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John Simkin

What makes a good historian?

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I think I remember one of my university lecturers claiming that E. H. Carr once said that a historian is very much like an angler. Fish are like historical facts, the fish you catch depends on the bait you use and the place on the river where you decide to stand.

As D. H. Lawrence once said, every philosopher ends at his fingertips. E. H. Carr was in fact describing his own approach to history. One of the problems of all historical research is that the historian starts with a theory of what happened. This theory is greatly influenced by the historian’s ideology. This of course restricts the facts that the historian discovers.

For example, in the 1930s E. H. Carr was a strong supporter of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. He therefore looked for historical facts to support this view. He of course found them. He believed that the Treaty of Versailles had ensured that someone like Hitler would emerge as leader of Germany. Therefore, the only way to deal with Hitler was to appease him. In other words, appeasement could be justified as an attempt to rectify the mistakes made at the end of the First World War.

Events at the end of the 1930s convinced Carr he had been wrong. His ideology now changed dramatically. He became converted to Marxism. For the rest of his life he spent his time explaining (justifying) events in the Soviet Union. He also searched for facts to confirm his belief that the UK and all the over advanced industrial countries would eventually experience a communist revolution. Once again he got it wrong.

E. H. Carr was obviously a flawed historian. The main reason was that he was inflexible. Like all historians he started off with a theory. However, all good historians are willing to adapt their theory when the evidence suggests that the original one was incorrect. This means that like the good angler you have to use different baits and try different places on the river bank.

Over the last 25 years Robert A. Caro has been writing about the life and career of Lyndon B. Johnson. In the last couple of months I have read the first three volumes: The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990) and Master of the Senate (2002). It is as detailed as you can get. Each book is over a 1,000 pages long and so far he has only reached his period as vice president.

One of the reasons that Caro is such a great historian is that he has been willing to change his views on Johnson. As he has struggled with this wealth of archive material, he has realised that Johnson had skilfully projected an image of himself that was not true. This has encouraged him to go searching for further information (at first he was too reliant on the assistance of the Lyndon Johnson Library papers).

Of course Caro has now got access to the LBJ tapes. LBJ recorded most of his telephone conversations in order to help him write his memoirs. He died of a heart attack before he completed his work. He had instructed his personal assistant to destroy these tapes. For the sake of history she kept them. Except for the 6 per cent that have been kept back by the FBI, these tapes are now available to historians. Their contents have caused several historians to be embarrassed by their previous assessments of Johnson. The poor historians, are still reluctant to change their mind about Johnson.

I am eagerly awaiting the publication of volume 4 of Johnson’s biography as it will be dealing with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The LBJ tapes that have been released so far on this topic have been fascinating. I would love to find out what the other 6% contain.

Although I will be reading Caro I will not be wasting my time on the work of Carr.

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