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The Liberty Incident and The Cold War Hot Line

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to establish a communications link between Moscow and Washington to provide prompt, direct communication between the two superpowers and reduce the chance of a war starting as a result of misinformation or delayed communication. A “Hot Line” was constructed from the Kremlin in Moscow to the Pentagon in the U.S.A. It was a teletype link connected by hard wire cable which ran from Russia, through Norway, across the Atlantic to Washington. Following its installation the Hot Line was used annually for the purpose of transmitting New Year’s greetings from Russia to the United States and from the United States to Russia.

To view the U.S.S
Liberty slideshow
exhibit (PDF), click here.

The Hot Line was first utilized for its original, intended purpose upon the outbreak of the 1967 Middle East war. Secretary McNamara has recounted how, in the early hours of the morning, he received a call from the Pentagon advising him that a message had been received on the Hot Line from Chairman Kosygin in the Soviet Union. (By some accounts, it was an admiral who called Secretary McNamara, while others state it was a senior enlisted man at the Pentagon.) Secretary McNamara asked why he was being called and was told that the Hot Line terminal in the United States was located in the Pentagon, not the White House. McNamara was shocked that with the millions of dollars in our defense budget, the U.S. had not connected the Hot Line terminal to the White House. He arranged for that modification to be made soon thereafter.

In 1967 the Soviets were trying to expand their influence and hegemony throughout the Middle East and were supporting Syrian and Egyptian clients with military hardware and military advisors. The United States was deeply engaged in the hostilities in Vietnam and President Johnson was not anxious for the United States to become militarily involved in the Middle East. For reasons that are still uncertain, although subject to much speculation, the Soviets provoked the crisis in the Middle East by providing false information to both Syria and Egypt. The Soviets reported that Israel was amassing troops on the Syrian border and that an invasion of Syria by Israel was imminent. This claim was patently false and the falsity could have been verified with the simplest amount of competent intelligence. The facts were clear. Israel had no more than a few hundred military personnel in the area. The numbers were confirmed by the United Nations and the United States. Invitations by Israel to allow Soviet visitation to the area to confirm the falsity of these claims were rejected and the drums of war began to beat. Egypt had been criticized by other Arab countries for not being active enough in the campaign against Israel. President Gamal Abdel Nasser responded ordering, with much fanfare, the insertion of large numbers of Egyptian military forces into the Sinai to carry out his intention “to wipe Israel off the map.” Then he requested the United Nations to remove the U.N. peacekeeping forces from the Sinai. Finally, perhaps carried away by his own rhetoric, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships.

In March, 1967 Ambassador Lucius Battle had returned to Washington from Cairo and his replacement, Ambassador Richard Nolte, had arrived in Cairo in late May but had not yet presented his credentials. Nasser would not even speak to a Deputy Chief of Mission and the U.S. felt it did not have adequate government contacts, nor was it receiving critical information on activities within Egypt.

It was these circumstances that prompted the National Security Agency to request the USS Liberty to leave port in Abidjan, Ivory Coast (off the west coast of Africa where the ship had been making a port call while engaged in overt intelligence gathering as host to NSA detachment 855 consisting of communications technicians and linguists) and proceed with all possible haste to Rota, Spain to pick up Arabic and Russian linguists and then proceed to a point off Port Said, Egypt. At the time of the order, on May 24, 1967, the crisis was brewing but the war had not begun. The United States was particularly interested in learning the extent to which the Egyptians were occupying the Sinai and the extent to which military forces were being inserted. The mission was particularly suitable to the Liberty and much information could have been gleaned through electronic surveillance of radio communications along the Via Maris (or coastal road along the Sinai Mediterranean Coast) from the Egyptian border to the Gaza Strip.

The Liberty sailed at best possible speed arriving at Rota on June 1, 1967. She picked up additional linguists and on June 2, 1967 began the journey across the Mediterranean to its assigned patrol position in the eastern Mediterranean off the Sinai peninsula.

On the morning of June 5, 1967 at 7:45 a.m., while the Liberty was en route, the war began. The mission of the Liberty was overcome by events. Nevertheless, full realization of the fact that the Liberty was sailing into a hot combat zone was not recognized by the National Security Agency or the Joint Chiefs of Staff until the evening of the 7th of June. The National Security Agency through the Joint Chiefs of Staff attempted to order the Liberty to stand off and not approach the coast any closer than 25 miles, in an original message, and 100 miles in four subsequent messages. Tragically, through a breakdown in the United States Military Worldwide Communications System, these messages were either not received at all by the Liberty or were received only after the tragedy of June 8, 1967.

On the morning of June 5 the first Hot Line message was sent by Chairman Kosygin to President Johnson. It was received at 7:49 AM, Washington time. The message stated that Kosygin had received information of “military clashes between Israel and the United Arab Republic [Egypt] and sought cooperation in obtaining “cessation of the military conflict.” (This message was sent approximately six hours after the war began.) The message was forwarded to the White House and Dean Rusk, having arrived at the Situation Room before the President, sent a reply to the message. The Dean Rusk message stated, in part, “We are astonished and dismayed. . .we feel it very important that the United Nations Security Council succeed in bringing this fighting to an end. . . .”

The third message was approved by President Johnson at 8:47 AM, transmitted at 8:57 AM and received in Moscow at 8:59 AM Washington time. It stated “I welcome your message. We feel it is the duty of all great states to secure a speedy end to the military conflict.” The Hot Line carried a total of 20 messages back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union – nine from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and eleven from the U.S. to the Soviet Union. The messages are reproduced in both English and the original Russian, with English translations, in Appendix I.

Three of the Hot Line messages specifically relate to the USS Liberty.

The first message related to the Liberty was approved by President Johnson at 11:00 AM, transmitted at 11:17 AM and received in Moscow at 11:24 AM on Thursday, June 8, 1967. President Johnson had been informed by his National Security Advisor, W.W. Rostow, at 9:48 a.m. that a U.S. ship had been torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean. At the time of the initial report the identity of the attackers was unknown. The grave concern in Washington was whether the attackers were the Soviets, or possibly the Egyptians. President Johnson was very much concerned about not becoming engaged in a military conflict in the Middle East with the other world superpower, the Soviet Union. The U.S. was deeply involved in Vietnam and although the Sixth Fleet was a significant force in the Mediterranean, the idea of the United States becoming involved in another armed conflict was something that Johnson and his entire administration considered very unattractive.

The initial message concerning the USS Liberty sent by President Johnson to Chairman Kosygin makes it very clear that the United States was sending aircraft for “the sole purpose of investigation.” In fact the aircraft had been initially dispatched by Vice Admiral William Martin, Commander of the Sixth Fleet, for the purpose of defending the Liberty and were authorized to use lethal force for that purpose. The use of lethal force in the protection of the Liberty was authorized at the tactical level by Vice Admiral Martin. Whether President Johnson was aware of the full authority of the aircraft being dispatched is unknown, but clearly he was concerned that the Soviets not interpret the action as the United States entering the war on the Israel side and thus inviting Soviet intervention on the Arab side.

There were at least six or seven Soviet intelligence-gathering ships in the eastern Mediterranean along with other Soviet naval ships and the United States was certain that the flight of aircraft leaving from the vicinity of the island of Crete, launched from the aircraft carriers America and Saratoga would not be unnoticed by the Soviets. President Johnson, it appears was anxious to sooth the concerns of the Soviets as to the intentions of these aircraft and not have the aircraft proceed into the war zone being deemed a reason for the Soviets to enter the conflict, pitting the United States against the Soviet Union.

The further message from the Soviet Union to the United States regarding the Liberty and the message from the United States to the Soviet Union said the following:

Message from Chairman Kosygin to President Johnson received Thursday, June 8, 1967. Sight translated at 12:25 pm Washington time. Received by President Johnson at 12:30 pm. Rough translation completed at 12:34 pm and final official translation completed at 1:15 p.m.

“Your telegram concerning the incident with the American Liberty type ship torpedoed near Port Said has been received by us and immediately transmitted for information to President Nasser.”

President Johnson approved a response at 3:36 pm Washington time which was transmitted at 3:58 pm and received in Moscow two minutes later at 4:00 pm Washington time.

“I deeply appreciate your transmitting the message to President Nasser. We lost 10 men, 16 critically wounded, and 65 wounded, as a result of Israeli attack, for which they have apologized.”

The situation in the Situation Room at the White House was extremely tense during the period of time when it was unknown as to who had attacked the United States ship. Debates were taking place on how to respond, on whether to attack Soviet naval forces, or whether the Soviets would then escalate with the possibility of the matter going step by step to World War III or even a nuclear confrontation. Shortly before 11:00 AM Washington time a message sent at 10:14 AM Washington time by the United States Naval Attachй in Tel Aviv, Commander Earnest Castle, was received by President Johnson. It reported that the “Israeli Air Force and Navy by aircraft and MTBs had erroneously attacked a U.S. ship at 08/1200Z” (800 AM Washington Time) See Appendix II. As tragic as the situation ultimately developed, the fact that the attack was not by the Soviets or their Egyptian client took immense pressure off the problems facing the decision-makers in the Situation Room and Secretary of State Dean Rusk described how, upon receipt of Captain Castle’s message, a wave of relief spread over the Situation room.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, at the Israeli High Command headquarters in the Kirya, there had been a series of conflicting reports. First, the attacked ship was identified as Egyptian; then, it was identified as Soviet and finally, it was identified as American. During the time that the Israelis believed they were attacking an Egyptian ship, there had been cheering in the High Command Headquaters, but when the reported identification changed to possibly a Soviet ship the mood turned somber and there was great concern that the attack might bring the Soviets into the war on the side of the Arabs, and possibly take away all of the significant military gains that had been achieved to that time. When, at 3:12 p.m. Israel time (0912 AM Washington time), approximately 44 minutes after the attack was over, it was determined that the ship was U.S., there was a corresponding wave of relief mixed with shock, anger and remorse in the High Command headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces in Tel Aviv.

Hundreds of miles to the west aboard the flagship of the Sixth Fleet, the USS Little Rock, the Commander of the Sixth Fleet, Admiral William Martin, had been steaming in close proximity to Soviet warships that had been harassing the Sixth Fleet for days. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Commanders eyed each other waiting to determine whether it was time to start shooting. The message from Commander Castle disclosing the identity of the attackers likewise brought a wave of relief in the combat information center of the Sixth Fleet where Admiral Martin was tensely awaiting a decision on the next move for the Sixth Fleet. The reaction of the Soviet ship commanders facing the Sixth Fleet remains unknown.

In the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Ambassador Richard B. Parker, then serving as a political counselor, recalls that information about the attack had been received by the U.S. Embassy/Cairo. The identity of the attackers was unknown and the Embassy in Cairo was deeply concerned about the possibility of the third World War erupting as a result of a presumed Soviet attack on a U.S. ship. When the contents of the Castle message reached the Egyptian Embassy, Ambassador Parker recalls a similar wave of relief washing over the staff of U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.

It seems quite clear in hindsight that the tragedy of the Liberty incident could indeed have been a trigger for the commencement of a war between the superpowers with potentially devastating results for the United States, the Soviet Union and the world.

Clearly the Hot Line and its use during those six days of war provided a valuable contribution to keeping the Cold War cold and preventing an even greater tragedy on a worldwide scale.

Appendix I — Link

The Hot Line messages are available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. The are located in National Security File, National Security Council History, Middle East Crisis, Vol. 7, App. G, Box 19.

According to the White House daily diary 20 Hot Line messages were exchanged, 9 from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and 11 from the U.S. to the Soviet Union.

5 June

7:47 Kosygin to Johnson
8:15 Rusk to Kosygin
8:47 Johnson to Kosygin

6 June

5:34 Kosygin to Johnson
10:03 Johnson to Kosygin
6:07 PM Kosygin to Johnson
7:45 PM Johnson to Kosygin

7 June

8:18 Kosygin to Johnson
11:00 Johnson to Kosygin

8 June

9:48 Kosygin to Johnson
11:00 Johnson to Kosygin (re: Liberty)
11:35 Johnson to Kosygin
12:20 PM Kosygin to Johnson (re: Liberty)
3:36 PM Johnson to Kosygin (re: Liberty)

10 June

8:48 Kosygin to Johnson
9:30 Johnson to Kosygin
9:44 Kosygin to Johnson
10:50 Johnson to Kosygin
11:31 Kosygin to Johnson
11:54 Johnson to Kosygin

Additional information about the Hot Line may be found at Time Magazine, The Nation, Hot Line Diplomacy, June 16, 1967 at pages 15, 16 and 17, including a picture of the Hot Line teletype machine, and at Vantage Point, Lyndon Baines Johnson, New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1971, at pages 297-304.

Appendix II — Link

1414Z 08 June 1967 transmitted message text from U.S. Defense Attache Office, Tel Aviv to White House and Office of Secretary of Defense and Chief of Naval Operations and others.

Message displayed as Document 211 in the Department of State Foreign Relations of the United States, Johnson Administration, 1964-1968, Volume XIX, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1967.

Message subject lineage:


by A. Jay Cristol

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