Egypt blockaded Israeli ships from the port of Aqaba in Jordan. Syria, Iraq, and Jordan mobilized, along with part of the Iraqi Army. This was accompanied by weeks of public announcements from the leaders of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt that they intended to annihilate Israel and all the Jews there within. Israel was forced into war.
On June 5, 1967, Israel attacked and severely damaged the Egyptian Air Force. Israel followed up that air attack with a successful campaign against a vastly numerically superior Egyptian Army in the Sinai desert.
The planned annihilation of Israel was not going well for the Arab armies. The Six Days War, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath are fascinating topics for any writer, but my intention is to deal specifically with Israel’s greatest failure during the Six Days War, the USS Liberty incident.
On June 8, 1967, the Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the clearly marked US Navy signals intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, while she was underway in international waters off coast of Sinai. That assault resulted in the deaths of 34 crewmen and the serious injury of 171 more.
The remaining crew members of the USS Liberty remain certain that the attack was deliberate and done with the knowledge of Israel, and that the ship was a neutral American ship in international waters. Israel maintains that the attack was deliberate, but that it was the result of mistaken identity.
Make no mistake about it. Forty-five years later, the attack on the USS Liberty remains a major controversy for all those concerned, and it does so for a variety of reasons and agendas.
The conduct of the USS Liberty on June 8 is fairly easy to understand. To try to understand the decisions made by then US President Lyndon Johnson, as well as his possible motives and the motives of the Israelis, we must examine the circumstances and events leading up to the attack.
Before we consider that complex web of facts and weed out the mountains of both deliberate and accidental misinformation, I must first acknowledge the remarkable courage of the men of the USS Liberty and their outstanding seamanship which enabled them to keep their badly damaged ship afloat and underway long enough to reach a repair facility in Malta. While the USS Liberty incident remains a heated controversy for many and an angry memory for the US Navy, the USA can remember the conduct of her captain and crew with pride.
A timeline surrounding the attack on the USS Liberty is useful in understanding the complex events that lead to it, the state of mind of President Lyndon Johnson, and the attitude of the Israelis. It also helps dispel some of the obvious misinformation that has surfaced since the attack occurred. Sherman was right when he said that “war is hell,” and someone in Germany was right when they coined the phrase “the devil is in the detail.” If there is indeed a “devil,” he was certainly present and active in the details surrounding the attack on the USS Liberty.
March 8, 1965
Egyptian President Abdel Nasser, encouraged by military support and promises of “solidarity” from the USSR, announces, “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand. We shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood.” The Soviets do in fact support Egypt generously in the form of weapons, cash, training, and engineering projects. The solidarity has yet to arrive.
Terrorists launch over 250 attacks against Israel from Syria. Tank and artillery duels result.
February 22, 1967
Syrian President Attassi makes a public plea to the Arab world to, ” . . . move from the defensive to the offensive to liberate the usurped land.”
April 7, 1967
Syrian Artillery batteries once more fire on Israeli farmers from the Golan Heights. This time, Israel reacts. Israeli jets attack the Syrian gun positions. Syrian Mig 21s enter the fray with a result that becomes a set pattern over the ensuing decades. Six Syrian jets are shot down with no Israeli losses.
April 8, 1967.
Syria announces that it will battle the Israelis “until the Zionist presence is ended.”
May 2, 1967
The USS Liberty puts to sea from Norfolk, Virginia tasked with gathering intelligence from the West Coast of Africa.
May 11, 1967
UN Secretary General U Thant delivers a speech about “the grave situation in the “Mideast” but offers no solution.
May 13, 1967
Egyptian General Anwar Sadat returns to Egypt from a trip to Russia and informs President Nasser that Soviet intelligence confirms that the Israelis have massed 12 army brigades (approximately 20,000 troops) on the Syrian border for a surprise invasion of Syria.
The information is pure fiction. So much for the “solidarity.”
The USSR’s leader, Leonid Brehznev, is formulating an armed intervention into his Warsaw Pact “Allies” in order to crackdown on “the liberalism that Khrushchev had allowed to fester.” The USSR wants the USA and Europe preoccupied with as many other crises as possible when it launches that crackdown the next year. Let the solidarity flow.
Anwar Sadat never forgets that Soviet betrayal. The road to Camp David started in Moscow.
May 14, 1967
Israel intercepts and decodes an alert message transmitted to the Egyptian Army by their HQ. Egypt flaunts its mobilization of armored units by parading them through the streets of Cairo in front of foreign correspondents and diplomats.
May 15, 1967
Israel reinforces the Sinai and sends a message that it is doing so in defense and does not intend to invade Egypt.
May 16, 1967
As Egyptian armored forces approach the Israeli border, Egyptian President Nasser demands that the UN peace keeping force of 3400 soldiers depart from the Israeli border.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US intelligence community inform US President Lyndon Johnson that Egypt will invade Israel with 90,000 troops, and that Syria and Jordan will join in the attack.
Cairo Radio begins to broadcast announcements that the time for Israel’s demise has come. The announcements will continue for several weeks.
May 17, 1967
UN Secretary U Thant informs Egypt that there is no recent build up of Israeli forces.
May 18, 1967
Without conferring with the UN Security Council, U Thant orders the UN peace keeping force to depart from the Sinai.
On May 19 (still May 18 in Washington DC) the UN forces leave the Sinai. Great Britain loudly protests the withdrawal of the UN forces without any agreement by UN members.
If Israel wondered about the UN’s value prior to May 19, 1967, it has had little reason to wonder since then.
May 20, 1967
The US orders her Sixth Fleet, including two carrier strike forces comprising Task Force 60, to remain at least 100 miles west of Egypt.
Note: It is critical to remember that the USS Liberty is not part of Sixth Fleet.
May 22, 1967
Egyptian President Nasser announces that no Israeli ships will be allowed to reach the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea. With Egyptian batteries now occupying the heights above Aqaba (previously occupied by the UN forces) Israel cannot receive the usual oil shipments from Iran. The usually highly mobile Israeli Army cannot maneuver without oil. Israel must seek a victory before the oil runs out. Israel calls up her reserves. Israeli reservists cannot remain out of their civilian jobs for long without crippling the Israeli economy. The clock is ticking.
President Lyndon Johnson condemns the blockade of an international waterway by Egypt at the straits of Tiran. The US and UK order all citizens to leave the area.
The USS Liberty makes the port of Abidjan Ivory Coast for a four day port call.
May 23, 1967
The US National Security Agency requests that the Join Chiefs of Staff task the USS Liberty with gathering signals intelligence from a position in international waters off of Port Said, Egypt.
May 24, 1967
The USS Liberty departs from the Ivory Coast headed for the US Naval Base at Rota, Spain at “best speed.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban departs for a trip to France and the UK.
UN Secretary General U Thant goes to Cairo to talk to Nasser. (He must be quite the optimist.)
Egyptian Minster of War Shams Badran departs Cairo for Moscow. (Another optimist.)
Canada and Denmark request that the UN Security Council convene an emergency meeting.
The UK carrier HMS Victorious takes in her lines to depart for England but is ordered to remain in Malta on alert.
Jordan announces that Iraqi and Saudi forces are being deployed to Jordan.
May 25, 1967
Cairo Radio idiotically announces, “The Arab peoples firmly resolved to wipe Israel off the map.” War always looks better from a distance.
The UK carrier HMS Hermes is recalled from Singapore to Aden.
May 26, 1967
Israeli Foreign Minister Eban meets with President Johnson at the White House.
May 27, 1967
The US European Command orders the US Sixth Fleet to keep all her aircraft from within 100 miles of Egypt and Syria.
May 28, 1967
US Secretary of State Dean Rusk informs Israel that the US, UK, Canada, and the Netherlands are preparing a plan to escort oil tankers through the straits of Tiran to Aqaba.
May 29, 1967
The NSA sends “tasking” information to the USS Liberty, In English that means that the Liberty is told where and on what it should concentrate her signals intelligence efforts.
May 30, 1967
The USSR announces that she will reinforce her Mediterranean fleet.
June 1, 1967
The USS Liberty makes port in Rota, Spain. She resupplies and takes on equipment and a few more intelligence specialists.
June 2, 1957
The USS Liberty departs Rota, Spain bound for the coast of Egypt.
June 3, 1967
The devil is in the detail (and in the Nasser’s ear). In another display of warm Soviet solidarity, the Soviet Ambassador to Egypt assures Egyptian President Nasser that Israel will be unable to resist.
June 4, 1967
The Israeli Cabinet votes to go to war.
Egypt sends two commando battalions to Jordan and moves them to the Israeli border.
June 5, 1967
Israel conducts effective air strikes against Egyptian air bases and all but destroys the Egyptian Air Force.
June 6, 1967
Israel (and others) intercept a call between President Nasser of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan in which they agree to claim that UK and American aircraft have been flying combat missions for Israel. Radio Cairo dutifully broadcasts the fictitious claim. Radio Beirut and Radio Amman quickly follow suit. The USSR joins in with the same misinformation broadcast across the USSR and eastern Europe. Egypt is not about to admit that the Israeli Air force caught the Egyptian Air Force napping on the eve of war.
Nasser should be asking himself why his pals in the Soviet KGB who always claim to know so much about Israeli intentions missed this one. A smarter person would be asking that question, but he’s not a “smarter person.” He’s just Nasser.
June 7, 1967
The annihilation of Israel is not going as planned and is starting to look like it might be the Egyptian and Jordanian armies that will be annihilated. The USSR asks for an emergency session of the UN Security Council and proposes an immediate cease fire. Jordan informs the UN that it agrees to the cease fire proposal.
President Johnson sends a HOTLINE message to Moscow pointing out that Syria and Egypt have not agreed to a cease fire. He also points out that they have broken off diplomatic relations and are failing to protect US citizens and embassy personnel, and that the consequences may be grave.
The NSA requests the USS Liberty to change her operational area further west off of the coast of Egypt, due to the rapid western advance of the Israeli army.
Are you a bit confused yet with the complexity of the events? You should be. Things were changing at a fast pace during early June of 1967. Keep in mind that all of this was happening while Johnson was almost completely absorbed by the US “non-war” in Vietnam and increasingly distracted by the growing anti-war protests at home.
Remember that President Johnson insisted on pursuing a severe micromanagement strategy concerning the Vietnam War and often went without much sleep as he tried unsuccessfully to personally manage every air strike and minute detail about the land forces in Southeast Asia. His and his overconfident Cabinet’s mismanagement of that war was to have disastrous consequences for the USA as well as the people of South Vietnam, and his probable exhaustion resulting from his mania for micromanagement likely effected how he handled the events of June 8, 1967.
In our next episode, we will examine the attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967. Readers will draw what conclusions they may concerning Israeli intentions toward that US ship.
~ Jay Holmes
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