Israel Attacks the USS Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mistaking an American communications ship located near Egyptian waters for an enemy ship, Israeli planes repeatedly strafed the vessel. Thirty-four sailors were killed, and five times that many were injured, in addition to the resulting damage to the ship. Although Israel apologized and later paid compensation, the incident created an element of ill will between the two countries.

Summary of Event

The Six-Day War officially began the morning of June 5, 1967, when the Israeli Air Force launched Operation Focus Operation Focus , a massive attack on Egyptian air fields that effectively eliminated the Egyptian air forces and defenses within thirty minutes. At nearly the same time, the Israel Defense Forces Israel Defense Forces moved on the ground into the Sinai Peninsula, completing their conquest of the territory within three days. Israel;Liberty incident Liberty (ship) Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] [kw]Israel Attacks the USS Liberty (June 8, 1967) [kw]Liberty, Israel Attacks the USS (June 8, 1967) Israel;Liberty incident Liberty (ship) Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] [g]Middle East;June 8, 1967: Israel Attacks the USS Liberty[09320] [g]Israel;June 8, 1967: Israel Attacks the USS Liberty[09320] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 8, 1967: Israel Attacks the USS Liberty[09320] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 8, 1967: Israel Attacks the USS Liberty[09320] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;relations with Israel Eshkol, Levi Nasser, Gamal Abdel [p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;war with Israel Spector, Yiftah McGonagle, William

The Israeli attack was the culmination of years of guerrilla attacks and incidents carried out by the surrounding Arab states. At the close of the previous undeclared war, the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, the United Nations had stationed a peacekeeping force in the Sinai as an attempt to maintain a semblance of peace in the region. However, repeated border incidents between Israel and Syria had escalated tensions. On May 18, 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt requested the removal of the U.N. forces, and the following week he closed the Straits of Tīrān to Israeli shipping. At the same time, Nasser began a remilitarization of the Sinai. Other Arab states began to mobilize their own military forces as well. Concerned at this mobilization, Israel decided to make a preemptive strike against its Arab neighbors.

The presence of the USS Liberty in the waters off the coast of the Sinai must be seen in the context of the Cold War. American and Soviet competition had entailed the arming of their respective “client” states in the Middle East: The United States supported Israel, while the Soviet Union supported Egypt, Syria, and other Arab states. The U.S. Sixth Fleet was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, in part to monitor Soviet activity and to follow events as they transpired on land.

The Sixth Fleet was ordered to remain some 240 miles from the fighting. However, word appears never to have reached the Liberty, which was carrying out a surveillance Espionage mission near the coast. Commander William McGonagle, captain of the Liberty, had apparently requested an escort from the fleet, but his request was denied. Instead, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., had sent orders to Commander McGonagle to withdraw from the region. The orders were not cabled directly to the Liberty, however. Instead, they were directed by way of the Philippines. The process took too long, with the result that the ship never received its withdrawal orders.

Around 6:00 a.m. on June 8, 1967, the pilot of an Israeli reconnaissance aircraft spotted the Liberty near the Israeli coast, tentatively identifying it as an American ship; later reconnaissance in the area likewise caused the ship to be marked as neutral on the naval control board Israeli command used to monitor ships in the area. However, at 11:00 a.m., at the end of his shift, the Israeli officer on duty at headquarters assumed for some reason that the ship had left the area. He removed its marker from the board. At nearly the same time, the explosion of an ammunition dump on the coast was mistaken for shelling originating at sea. The presence of what was now an unidentified ship led to the mistaken conclusion that the Liberty was the source of the shelling.

Captain Yiftah Spector, commander of the Israeli air squadron sent to investigate the ship, made a pass at a height of some three thousand feet. He reported “a military vessel, battleship gray with four gun mounts.” Whether because of the height or angle, Spector reported that he never saw the American flag the ship was flying, nor did any other Israeli pilots report observing the American flag. The flagstaff was later destroyed during the attack.

At 1:57 p.m., the Israeli squadron began their attack. Nine men were killed immediately, with numerous others, including Commander McGonagle, severely injured. A total of three runs were made on the ship by Spector’s Mirages, followed up by additional attacks by a squadron of Mystères, which dropped napalm, leaving much of the ship ablaze. The absence of return fire, however, created concern among the Israeli officers on the ground. When the Israeli squadron commander reported that the ship’s markings were in English rather than Arabic, the squadron was ordered to stop the attack.

Compounding the initial error, an Israeli torpedo boat that entered the smoke-filled area to provide aid was accidentally fired upon by a sailor on the Liberty. Mistaking the ship for Egyptian, the captain ordered return fire; a direct hit by a torpedo killed an additional twenty-five men. Only later, when rescuing the survivors from rafts in the sea, did the torpedo boat’s captain realize that the Liberty was an American ship.

President Lyndon B. Johnson initially feared the attack had been carried out by the Soviets. Despite being strongly pro-Israel, Johnson and his advisers were angered at what was perceived to be inexcusable carelessness in attacking an American ship. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of Israel sent a highly apologetic note and offered compensation for the sailors. In the end, 34 sailors died in the attack, and more than 170 were injured. The Israeli government paid $12 million in compensation. The compensation was directed to the men of the Liberty and their families. No compensation was paid for the ship itself, since the Israeli government concluded that because they were never notified of the presence of the Liberty, they had no way of determining it was an American ship. Various boards of inquiry later decided the attack was a terrible accident of war.

Significance

The USS Liberty receives aid from the Sixth Fleet after being attacked by Israeli forces in June, 1967.

(U.S. Navy)

Several courts of inquiry and reviews held by Israeli courts, as well as a variety of U.S. government agencies, all came to the same conclusion: that the incident, while certainly avoidable had Israel more firmly established the nationality of the vessel, was nevertheless the result of a terrible mistake. Some questions remained unanswered, most notably that of why such a lightly armed ship was sent into a war zone without notifying the Israeli government.

Some U.S. government officials reacted with anger to the attack; Clark Clifford Clifford, Clark , longtime presidential adviser and head of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, called the attack “a flagrant act of gross negligence.” Others used equally stark language. Moreover, the conduct of what some considered incomplete inquiries by the various review boards resulted in the development of conspiracy theories. Depending upon where the theorists’ sympathies lay, conspiracy proponents suggested the attack was an intentional diversion to provide cover for an attack on Syria, to prevent knowledge of Israeli success on the battlefield, or even to cover massacres of Arab prisoners. None of these ideas was shown to have merit.

In the end, relations between the Israeli and U.S. governments were strained but not severed. Each recognized the importance of the other as a strong ally in the region. While the ramifications of the Six-Day War itself continued for decades with the continuing occupation of captured lands by Israel, the Liberty incident has generally faded in the collective memory. Israel;Liberty incident Liberty (ship) Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Randolph, and Winston S. Churchill. The Six-Day War. London: Heinemann Books, 1967. Contemporary accounts of events surrounding the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cristol, A. Jay. The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Attack on the U.S. Navy Spyship. Dulles, Va.: Brassey’s, 2002. Extensive investigation of the incident by the author, a retired U.S. Navy captain. Based upon reports by witnesses, as well as government archives, the author concludes the attack was a terrible accident, but he addresses alternative explanations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ennis, James M., Jr. Assault on the Liberty. Washington, D.C.: Reintree Press, 2002. Account of the attack as described by one of the ship’s survivors. More controversial account of events behind the incident, as well as an alleged coverup. A portion of the author’s arguments are based upon hearsay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammel, Eric. Six Days in June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Pacifica, Calif.: Pacifica Press, 2001. Description of military events at the “local” level. Describes the ability of the individual soldier to adapt to changing conditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oren, Michael. Six Days of War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Comprehensive history of the war which has shaped Israel during the last decades of the century. One section addresses the Liberty attack and the controversies that resulted.

Israel Is Created as a Homeland for Jews

Jordan Annexes the West Bank

Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic

Middle East Turmoil Leads to U.N. Action in Lebanon

Fatah Launches Its First Terrorist Strike on Israel

Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War

United Nations Security Council Adopts Resolution 242

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