James M. Scott
Jay Cristol claims in his letter (“In Contact,” October, p. 5) that my article (“The Spy Ship Left Out in the Cold,” June, pp. 28–35) was “saturated with misleading claims.” Yet it is Cristol who, for two decades, has pedaled untruths in his quest to defend Israel for its attack on the USS Liberty (AGTR-5), which killed 34 Americans and wounded more than 170 others.
Cristol writes, for example, that there have been multiple congressional investigations into the attack. That is false. A true congressional investigation, such as the ones that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the assault on our compounds in Benghazi, never was tasked to examine the central question of Israeli culpability. In an effort to muddy the waters, Cristol instead points to investigations into other issues, like Navy communications.
I would challenge Cristol to produce the appointing resolution of any congressional body directed to investigate Israel’s actions in the attack. The simple fact is he can’t. But don’t take my word for it. Mary Baumann, staff researcher with the U.S. Senate Historical Office, scoured congressional records as well. “I did not,” she wrote to me on 2 November 2006, “find any references to an investigation relating to the 1967 attack on the USS Liberty.”
Cristol likewise champions the Navy’s flawed court of inquiry, whose members were barred from traveling to Israel, obtaining Israeli war logs, or interviewing the attackers. Furthermore, the court’s lawyer, Captain Ward Boston, later admitted that President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ordered the panel to endorse Israel’s claim that the attack was a mistake, even though Boston did not believe it. Boston said at the time, “It is Cristol’s insidious attempt to whitewash the facts that has pushed me to speak out.”
The truth is that hundreds of declassified documents and interviews in the United States and Israel reveal what a sordid affair the Liberty truly was—and that Israel did, in fact, identify the ship in time to prevent the torpedo strike that killed 25 men. Furthermore, those records illustrate the ugly tug of war between the two nations, which included efforts to censor the media and even silence President Johnson with threats of anti-Semitism.
Those are the facts. Lost in Cristol’s defense of the attackers is the effect this tragedy had on the survivors and the families of those killed. Understanding the truth is the best way we have to honor those brave Americans.
Captain William Riffer, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Charles Dusch has written a fine article on the German strategic air campaign against Great Britain in World War I (“‘All That Flies and Creeps,’” October, pp. 38–43). I must, however, point out one flaw. In the penultimate paragraph, he states, “A skillful U.S. Navy negated the U-boat menace.” This is simply wrong. The U-boat in World War I was defeated by the Allied decision in 1917 to institute North Atlantic convoys. A look at the math behind convoys shows that they would have, for the most part, gotten through with or without “skilled escorts,” or any escorts at all. Convoying simply removed the target opportunities. To quote one U-boat captain at the time, “It was as if God reached down with a broom and swept the ocean clean of targets.” Although certainly encouraged by U.S. Admiral William Sims, the British were going to convoy sooner or later, and as soon as they did, the U-boat war was over.
After reading the review of my book in the June issue (Treacherous Passage: Germany’s Secret Plot against the United States in Mexico during World War I, p. 59), I was left in the curious position of feeling both flattered and offended. It was gratifying to have my work described as “readable and entertaining” and “a book worth reading,” but I was taken aback by references to the narrative as being “not a solid history of the German espionage activities in Mexico” and in particular to the book containing “factual errors” with “important information left out.”
There is no pretense to Treacherous Passage being a complete history of German espionage operations in Mexico during the war. It is a detailed account of a single remarkable episode: the German attempts to launch sea raiders from Mazatlán to attack Allied shipping in the Pacific, and the American agents who stopped them. Although the book is meant to read like a spy thriller, with sunken warships being raised for battle, soldiers of fortune training a Mexican-German army to invade the United States, highly placed American spies among enemy conspirators, secret battles and hair-raising escapes, what I have written is entirely true and has been fully documented in the source notes.
The review cites three examples of “factual errors” in my book: that a coded message sent to plotter Frederick Hinsch was actually delivered to paymaster Paul Hilken, that agent Kurt Jahnke was not in charge of all sabotage activities in the United States for German consul general Franz von Bopp, and that Jahnke and associate Lothar Witzke were not involved in the destruction of the munitions depot on Black Tom Island.
The reviewer apparently misinterpreted what I wrote in the first two instances, and reference to Captain Henry Landau’s seminal 1937 work on German espionage The Enemy Within will show the accuracy of my statements. As for Jahnke and Witzke not being involved in the sabotage of Black Tom Island, I can only respond by stating that every major work on the incident that I am aware of, from Jules Witcover’s Sabotage at Black Tom to Chad Millman’s The Detonators (both based on the records of the Mixed Claims Commission), describe the pair’s involvement exactly as I related it in Treacherous Passage.
Naval History readers seeking an exciting true account of covert naval operations during the Great War will not be disappointed by Treacherous Passage.
I thoroughly enjoyed your August issue’s “Pieces of the Past” article regarding World War I U.S. troop transports to the European theater in 1917–18. My grandfather, Rear Admiral William N. Thomas, U.S. Navy, was the chaplain on board the USS Madawaska (previously the Konig Wilhelm II), under the command of Captain Edward H. Watson. The Navy’s Transport Force moved two million soldiers to Europe without a single combatant loss of live. Chaplain Thomas, who made 28 trips across the Atlantic, later was command chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy, during which time he wrote the “Prayer of a Midshipman.”