Book review: A sloppy shipwreck

Joan Mellen’s ‘Blood in the Water’ embraces a conspiracy theory about the ‘USS Liberty’ without requisite evidence.

THE USS Liberty is pictured off the Sinai Peninsula on June 9, 1967, one day after it was attacked. (photo credit: US NAVY)
THE USS Liberty is pictured off the Sinai Peninsula on June 9, 1967, one day after it was attacked.
(photo credit: US NAVY)
On June 8, 1967, during the Six Day War, unmarked jet planes and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, a surveillance ship in international waters off the coast of Egypt. Some 34 American sailors were killed and 174 wounded. Within a day, Israel acknowledged its responsibility, but insisted the attack had been an accident.
At the time, and in the ensuing decades, allegations circulated that officials at the highest levels in the governments of the United States and Israel had planned the operation to cast the blame on Egypt, providing a pretext for the bombing of Cairo and the removal of Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser from power.
In Blood in the Water: How the US and Israel Conspired to Ambush the USS Liberty, Joan Mellen, an emerita professor of creative writing and literature at Temple University (whose books include Faustian Bargains: Lyndon Johnson and Mac Wallace in the Robber Baron Culture of Texas; The Great Game in Cuba: CIA and the Cuban Revolution; and A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History) provides yet another full-throated endorsement of conspiracy and cover-up.
Explanations of the attack have, indeed, been inconsistent and unconvincing. Legitimate questions, therefore, can and should be raised. But Blood in the Water does not provide a reliable account of what actually happened. The book is poorly organized, numbingly repetitious and full of opinions masquerading as facts. Mellen has done virtually no archival research. She relies almost entirely on the uncorroborated claims of survivors and disaffected members of military and intelligence agencies in both countries.
Mellen does not explain why president Lyndon Johnson chose a false flag pretext as the best option to topple Nasser. Or why he wanted the United States to enter the Six Day War and use nuclear weapons, given threats by the Soviet Union to defend Egypt. Mellen insists, without evidence, that to ensure that no one on the USS Liberty remained alive to testify that Israel, not Egypt, attacked them, Johnson recalled planes sent to rescue the ship. She maintains as well that four planes with nuclear warheads and four armed with conventional weapons were seven minutes from Cairo when Johnson recalled them (presumably, because he knew by then that the attack could not be pinned on Egypt).
Mellen declares that Johnson was a war criminal who authorized the attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 as a way to get authorization from the US Congress for an escalation of troops in Vietnam, and used the same tactic, “turned against American innocents” on the USS Liberty. That secretary of defense Robert McNamara, “the scourge of Vietnam,” she writes, “should not have hesitated to sacrifice the Liberty sailors should surprise no one.” W.W. Rostow, special adviser to the president, she alleges, failed to receive a security clearance as a Kennedy appointee because he was “deemed a traitor.” The loyalty of CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton “was demonstrably not to the United States but to Israel.” Assistant secretary of defense Cyrus Vance “took charge of the cover-up in the United States.”
Relying on the files of (deceased) CIA asset and archivist Richard Thompson, including a partial memoir from an “unknown Israeli writer,” Mellen concludes that Mossad chief Meir Amit ordered Moshe Dayan to “sink the USS Liberty with all hands.” Israel’s denial that the Six Day War was a land grab, she adds, “was rendered preposterous, as the settlements in what had been Palestinian territory began at once.”
The documentation in Blood in the Water is, at best, sloppy. Mellen relies heavily on sources that came to her third hand, and opinions delivered 40 years after the attack. She believes anyone who endorses the conspiracy – and no one else. William McGonagle, Captain of the Liberty, she writes, was an “insecure man and a control freak.” Mellen claims McGonagle knew in advance about the false flag scheme, received a promotion and a new command as a reward for participating in the cover-up, but doesn’t explain why he was willing to put his own life at risk. Four months before he died, Mellen asserts, in an all-too-typical use of tales told by dead men, McGonagle (who was seriously wounded on June 8) concluded the attack was deliberate.
Mellen believes that the Six Day War typifies decisions made in the shadows, which give elected officials plausible deniability. She writes with the hope that when “hard truths” are revealed, citizens in democracies will be more likely to demand justice and integrity in their nations’ domestic and foreign policies.
These admirable goals, however, are not likely to be advanced by books with pre-cooked theses in search of corroborating evidence. Blood in the Water, alas, is ideologically driven creative writing, not history. Prometheus Books should be admonished for publishing it.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.