The USS Liberty incident was an attack on a United States Navy technical research ship, USS Liberty, by Israeli Air Force jet fighter aircraft and Israeli Navy motor torpedo boats, on 8 June 1967, during the Six-Day War.The combined air and sea attack killed 34 crew members (naval officers, seamen, two Marines, and one civilian), wounded 171 crew members, and severely damaged the ship.

William Loren McGonagle (November 19, 1925 – March 3, 1999) was a United States Naval officer who received the Medal of Honor for his actions while in command of the USS Liberty when it was attacked.

The Medal of Honor was presented to him at the Washington Navy Yard by the Secretary of the Navy, rather than at the White House by the President.

So, as John Thurber commented in a obituary article in The Los Angeles Times on March 11, 1999, "[w]hen Navy Capt. William L. McGonagle received his Medal of Honor, it was not bestowed on him by the president, as is customary, or even presented at the White House. McGonagle, who died last week at 73, was given his award in the relative seclusion of a shipyard near Washington by the Navy secretary".

His Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer, USS Liberty (AGTR-5) in the Eastern Mediterranean on 8–9 June 1967. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship. Although severely wounded during the first air attack, Captain (then Commander) McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge and, with full knowledge of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to the safety and survival of his command. Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship. Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Captain McGonagle's extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty's crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat. Subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from the loss of blood, Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to conn his ship for more than seventeen hours. It was only after rendezvous with a United States destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. Even then, he refused much needed medical attention until convinced that the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated. Captain McGonagle's superb professionalism, courageous fighting spirit, and valiant leadership saved his ship and many lives. His actions sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

After reading the reasons of the Medal, which seem really remarkable, and after taking into account the exceptional nature of the event—since the end of the WWII, it has never happened that an American ship had been attacked and almost destroyed—I wonder what event or cerimony the president was attending during the award to McGonagle.

Therefore, my question is: What was the president doing during the award to McGonagle—was he perhaps abroad?

1 Answer 1


Note: I don't have the daily schedule of LBJ in front of me at the moment, nor do I have any explicit substantiation at all for this answer (I do cite some vaguely supportive references), outside of my own knowledge of the USA and its politics in general, and at the time in question:

Even if the President was abroad, since it was customary to give the award at the White House and that was significant with respect to the honor accompanying the medal, it seems quite feasible that the award could have been given at the White House by the Vice President or the Secretary of the Navy, who did indeed award the medal. That indicates that the issue was not simply that the President was indisposed.

In all likelihood, what we have here is a concerted effort on the part of the Johnson Administration to ensure that this would be a low profile event. Why? Because Johnson wanted minimize potential focus on the attack on the Liberty, which was quite controversial, to the extent that Johnson rejected the opinion of his Secretary of State that the attack was deliberate and opted to accept the Israeli explanation that the attack was accidental. See: George Lenczowski notes: "It was significant that, in contrast to his secretary of state, President Johnson fully accepted the Israeli version of the tragic incident." He notes that Johnson himself only included one small paragraph about the Liberty in his autobiography,[50] in which he accepted the Israeli explanation of “error”, but also minimized the whole affair and distorted the actual number of dead and wounded, by lowering them from 34 to 10 and 171 to 100, respectively. It is seems clear then, that Johnson was making efforts to minimize and 'hush up' the Liberty incident.

If so, it's quite reasonable to assume the reason for breaking tradition in this case was because Johnson wanted to protect his ally Israel from the wrath of public opinion that might have been unleashed, had all the details of Liberty incident been publicized in a full blown White House ceremony, etc.

In addition, we can add that perhaps Johnson wanted to minimize the Liberty incident because there may have been those who believed the Soviets were actually responsible - that would have been a blight on Johnson's record as well as increasing American-Soviet tensions. See: In Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson had received word from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the Liberty had been torpedoed by an unknown vessel at 9:50 am eastern time. Johnson assumed that the Soviets were involved, and hotlined Moscow with news of the attack and the dispatch of jets from the Saratoga. Soon afterward, the Israelis said that they had mistakenly attacked the ship. and supra: Lenczowski further states: “It seems Johnson was more interested in avoiding a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union, …than in restraining Israel.

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    One other reason LBJ may have wanted to hush this up - he didn't want awkward questions of just why Liberty was there where it could have been attacked.
    – DVK
    Sep 5, 2013 at 15:17
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    @DVK - Perhaps. Although I think it was understood at the time that the USA had interests and involvement there. And the Soviets were also there.
    – user2590
    Sep 5, 2013 at 19:16
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    The USS Liberty was in international waters when it was attacked. It was there monitoring the war. It was clearly marked as a US ship, and had a very large American flag which was shot down several times by the Israelis each time being replaced by the American sailors. There no awkward question or obfuscation going on on America's side as to why the ship was there or where exactly it was or our right to be there.
    – user27618
    Oct 31, 2017 at 20:54

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