"The USS Liberty: Dissenting History VS Official History"


By John Borne, Ph.D., doctoral dissertation published June 1995 To order call 718 857-1743 or send $20 to Dr. John Borne 41 Eastern Parkway, Apt 1E Brooklyn, NY 11238 Excerpts from Introduction On June 8, 1967, the American naval intelligence ship USS LIBERTY was attacked by Israeli air and naval forces off the coast of Gaza. Thirty-four crewmen were killed and 171 wounded. Beyond these two brief statements almost everything concerning this event is a matter of controversy. The controversy arises because the crewmen of the ship believe that the attack was deliberate, and that the United States Government and the Israeli Government cooperated to hide this fact, with false and rigged investigations and with untrue official accounts. The crewmen were ordered to keep silent on the matter, and as military men they had to obey. Fourteen years later, retired and no longer silenced, many of them formed the LIBERTY VETERANS ASSOCIATION to wage a campaign to tell their version of events, a dissenting history opposed to the official history. The most important of the crewmen in this campaign was Commander James Ennes, Jr., an officer of the ship. His book Assault on the Liberty presents the story of the attack as seen by the crewmen, and of the "coverup" which they believed had been organized to hide the truth about the attack. The men have waged a remarkable campaign for attention and have gained the backing of important public figures and journalists. Their views are largely ignored by officials of the United States Government. The Israeli Government and its supporters, who at first also ignored them, have been forced to reply and have denounced the disssenting history presented by the LIBERTY men as false and untruthful. This study will examine the controversy and insofar as possible judge the truth of the matter. There are six basic questions which will be considered: (1) What actually occurred during the attack? (2) Does the evidence we possess enable us to decide whether the attack was accidental or deliberate? (3) Why were the Sixth Fleet rescue flights recalled? (4) When a government (or in this case, two governments, American and Israeli) attempt to present as truth the official history of an event, and to deny a dissenting history, what actions do they take? What are the mechanisms and methods used to maintain the official view and to prevent the issue from becoming controversial and a part of public debate? (5) When a small group of citizens such as the LIBERTY men tries to reopen a "closed" question, and to force an issue into the realm of public debate, what methods and tactics do they use? (6) What was the role of the press in either promoting or denigrating an official or a dissenting history, and in setting the terms of the debate? SOME PROBLEMS IN DISSENTING HISTORY VERSUS OFFICIAL HISTORY. An official history almost always represents, until challenged, a kind of consensus, based in part on its near-monopoly of the public agenda. The official history of events, if not entirely believed by all the public, is at least accepted as the probable truth in the absence of any serious reason to challenge the official view. The dominance of official history will usually last for a long time, for those who dissent have to organize, find resources, investigate issues, and try to present their own version of the past. When the dissenters do challenge the official consensus, this effort will take time, sometimes even several generations. In this case, the dissent was crushed in earlier years because the dissenters were military men who could be forced into silence. In the last dozen years the LIBERTY men have been able to make their case publicly. Nevertheless we are considering events which have occurred over a generation. Because this argument extends over such a long period of time, we can best clarify the matter by giving a brief history of the controversy. The account is made more complicated by the fact that there were three parties to the dispute: the United States government, the Israeli government, and the LIBERTY men. In reality, as we shall see, the dispute between the two governments was minimal and, despite a few indignant protests over the attack, the U.S. government largely agreed with the Israeli Government concerning the event. (There is one important and interesting exception to this general statement, as will be discussed.) The issue, then, was largely between the LIBERTY men and the two governments. The controversy can best be described as occurring during three periods. The first period was June and July 1967. During this time the crewmen were forcibly silenced and were unable to present their own version of the event. There were only two occasions when the crewmen managed to claim publicly that the attack was deliberate. Both protests by the crewmen were brief and barely noticed by the world at large. A few journalists did claim or suggest that the attack was intentional, but they were not in contact with the crewmen and in any event did not follow up on the story. In this first period the U.S. and Israeli governments were successful in establishing their official history, without any serious challenge. There were minor differences between the official histories as presented by the two governments, but they were of little importance. In the second period, 1968-1980, the official consensus was generally accepted and the matter was largely forgotten. The very few protests against this consensus were scarcely noticed. In the third period, 1980 to the present, the LIBERTY crewmen managed to present a dissenting history and for the first time force at least some degree of debate on the subject. This was largely due to Ennes and his book Assault on the Liberty, and to the energetic campaign which the crewmen waged to make the world hear their story. In these thirteen years the LIBERTY men have gained the support of important journalists and public figures and have managed to make their version of history known to at least a part of the American public. There are two secondary questions which should be noted for the sake of clarity, since there are frequent references to these topics in the discussion of the LIBERTY. Neither of the questions can be answered with certainty, and neither are crucial to the basic questions with which we are concerned. First, there is the unsettled question as to whether or not the Israeli government asked the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, before the attack on the LIBERTY, if there were any American ships in the area. This question is much more complicated than might be supposed, and there is much evidence on both sides of the issue. Interestingly, this is a dispute entirely between the U.S. government and the Israeli government. The LIBERTY men have no way of knowing the facts in this matter, and they merely note the argument between their two opponents. Secondly, there is the matter of the submarine which had made a rendezvous with the LIBERTY on June 7, 1967, and which was submerged nearby when the attack began. There are frequent references in accounts and documents to this (or possibly another) submarine and much speculation on its mission, but not enough evidence to give any definite answers on the subject. In describing the charges and countercharges we should use the term "controversy" rather than "debate". Debate implies too neat and civil an argument, with statements and rebuttals. We are dealing here with a dispute in which the upholders of official history refuse to dignify as equal opponents those who present a dissenting history. The charges of the LIBERTY men are if possible ignored, or not seriously considered. The LIBERTY men, however, with everything to gain from open debate and with the confidence that truth is on their side, have made a point of dealing with every argument made by their opponents. In the first two time periods of this long controversy, 1967 to 1980, the documents and arguments were provided by the U.S. and Israeli governments, while the crewmen had little opportunity to make their case. In the period since 1980 the crewmen, assuming the great burden of promoting their dissenting history against the prevailing consensus, have written and spoken at length while their opponents have presented their case more briefly. In each instance I have attempted to give a balanced view of the dispute. There is one final point to be considered in taking an overview of this controversy: the logic and consistency of the positions held by the contending opponents. The crewmen have been remarkably consistent and assured in presenting their views. The views they hold in 1992 are those they held in 1967, allowing only for the additional information concerning details of events which they have managed to uncover in that quarter century. Their arguments are coherent and detailed. The one exception relates to the events in Grafton, Wisconsin, which will be described in a chapter of this dissertation. Here, I feel, they engage in some rather uneasy rationalizations to justify the fact that a memorial library in their honor was financed by two wealthy men of right wing views. The U.S. government, as represented by the bureaucracy, has also been consistent in the sense that it has stood by the Naval Court Summary of 1967 as the final word on the matter, and has refused to debate the matter further. The Israelis and their American supporters have been far less consistent. Their accounts of the attack vary greatly, and the LIBERTY men have exploited these differing accounts to the greatest degree possible. Just why the Israeli explanations vary so greatly is itself an interesting question which I will consider in the concluding chapter.

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Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors

USS Liberty