The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship
James Scott. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. 374 pp. Illus. Index. $26.
Reviewed by Edward J. Drea
James Scott's father, Ensign John Scott, served on board the USS Liberty (AGTR-5), and this book is both a tribute and a belated memorial to the officers and men of that ill-fated spy ship. The younger Scott, a Neiman fellow at Harvard University during 2006-7 and award-winning newspaper journalist, organizes his account into alternating chapters that describe the carnage and heroism on board the Liberty, when, on 8 June 1967, Israeli jets strafed and napalmed her deck and Israeli submarines torpedoed her hull, scoring a direct hit, killing 34 crewmen and leaving 171 others of her crew seriously injured.
Scott tells his tale through graphic first-person accounts and unsettling narratives of the official reaction to the attack from Washington and Tel Aviv. He makes extensive use of material from U.S. and Israeli archives, translated Israeli documents, and hundreds of interviews with senior officials and surviving Liberty crew members to create a vivid and horrific reconstruction of the attack, the crew's desperate struggle to keep the ship afloat during the air strikes, and the shabby treatment accorded the survivors by the U.S. government in the aftermath.
The tragic incident occurred during the Six-Day War, and senior officials in President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration initially were uncertain of who was attacking the Liberty but suspected Egypt or, worse, the Soviet Union. Once Israel announced its air and sea forces had bombed, strafed, and torpedoed the lightly armed ship, Scott contends that the administration's fear of offending that country's domestic backers at a time when it needed support for its Vietnam policy made the Liberty into a domestic political liability. As a consequence, Washington was reluctant to press Tel Aviv too hard about responsibility for the attack and acquiesced to an Israeli government cover-up, aided by some senior American officials.
There is no question that President Johnson had numerous close Jewish advisers and supporters or that he was supportive of Israel. Prominent Jewish-American senators set the tone early by describing the attack as a "tragic error" and diverting attention from how a first-rate military organization could make such a blunder. More blatant practices involved an American journalist tipping off Israeli officials that the President was the source for an article that was highly critical of Israel's role in the attack, Israeli manipulation of presidential adviser Abe Fortas and lawyer David Ginsburg to pressure Johnson to quickly and quietly resolve the incident, and Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, telling Israel's foreign minister, Abba Eban, that Washington had intercepted communications of Israeli pilots identifying the ship as American.
There was tremendous popular support in the United States for Israel during the Six-Day War, and the American media uncritically accepted Israel's version of events. Nevertheless, a clearly identified U.S. Navy ship had been attacked on the high seas without provocation. Israel's attitude from beginning to end was to stonewall the Johnson administration's requests for a thorough investigation and proper punishment. The first Israeli investigation exonerated the attackers, even though Eban believed someone should be punished for negligence. Likewise, under pressure from the administration, a hastily assembled U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry did sloppy work, left contradictions unresolved, and failed to challenge the Israeli account.
The official American position was that the attack was deliberate, for reasons unknown. Possible Israeli motives included removing the main American intelligence source for wartime reporting to force the United States to depend only on information that Tel Aviv fed it or to destroy intercepts that proved Israel started the war. Presidential adviser Clark Clifford was convinced that the Israelis were guilty of a cover-up, but acknowledged that lacking unfettered access to Israeli personnel and records, it could never be proven.
Israel gained no honor by haggling over solatium payments for almost a year and then portraying them as a humanitarian gesture, not the result of relentless U.S. pressure. According to Scott, Johnson settled for a compromise that compensated families but did not spark a confrontation with Israel's supporters, a tactic he often used to resolve controversies. Negotiations over damage payments for the ship dragged on for 13 years and ended with United States getting less than its original repair estimate.
One may criticize Scott for overemphasizing the Jewish influence on the President at the expense of a greater consideration to the administration's concern about expanding Soviet influence in the Middle East. On 10 June 1967, Moscow threatened via the hotline to enter the fighting unless Israeli forces halted operations in Syria. Within days of the cease-fire, the Soviets inaugurated a massive airlift to replenish their Arab allies' arsenals. Within that geo-political context, American support for Israel relegated the Liberty to an unfortunate footnote. Nevertheless, by raising carefully researched questions about the entire process, Scott's fine book has put the Liberty center stage and perhaps given the surviving crewmen an account that truly binds up their wounds.
Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson
Peter C. Mancall. New York: Basic Books, 2009. 288 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. $26.95.
Reviewed by Andrew Lambert
Almost two centuries before the crew of the HMB Bounty subjected Captain William Bligh to the definitive mutiny, putting him and other members of his crew into a long boat and casting them adrift in the South Pacific, another English navigator suffered a similar fate in the far north. The parallels between the lives of Bligh and Henry Hudson are not restricted to the act of mutiny. Both men were superb, even obsessive navigators; both proved intemperate and unpredictable; and both alienated the very men they had brought on board as friends and did so by challenging their status and denying them food.
But Hudson never made it home, and there is precious little evidence of his earlier life or his final fate. In this impressive book, Peter Mancall, an expert on 16th- and 17th-century English exploration, explores Hudson's three polar voyages, situating them in the dynamic, expansionist, risk-taking world of late-Elizabethan and early-Stuart commerce.
By emphasizing what was known at the time and how such information was transmitted, Mancall places Hudson's voyages in the world of Richard Hakluyt, the subject of his last book. Here history and geography became key elements in the creation of the commercial prospectus for new trading combinations, such as the British East India Company. Hudson served for pay and traded on his expertise with men who believed he could find the way to untold wealth. Two of Hudson's voyages were funded by ambitious London merchants; the middle voyage was in the service of the Dutch East India Company. All three sought a northern route to the wealth and trade of East Asia. Having tried the transpolar route due north and the Northeast Passage, Hudson ended his second expedition on the American coast, sailing north as far as present-day Albany, where he "discovered" the river that bears his name and picked up the native name of Manhattan. His Dutch employers took the prize, but not for long.
The final voyage, once again under the English flag, saw his ship overwinter in James Bay at the southern end of Hudson's Bay. Here the ship's company fell apart under the pressure of a long winter and food shortages. Convinced Hudson was not sharing the food equitably, in June 1611 a group of men mutinied. Led by Hudson's erstwhile friend Henry Greene, the Fletcher Christian of this story, they put Hudson, his teenage son John, and seven other men into an open boat with a few clothes, stores, and a gun, and cast them adrift. On the voyage home the ringleaders of the mutiny conveniently died, killed by Inuit or scurvy. The nine survivors were acquitted of murder, and Robert Bylot, the surviving master, returned to the frozen north on voyages with William Baffin, the greatest arctic navigator of the age. In truth the investors in the enterprise were more concerned to find a quick route to the East than in bringing anyone to justice for abandoning Hudson.
The legacy of Hudson's search for the Northwest Passage was potent. In 1687 his careful charting and his decision to give places suitably English names provided proof that the far north belonged to England. That he was buried somewhere in the region only added to the evident riches that the new Hudson's Bay Company and their royal patron, King James II, could deploy. If the passage did not run through Hudson's Bay, it opened a new avenue for trade.
Hudson's last days remain a mystery, but it is right for Mancall to argue that a man of such determination and resourcefulness would have struggled against his fate. Sixty years later an English voyage picked up evidence of a camp on an island at the northern end of James Bay, ideally placed to see incoming ships and well-supplied with food. That said, it is as well that history should not give up all her secrets; there remains a place for mystery at the heart of our culture,
Nelson's Yankee Captain: The Life of Boston Loyalist Sir Benjamin Hallowell
Bryan Elson. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Formac Publishing, 2008. 416 pp. Illus. Notes. Bib. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Joseph Callo, U.S. Navy (Retired)
This is the story of one of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's legendary "band of brothers," Sir Benjamin Hallowell. The tale begins with Hallowell's birth in Boston in 1761, where his father was a British civil servant in the Massachusetts Colony.
His ancestors had arrived in the New World in 1643. By the time of his birth, Hallowell's family had put down deep roots in American soil. With the War of Independence, however, things changed radically. Hallowell's father was a staunch Loyalist, and like many of his fellow Loyalists, he and his family were driven from their home and landed in the frontier settlement of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The circumstances of the family's resettlement in Canada were difficult. Author Bryan Elson, a retired captain of the Royal Canadian Navy, weaves the impact of those difficulties throughout his narrative of Hallowell's career. As a result, Nelson's Yankee Captain traces one of the little-known "back stories" of the Revolutionary War, how Loyalists were roughly treated by American colonists fighting for their independence from Great Britain.
At age 16 Hallowell joined the 90-gun HMS Sandwich as a midshipman and began a Royal Navy career that spanned 47 years. The last ship in which he flew his vice admiral's flag was the 120-gun HMS Prince Regent.
Between his service on board the Sandwich and the Prince Regent, Hallowell built a reputation for seamanship and success in combat that made him a favorite among a number of influential senior officers, including Admiral Lord Nelson. The influence of those officers and other powerful members of the government helped further Hallowell's career.
Hallowell's rise paralleled Great Britain's struggles against Napoleon. He served under Nelson as captain of the 74-gun HMS Swiftsure at the strategically important Battle of the Nile. He was close enough to Nelson to fashion a coffin from the mainmast of the French flagship destroyed at that battle and to present it—a gesture in gallows humor—to his admiral as a gift. Nelson biographer Robert Southey described the admiral's reaction: "An offering so strange, and yet so suited to the occasion, was received by Nelson in the spirit with which it was sent. As if he felt it was good for him, now that he was at the summit of his wishes, to have death before his eyes, he ordered the coffin to be placed upright in his cabin." Eventually, Hallowell's gift was used for Nelson's body when it was placed in its marble sarcophagus under the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Nelson's Yankee Captain reveals that, as much as Hallowell's extensive battle laurels, it was the daily dedication to his service that established him as one of the captains who formed the backbone of the Royal Navy of the Nelson era. And because of his additional ability to carry out grinding assignments, he qualifies as the quintessential Royal Navy officer of his time. He was fierce in combat and resolute in his less glamorous but equally important duties, such as grueling blockades and convoys.
In 1830 at the close of a letter informing Hallowell that he was to be honored as a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham added a personal note summing up Hallowell's achievements: "It gives me the most heartfelt satisfaction to pay this tribute of gratitude and of respect to the merits of an officer whose service can never be forgotten, while the naval glory of England is cherished and remembered."
Captain Elson has written a book that delivers fascinating insights into an outstanding warrior seaman who has not received significant historical attention to date, and to the people and events that helped shape his career.
Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and His Rivals in the South Pacific
Geoffrey Blainey. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2009. 336 pp. Illus. Maps. Index. $27.50.
Reviewed by John Robson
In May 1768 Captain Samuel Wallis returned to Britain on board HMS Dolphin after a journey to the Pacific where he had visited Tahiti. The news of this "discovery" would have direct consequences for people in Britain and India. In Britain the government was on the point of sending an expedition to the Pacific to sight the astronomical Transit of Venus expected in June 1769, and it was quickly realized that Tahiti provided the ideal venue from which to make observations. The news of Tahiti's discovery also found its way, albeit a little distorted, to the French settlements in India run by the French East India Company. Their governor, Jean Law de Lauriston, based in Pondicherry, immediately saw potential mercantile benefits from this new island and set about organizing an expedition.
The British expedition, which had commercial as well as scientific objectives, was the first voyage to the Pacific of the HMB Endeavour led by Lieutenant James Cook. It marked the beginning of Cook's rise to fame. This voyage and other aspects of his career have already been covered countless times by other authors. By contrast, the tragic and unsuccessful French expedition on the St. Jean-Baptiste led by Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville has gone largely unnoticed. What we do know of the voyage is thanks mainly to New Zealand historian John Dunmore, who edited the Hakluyt Society edition of the voyage and wrote another description published by Pegasus.
De Surville's expedition failed in its intentions. He left Pondicherry on 2 June 1769 (the day before Cook observed the transit in Tahiti), and after sailing past future Singapore and through the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Taiwan, the St. Jean-Baptiste reached the Solomons. An affray with local people left about 20 dead, and de Surville sailed on. Scurvy then took its toll as the expedition proceeded to New Zealand. De Surville then headed east across the Pacific but encountered no land. The debilitated crew reached Peru in April 1770, but de Surville died trying to get ashore.
One of the few facts known about de Surville's voyage on the St. Jean-Baptiste involves his presence off the northern point of New Zealand in mid-December 1769. De Surville's disease-stricken ship was sailing west to east searching for landfall, while at exactly the same time, Cook was working his way in the other direction. Just when they might have met each other a storm forced Cook to the north, and the two ships never sighted each other-a tragic case of might-have-been. The two leaders, therefore, were unaware of one another, so the author's description of them as "rivals" in his subtitle is somewhat strange.
The book's overall purpose is also strange. Blainey covers both the Endeavour and St. Jean-Baptiste voyages with a strong Australian emphasis. However, the Endeavour's passage through Australian waters is so well-known that another telling is not called for, while the St. Jean-Baptiste did not visit Australia at all. De Surville brought his ship south through the Coral Sea when desperately looking for land, but we cannot be sure where exactly he sailed as his ability to fix longitude was poor. The author tells us however that the ship was off Rockhampton on this day, the Gold Coast on another, and so on. Perhaps he thought this would engage an Australian audience.
Blainey is an eminent Australian historian with many books to his name. However, he has no previous track record of writing about exploration of the Pacific. Despite his claims to have produced new interpretations of events on the two voyages, Sea of Dangers is very much a rehash of the works of earlier writers and offers little new. Anyone wishing to learn more about Cook's voyage would do better to consult The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, edited from the original manuscripts by J.C. Beaglehole (Hakluyt Society, 2000), or Ray Parkin's admirable book, H.M. Bark Endeavour (Miegunyah Press, 2006). For de Surville, readers should consult John Dunmore's The Expedition of the St. Jean-Baptiste to the Pacific 1769-1770. From Journals of Jean de Surville and Guillaume Labe, among other works.