USS Liberty: Historians Debate


Editor's Note: The publication of James Bamford's Body of Secrets has sparked a vigorous debate among historians concerning the attack on the USS Liberty. Following are excerpts from one recent debate conducted by the members of H Diplo, a listserv run by the University of Michigan under the general heading, H Net (Humanities Network).

Mr. Bergerud is a professor of history at Lincoln University in Oakland, California and the author of several books on military history.

The July 23 issue of The New Republic includes a blistering attack on James Bamford's recent account of the Liberty incident by an Israeli scholar Michael Oren. Oren is presently writing a book on the Six Day War. If Oren is right, Bamford committed astounding errors in research, and some of Oren's most damaging evidence comes from Bamford's most important sources. I doubt this will be the last word, but anyone interested in the tragedy should check this one out.

[Editor's Note: Click here to read Mr. Bamford's response to the New Republic review.]

Mr. Moise is professor of history at Clemson University and the author of a book about the Tonkin Gulf incident.

I have read the chapter on the Liberty incident in Bamford's book, and also Oren's article attacking Bamford. I find Bamford more persuasive.

An example of the reasons, starting with Oren's discussion of Bamford's handling of the testimony of Marvin Nowicki, who was aboard a U.S. intelligence aircraft that was listening to, and recording, Israeli radio communications during the incident."...spliced into Nowicki's account are bloodthirsty quotes from Israeli pilots, as if Bamford were in possession of the spy plane's tapes. But the quotes were snipped, out of context, from a transcript of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) communications made available to a 1987 Thames Television special on the Liberty. That very same transcript proved that the pilots went to great lengths to identify the ship and took considerable risks to rescue its survivors, whom they assumed were Egyptians."

Problems with this passage: 1) I cannot find any quotes from Israeli pilots spliced into Nowicki's account. 2) When Bamford does quote Israeli pilots (in other sections, not spliced into Nowicki's account), he gives source notes clearly indicating that he got these quotes from the Thames Television transcript, not by being in possession of the spy plane's tapes. 3) I don't believe the last sentence of the passage I have quoted.

A topic like the attack on the Liberty really calls for a super-careful author, and Bamford isn't one. (I have not gotten any reply to the e-mail I sent him more than three weeks ago, pointing out a couple of minor errors in other chapters of his book, and also requesting that in future printings of the book my name be given as Edwin Moise, not Edwin Morse.) I would be prepared to consider the possibility that Bamford may be very seriously wrong in his interpretation of the attack. But he is fairly convincing. Oren is far more careless with facts than Bamford is, and not at all convincing.


I am not up to picking an argument with Prof. Moise or anyone else concerning the details of the Liberty incident. Perhaps Oren will have more detail when his book about the Six Day War comes out. Perhaps not.

Oren does raise very interesting questions concerning motive, however. Anyone trying to explain the Liberty tragedy has to come up with a logical answer to the obvious question of why Israel would attack an American vessel. The damage done to Israel could have been severe, so what did they hope to gain? If Oren is right (and this does strike me as correct) the theory that Tel Aviv was trying to hide the attack on the Golan does not fit the Liberty chronology. Bamford argued that the IDF was desperate to cover up a massive war crime - the ongoing execution of about 1,000 Egyptian POWs. This strikes me as very unlikely. I doubt an incident of this scale took place at all. And, if it did, why would Israel take such a desperate step to keep the US from learning about it? Did they think Washington was going to release the tapes confirming a massive war crime to the world press? Would IDF or Israeli leaders have time to make such considerations? I have serious doubts.

I admit that the chronology of events as I understand them makes things look very bad for the IDF. But there still does not seem to be an obvious motive for such a brazen attack if done intentionally. From where I sit, we must choose between two very unlikely scenarios. No historian likes that.

Mr. Gleijeses is professor of US Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)

In response to the review of Bamford's book in the New York Times I wrote the following letter to the editor. It was not published, but the readers of this thread in H-diplo might find it relevant.

To the Editor:

In his review of James Bamford's Body of Secrets(April 29), Joseph Finder charges that the author sides"rather too credulously" with the" conspiracy theorists" who allege that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) knew that the Liberty was an American ship before attacking it in 1967, causing the deaths of thirty-four Americans.

In fact, Bamford is in good company.

In 1967, the US naval attache in Tel Aviv expressed utter"incredulity" at the Israeli claim that the IDF had confused the Liberty with the Egyptian ship El Queir. (Office of the Defense Attache to White House, June 18, 1967, LBJ Library)

Admiral Thomas Moorer, who was Chief of Naval Operations in 1967 and later chair of the JCS, agreed."To suggest that they [the IDF] couldn't identify the ship is ... ridiculous. ... Anybody who could not identify the Liberty could not tell the difference between the White House and the Washington Monument." (Washington Post, June 15, 1991, p. 14)

Johnson's biographer Robert Dallek writes that"the highest officials of the [Johnson] administration, including the President, believed it 'inconceivable' that Israel's 'skilled' defense forces could have committed such a gross error." (Flawed Giant, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 430-31)

Clark Clifford was asked by LBJ to chair a special investigation of the attack. His report, which is still classified, concluded that"it was impossible" that the Israelis had mistaken the Liberty for the El Queir."Having been for so long a staunch supporter of Israel," Clifford wrote in his memoirs,"I was particularly troubled by this incident. ...Somewhere inside the Israeli government, somewhere along the chain of command, something had gone terribly wrong -- and then had been covered up." (Counsel to the President, Random House, 1991, pp. 446-47) Perhaps Finder is mistaken when he suggests that Bamford's analysis was"skewed by his palpable distaste for the Israeli state."

Mr. Hanks is the manager of the H Diplo listserv.

In spite of the cult of precision bombing that pervades military thinking, there have been numerous examples of"friendly fire" or"mistaken identities" in modern military history.

These include:

  • notoriously inaccurate shell fire in the trenches during the First World War
  • American planes bombing their own troops in Normandy during the Second World War
  • Iraq hitting an American ship in the Persian Gulf with an Exocet missile in the mistaken belief that it was an Iranian vessel (this at a time when Iraq and the USA were still allies)
  • "friendly fire" by coalition bombers on American and British ground troops during the Persian Gulf war
  • the American bombing of the Chinese embassy during the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia Given the persistence of this problem, can we automatically rule out Israeli claims that the bombing of the USS Liberty was an accident? Until someone can definitively demonstrate what Israel stood to gain by attacking the neutral ship of a superpower while it was engaged in war, we should be guided by the principle of Occam's razor - namely, that the simplest explanation is usually the best one.


    I could add dozens of friendly fire incidents to the list provided by Mr. Hanks from every war the US has participated in during this century. Indeed, I have long concluded that absolutely anything can happen in the upside down world of military combat. And no military, regardless of quality, is immune.

    I found one detail of Oren's piece in the New Republic to be very interesting if true. He notes that IDF aircraft attacked at the request of the Israeli Navy and that they carried napalm and cannon. An earlier contributor played down the signicance of this, but Oren's point was actually a good one. If you want to sink a ship with air attack, you would use bombs. Napalm is a nasty weapon and would cause damage, but it wouldn't penetrate into the ship's innards which is what one would want if one meant to sink a vessel the size of Liberty. Strafing with cannon would kill crewmen but not sink a blue water vessel. Now the IDF had a plentiful supply of HE bombs - why wouldn't they have used then?

    What was the motive for Israel? At what level was the decision made? Anyone suggesting that the Israeli government ordered the destruction of a US ship must confront these issues.

    Mr. Pritchard is an historian and international criminal lawyer who for more than 30 years has specialized in the misconduct of war and the history and jurisprudence of war crimes trials.

    In response to Eric Bergerud's observations, the length and closeness of the aerial reconnaissance that preceded the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, reconnaissance carried out over a period of hours by a variety of Israeli aircraft who circled the Liberty, on one occasion at an estimated altitude of 200 feet, makes it appear improbable that the vessel was mistaken for an Egyptian horsecarrier of half its size, nothing like the configuration of the Liberty, and known to be incapable of setting out to sea at all. The duration and persistence of the aerial and sea-borne attacks that were carried out at very close range in perfect visibility during daylight hours also makes it most improbable that the ship was unidentified when the configuration of the vessel, its huge hull numbers, its name on emblazoned on its stern, the unmistakable and very large holiday ensign that was hauled up as soon as the spanking new flag that had been flying was shot away in the initial attack, all suggest to me that the attack was not the result of mistaken identification. The survivors have told us that the attack was preceded by six hours of low-level aerial surveillance, that their ship was approached, circled or buzzed by photo-reconnaissance aircraft no less than thirteen times. There was no mist, no clouds, no smoke to impede their views on a bright day over calm seas, with enough breeze to make the flag flying on the vessel maximally visible to every eye and camera trained on the ship.

    Eric Bergerud is right that straffing the Liberty-- with 30mm cannon fire from attacking jets, 20mm cannon fire and heavy machine gun fire from the PT boats -- would not have led to the loss of the vessel unless it had caused an almighty explosion in the engineering spaces of the ship. However, the napalming of the bridge and decks which took place early in the attack, coupled with the firing of dozens of rockets into the ship (which was, afterall, never built to survive such damage), must be considered strong evidence of a determined intention to inflict mortal wounds upon the ship and her company. Eyewitnesses from the ship's company describe how the napalm appeared to be sucked into the eight-inch holes punched through the decks and superstructures by the rocket fire, increasing the devastation within the ship. The launching of torpedoes at the vessel, from PT boats that appeared on the scene only after the aerial attacks had ceased, provides further evidence of an intention to kill the ship. Blowing a 39-foot hole below the water amidships of an elderly liberty hull can hardly be explained as anything other than an intention to send the vessel to the bottom of the sea. The electronics of the ship and its superstructure were state-of-the-art high tech of the day, and there had been alterations in the crew's quarters and working spaces, of course, but the hull was that of a 22-year-old Second World War freighter.

    The failure of the IDF to use HE bombs is probative of nothing at all. The Israeli stocks of HE bombs suitable for attachment to the Mirages and Super Mysteres were not inexhaustible. Only luck and seamanship of a remarkably high order plus the eventual arrival of other ships that belatedly came to the rescue finally saved the day. The crewmen have speculated but do not know whether the troop-carrying chopper that the Israelis sent in at the end were tasked with killing survivors, extracting documents and electronic equipment, or were expected to supply medical assistance. My understanding is that the survivors thought the men they saw in the chopper looked like commandos armed to the teeth. If that's not so, then let's see compelling evidence to the contrary.

    And if the attack was the result of an honest mistake or of a series of honest mistakes, then why did the PT boats circle around the vessel pouring machine gun and cannon fire into survivors who came topside in response to orders to prepare to abandon ship as her list increased to within what I'm given to understand was within two or three degrees of capsizing? Why did they riddle the hull just above the water line in what appeared to be an intent to blow up the ship's engines and high-temperature boilers? Why did they pour gunfire into the ship's liferafts apart from the only one the crewmen managed to get over the side and which one of the PT boats hooked and dragged off with them as they departed, leaving the remaining survivors and dying to whatever fate might befall them as the fires continued to rage?

    Is it plausible to believe that an attack on a defenseless and neutral naval vessel, preceded by hours of surveillance and involving elements of at least two and probably three arms of the IDF must have taken place without the knowledge and consent of the highest levels of the Israeli military command and without the knowledge of any responsible members of the Israeli Government?

    I just don't find that credible. This message is written prior to the broadcast of the History Channel documentary this week. Perhaps it will shed completely new light on the incident. That would be most welcome.

    Mr. Meadors was a member of the crew of the Liberty at the time of the attack.

    Eric Bergerud wrote:

    "Napalm is a nasty weapon and would cause damage, but it wouldn't penetrate into the ship's innards which is what one would want if one meant to sink a vessel the size of Liberty. Strafing with cannon would kill crewmen but not sink a blue water vessel."

    To speak hypothetically for a moment, if the intent of an attacking force was to sink the ship, ensure there are no survivors and ensure that the attack was conducted without allowing any call for rescue to be sent from the ship, those are the armaments an attacking force would use.

    The rocket, cannon and machine gun fire from the initial wave of high-speed attacking jets would destroy antenna mounts and defensive capabilities.

    Slower aircraft would drop napalm on the ship to drive the crew belowdecks. The napalm runs would be followed by additional passes over the ship while firing with cannon, rockets and machine guns.

    Torpedo boats would attack with torpedoes, circle the ship while firing from close range upon anyone who ventured topside, deliberately destroy any life rafts the ship's crew had dropped over the side in anticipation of abandoning ship and then depart the scene immediately.

    To move this response out of the realm of the hypothetical and onto that of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, Lloyd Painter testified before the US Navy Court of Inquiry about his witnessing the deliberate machine gunning of the Liberty's life rafts in the water. When the US Navy released the Court of Inquiry Report to the public they did so after removing Painter's testimony from the record.