MILITARY HISTORY BOOK REVIEW MH-122 December 2003 Edited 7/23/2003
OPERATION CYANIDE: Why the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War
III, by Peter Hounam, Vision, a division of Satin Publications, Ltd, London,
Since it reviewed A. Jay Cristol's book, THE LIBERTY INCIDENT, in August 2003,
MILITARY HISTORY was bombarded with letters, including some from outraged
survivors, insisting that the Israeli attack on their ship on June 8, 1967,
was not in error, but deliberate (see letters, P. 8), and demanding that the
guilty party confess to the crime. Absent from all such accusations, however,
was a substantial explanation of motive: What would make it worth Israel's
while to attack a ship -- even a spy ship -- being operated by one of its
few supporters in the world?
In OPERATION CYANIDE, Peter Hounam, an investigative reporter for the
SUNDAY TIMES and the British Broadcasting System with 30 years' experience,
presents the results of his research into the question of "who really dunnit,"
which evolved into more of what he called a "why dunnit." Hounam structures
his book accordingly, as the reader follows him from interview to interview,
gathering clues like a detective from testimonies that tend to be scattered,
fragmentary, guarded and sometimes almost cryptic. As Hounam "connects the
dots," however, the scenario that emerges is fantastic and yet, in view of
the United States' rush to war with Iraq in 2003, not entirely implausible.
In essence, President Lyndon B. Johnson and some key officials, seeing the
increasingly Soviet-leaning Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser as a
threat, made secret arrangements to help Israel in its coming June offensive
with the intention of toppling Nasser. As part of Operation Cyanide, USS
LIBERTY was sent to operate off the Sinai coast, where it was to be sunk
with all hands by unmarked Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats, after which
the United States would blame the attack on Egypt and launch carrier air
strikes against Cairo -- with nuclear weapons if necessary. The stubborn
refusal of LIBERTY'S crew to die or let their ship sink after 75 minutes
of air and sea attack -- in spite of two American carrier sorties to aid
her being inexplicably called back -- led to the cancellation of Operation
Cyanide, Israel's apology and offer of restitution for a "tragic mistake,"
the Johnson Administration's swift acceptance of that explanation and an
equally quick, reassuring "hot line" telephone call to Soviet premier
The first book to seriously examine the possible reason behind the
attack on USS LIBERTY, OPERATION CYANIDE presents fragmentary evidence to
support an extraordinary theory. If, however, the emergence of further
evidence proves its premise to be true, one cannot help but wonder if
their being set up for destruction by the government they swore to serve,
in the interests of starting a nuclear war based on a lie, is the sort of
truth that LIBERTY'S bitter survivors were hoping for.
BOOK REVIEW OF "OPERATION CYANIDE"
By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor
This is an extraordinary story, one of the most extraordinary, perhaps, of
the entire twentieth century. Suppose, in an attempt to shore up his
critically damaged presidency, Lyndon Johnson deliberately engineered an
event in which American lives were sacrificed and the United States was
brought disturbingly close to an all-out nuclear war with Russia? Suppose
this involved a secret agreement between Israel and American intelligence,
which resulted in an Israeli attack on an American naval vessel, in the
latter stages of the Six-Day War?
It sounds, I know, like one of those depressing conspiracy theories which
cluster round every big controversial event from the death of Princess
Diana to the attack on the World Trade Centre. People often have problems
in handling the banality of truth, and prefer to imagine deeper, darker
plots beneath the surface. Yet this book is based on careful, rigorous
investigation by a well-known and respected journalist who has metic-
ulously tracked down the people and the documents who have survived from
the event itself: the attack on the USS Liberty, in the eastern Mediter-
ranean in June 1967.
As with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, four years earlier,
the official version is even more unlikely than some of the conspiracy
theories. In order to believe the hasty, often contradictory account
which came out of Washington, you would have to accept all sorts of
virtual impossibilities: that Israeli planes and torpedo boats could have
mistaken a modern American warship of ten thousand tons for an elderly
Egyptian horse transport less than a quarter of its size, come to within
fifty feet of it without spotting that it was flying a particularly large
American flag, and blazed away at it from close range for forty minutes
before realizing what it was they were shooting at. A hasty American
enquiry immediately afterwards called it 'a bona fide mistake.' That
seems, to say the least, a little implausible.
Yet this is the official version, which stands to this day. Any other
version -- that of the Liberty's surviving crew members, for instance --
has been extremely hard to establish because of the intensity of the
security blanket which the Israelis and Americans wrapped around the
The blanket remains in place to this day, yet this book provides
sufficient evidence for any open-minded person to see that something
else lies underneath: something very disturbing.
I have found Peter Hounam's research compelling, and the story which
unfolds in these pages rivetting. It is time a little daylight was
shed on Operation Cyanide. This book does precisely that, and we
should be grateful for it.