"The USS Liberty: Dissenting History VS Official History"
By John Borne, Ph.D., doctoral dissertation published June 1995
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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
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
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
The issue, then, was largely between the LIBERTY men and the two
governments. The controversy can best be described as occurring during
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
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