Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1995, pgs. 74-75, 106

Book Reviews

The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History

By John Borne, Ph.D., Reconsideration Press, 1995, 318 pp., footnotes, extended bibliography. List: $18; AET: $13.95.

Reviewed by James M. Ennes, Jr.

Soon after Assault on the Liberty was first released by Random House in 1980, I began to hear from readers urging me to write a sequel. The new book, they said, should describe all the incredible obstacles, lost orders, harassment, chicanery and just plain dirty tricks that supporters of Israel had used to frustrate sales of the book and to prevent survivors from telling the story.

I resisted those appeals. Having told my story and having seen the result, I had no illusions that a second book would have any better chance of breaking through the resistance. To illustrate, I cited superb books by Don Neff, Paul Findley, Stephen Green, Jim Abourezk and others, all frustrated in the marketplace and rarely displayed in stores. "No," I said, "no such book could ever overcome the resistance."

Now a new author has done the job that I was too timid or too disheartened to do, and has done a better job of it than I could ever have hoped. John Edgar Borne, an adjunct professor of history at Baruch and Pace Colleges in New York City, chose the USS Liberty as his topic of study toward the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History at New York University. Specifically, he chose to study the differences between the "official" version of the USS Liberty story and the very different version told by the surviving crewmen.

"What," Borne asks, "really happened? Is it possible to know? Why were crew members not protected from attack as they had been promised? How in a free society does a government present as fact a version of history that differs markedly from that reported by eyewitnesses? How is the dissenting version squelched? How can the silenced group overcome the tactics of a powerful and motivated government? Where is the press while these things are happening?"

These questions and more were the subject of Dr. Borne's meticulous study. The resulting doctoral thesis, now attractively typeset and printed in traditional book form, tells the story in persuasive, gut-wrenching detail.

Following a brief description of the attack and the world political climate at the time, Borne reviews the actions at home. These include Lyndon Johnson's order to recall aircraft sent to the ship's aid, apparently because he feared "embarrassing an ally" by allowing American pilots to drive off the attacking Israeli aircraft. Other actions include the many appeals for Congress to look the other way because any public review of the facts would only serve the interests of "anti-Semites."

Borne reviews the peculiar performance of the Navy Court of Inquiry, ordered in writing to probe "all aspects" of the attack, yet privately instructed to restrict the inquiry to the performance and training of the crew and the adequacy of communications.

"Diplomatic and political" considerations were to be left to Congress and the Department of State, both of which chose to look the other way. Therefore, left unexamined was the key question of whether the attack was deliberate.

Borne then describes events during the several years immediately following the attack, a period in which the government's official version went publicly unchallenged. It was only after publication of Assault on the Liberty by a major publisher in 1980 that the survivors were able to present their "dissenting history" to the public.

In his book Dr. Borne examines numerous incidents that occurred as the crew presented its "dissenting history" in the 1980s. The efforts of the village of Grafton, Wisconsin, to honor the crew with a town library named in the ship's honor, and the resulting storm of protest from nearby Jewish organizations, is but one of several fascinating stories. He describes the crew's contacts with a former Israeli pilot and an Israeli major who claims to have observed the attack from the war room. Both claims are supported by retired U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter and were fully reported in major newspapers by syndicated columnists Evans and Novak. Yet no member of Congress was willing to meet with the pilot or showed the slightest interest in the powerful new evidence.

Borne reviews the roles played by several individual members of Congress, including the rare courage of Senator Adlai Stevenson III, which some feel subsequently cost him the governorship of Illinois. He reviews the roles played by newspapers, television and radio personalities.

He also examines in detail the many "official versions" of the attack presented by the Israeli government, few of which agree with the eyewitness accounts of survivors or even with one another. And finally Borne answers several key questions: Can we ever know what really happened to the USS Liberty? Who is lying and who is not? Is it possible for a small group of eyewitnesses to make a convincing public case that disagrees with the official story presented by a powerful government?

Borne believes that it is possible, and that to a very large extent the USS Liberty crew has done exactly that. His book stands as a powerful statement, not just in support of the story told by survivors, but as an indictment of the press.

The first real clue that the press was being manipulated may have come a week after the attack when Liberty's Engineer Officer, Lieutenant George Golden, told Colin Frost of Reuter's News Service that a massive cover-up was underway. Frost's story ran in hundreds of major newspapers, but it failed to cause a single reporter to ask a single hard question or to make any serious effort to find and report the truth. Thirteen more years passed before the facts behind the cover-up became widely known.

Borne's carefully documented study of government manipulation, foreign influence and press naîveté should be required reading in every journalism school in America. It should be studied in newsrooms everywhere. It should be on the desk of every media executive and every government official. It should serve as a reminder to every journalist that for every "official history" there may be an even more compelling "dissenting history" and that it is the reporter's job to find and report the difference.

James Ennes retired from the Navy in 1978 as a lieutenant commander after 27 years of enlisted and commissioned service. He was a lieutenant on the bridge of the USS Liberty on the day of the attack. His book on the subject, Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 1980), is a "Notable Naval Book" selection of the U.S. Naval Institute and was "editor's choice" when reviewed in the Washington Post.