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John Simkin

Historians and the JFK Assassination

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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.

Is it possible that the next volume will show that LBJ was involved in the assassination of JFK?

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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.

Is it possible that the next volume will show that LBJ was involved in the assassination of JFK?

Excellent post with important, cogent points. The willingness to change one's position based on the review of additional facts or the perspective of history is certainly a characteristic of a scholar and a good historian, and I know, as I am sure every Forum member knows, that you have that characteristic.

Caro is certainly an excellent historian. He is very "establishment" oriented, however, that I doubt if he will even discuss people who think LBJ participated in the assassination unless there is VERY strong evidence pointing toward LBJ.

Remember Richard Nixon's famous quote about history? History depends on who writes it.

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John

I enjoy fishing a great deal and have always noticed that those who wish to put their line in the water the quickest are not always the most successful.

An old friend of mine, Bob Motts (who has since passed away), taught me a great deal about the patience necessary to be a good fisherman. He would walk around the area that we had selected to fish in and would observe the insects that were flying, capturing a few of the more prevalent with a small net. He would then go to his tackle box and take out an old book about insects and how to tie particular "flys" to match the "hatch" in the area. While it would take Bob longer to get his line in the water he was always just a little more successful in his endevors than the rest of us young kids.

As a college student my mentor, Dr. Berguson, delighted in humbling us with his vast knowledge of history and challenging us to constantly learn more while keeping an open mind to the fact that most people carry their own prejudices into their studies and therfore their writings. He emphasized his point by circulating copies of Civil War era newspapers that would tell the story of a particular battle from various authors differing points of view. Usually, only the title would tip you off to the fact that you were reading about the same battle, the stories being told were so different.

Stories do change with time (just as we observe different insects at different times of the day and in the different seasons) but not facts (the fish). If we wish to have a successful fishing expedition, I belive, we need to take alot of time learning about the insects, sudying how to tie the right flys and then being productive with the flys we have chosen to tie..

Jim Root

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I was blessed (as I child I sometimes thought it more of an annoyance) to have been born to a father who was passionate about history. Instead of theme parks, on vacations we visited battlefields. I had no idea how much my Father's orientation affected my life when I was little. But later I was privileged to study history at University in the US (Bucknell) and the UK (Edinburgh), and to become involved with a great mentor at Bucknell, Dr. Robert Hilliard, who pushed me to think and reason in an objective manner. I learned that by the time an historian publishes a book on a subject, they have indeed made up their mind as to what they believe happened, and choose documentation and information that will support their thesis. However, in the earlier process, that of research, it is very important to become immersed in all the information available and attempt to allow the information to speak to one it terms of what it represents. Since most of us don't think we have all the answers, it is probably practical to remain as open-minded as possible.

Pamela :)

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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.

Is it possible that the next volume will show that LBJ was involved in the assassination of JFK?

There was an interesting article in the editorial section of the Sunday, January 2, 2005 New York Times, called "Even Einstein Had His Off Days".

The article discusses how Einstein, after looking through the Hubble telescope, renounced his static cosmology and endorsed the expanding universe model. Later facts made him question his original theories.

In other words, he was not so wedded to his own theories to refuse to change them when new information was received.

I like the way the article ends:

As we celebrate the Einstein Year, let's bear in mind the fact that he was prepared to admit he was wrong. Perhaps humility, more than anything, is the mark of true genuis.

Author: Simon Singh, author of "Fernat's Enigma".

I think this is exactly the point John is attempting to teach us with his comparison of E.H. Carr, who was a good historian but inflexible in his viewpoints, with Robert Caro, who allows his research to change his perspective on people and events.

It is something we all need to keep in mind as we pursue the JFK case which is, in large part, an intellectual exercise.

Thanks, John, for the excellent illustration.

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There was an interesting article in the editorial section of the Sunday, January 2, 2005 New York Times, called "Even Einstein Had His Off Days".

The article discusses how Einstein, after looking through the Hubble telescope, renounced his static cosmology and endorsed the expanding  universe model.  Later facts made him question his original theories. 

In other words, he was not so wedded to his own theories to refuse to  change them when new information was received.

I like the way the article ends:

As we celebrate the Einstein Year, let's bear in mind the fact that he was prepared to admit he was wrong.  Perhaps humility, more than anything, is the mark of true genuis.

I have to admit that Einstein is one of my heroes. He used his giant intellect to deal with all the world’s problems. No ivory tower for Einstein. One of the reasons I admire him so much is that he was willing to change his mind about important issues.

In his youth he was a pacifist. He told his friends that: "my pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting." In 1929 he upset right-wing forces in Weimar Germany by stating: "I would unconditionally refuse all war service, direct or indirect regardless of how I might feel about the causes of any particular war."

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 Einstein was in California. His house was immediately attacked by the Sturm Abteilung (SA). After being told what had happened Einstein decided not to return home. Instead he toured Europe making speeches explaining what was taking place in Nazi Germany.

By 1934 Einstein was no longer a pacifist and argued that democratic nations needed to rearm in order to defend itself against the aggressive foreign policy of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Einstein was also one of the first people in the United States to protest about McCarthyism and the activities of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. This was the big moral issue in America in the early 1950s. It was a moral test that far too many people failed.

Eugene Wigner first met Albert Einstein in 1925. He wrote about this meeting in a book published in 1979. I think it says a great deal about the man.

The personal characteristic of Einstein that is most vividly in my mind and that I like to recall most is his feeling of equality with his colleagues, his appreciation and in fact reciprocation of their friendship. My love and early admiration of physics (I studied chemical engineering) owes very much to the seminar he organized in the early twenties in Berlin on statistical mechanics. Many of the participants at the seminar, including myself, were encouraged to visit him at his home, to have personal conversations with him. We discussed, at such occasions, not only statistical mechanics, not only physics, but also personal problems, and the problems of society. His deep insights had a lasting effect on most of us, but the exchange of opinions was on an equal basis and he responded with interest to the remarks which his visitors made. In somewhat later years the subject of such conversations often turned toward politics, and his condemnation of all dictatorships, particularly Hitler's, had a great deal of influence on his friends and students. But even as far as the USSR is concerned, he wrote, when he was asked to sign a petition: 'Because of the glorification of Soviet Russia, which it includes, I cannot bring myself to sign it.'

In December, 1945, Einstein made a speech on the role of science in the post-war world.

Physicists find themselves in a position not unlike that of Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel invented an explosive more powerful than any then known-an exceedingly effective means of destruction. To atone for this 'accomplishment' and to relieve his conscience, he instituted his awards for the promotion of peace. Today, the physicists who participated in producing the most formidable weapon of all time are harassed by a similar feeling of responsibility, not to say guilt. As scientists, we must never cease to warn against the danger created by these weapons; we dare not slacken in our efforts to make the peoples of the world, and especially their governments, aware of the unspeakable disaster they are certain to provoke unless they change their attitude toward one another and recognize their responsibility in shaping a safe future. We helped create this new weapon in order to prevent the enemies of mankind from achieving it first; given the mentality of the Nazis, this could have brought about untold destruction as well as the enslavement of the peoples of the world. This weapon was delivered into the hands of the American and the British nations in their roles as trustees of all mankind, and as fighters for peace and liberty; but so far we have no guarantee of peace nor of any of the freedoms promised by the Atlantic Charter. The war is won, but the peace is not.

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There was an interesting article in the editorial section of the Sunday, January 2, 2005 New York Times, called "Even Einstein Had His Off Days".

The article discusses how Einstein, after looking through the Hubble telescope, renounced his static cosmology and endorsed the expanding  universe model.  Later facts made him question his original theories. 

In other words, he was not so wedded to his own theories to refuse to  change them when new information was received.

I like the way the article ends:

As we celebrate the Einstein Year, let's bear in mind the fact that he was prepared to admit he was wrong.  Perhaps humility, more than anything, is the mark of true genuis.

I have to admit that Einstein is one of my heroes. He used his giant intellect to deal with all the world’s problems. No ivory tower for Einstein. One of the reasons I admire him so much is that he was willing to change his mind about important issues.

In his youth he was a pacifist. He told his friends that: "my pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting." In 1929 he upset right-wing forces in Weimar Germany by stating: "I would unconditionally refuse all war service, direct or indirect regardless of how I might feel about the causes of any particular war."

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 Einstein was in California. His house was immediately attacked by the Sturm Abteilung (SA). After being told what had happened Einstein decided not to return home. Instead he toured Europe making speeches explaining what was taking place in Nazi Germany.

By 1934 Einstein was no longer a pacifist and argued that democratic nations needed to rearm in order to defend itself against the aggressive foreign policy of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Einstein was also one of the first people in the United States to protest about McCarthyism and the activities of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. This was the big moral issue in America in the early 1950s. It was a moral test that far too many people failed.

Eugene Wigner first met Albert Einstein in 1925. He wrote about this meeting in a book published in 1979. I think it says a great deal about the man.

The personal characteristic of Einstein that is most vividly in my mind and that I like to recall most is his feeling of equality with his colleagues, his appreciation and in fact reciprocation of their friendship. My love and early admiration of physics (I studied chemical engineering) owes very much to the seminar he organized in the early twenties in Berlin on statistical mechanics. Many of the participants at the seminar, including myself, were encouraged to visit him at his home, to have personal conversations with him. We discussed, at such occasions, not only statistical mechanics, not only physics, but also personal problems, and the problems of society. His deep insights had a lasting effect on most of us, but the exchange of opinions was on an equal basis and he responded with interest to the remarks which his visitors made. In somewhat later years the subject of such conversations often turned toward politics, and his condemnation of all dictatorships, particularly Hitler's, had a great deal of influence on his friends and students. But even as far as the USSR is concerned, he wrote, when he was asked to sign a petition: 'Because of the glorification of Soviet Russia, which it includes, I cannot bring myself to sign it.'

In December, 1945, Einstein made a speech on the role of science in the post-war world.

Physicists find themselves in a position not unlike that of Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel invented an explosive more powerful than any then known-an exceedingly effective means of destruction. To atone for this 'accomplishment' and to relieve his conscience, he instituted his awards for the promotion of peace. Today, the physicists who participated in producing the most formidable weapon of all time are harassed by a similar feeling of responsibility, not to say guilt. As scientists, we must never cease to warn against the danger created by these weapons; we dare not slacken in our efforts to make the peoples of the world, and especially their governments, aware of the unspeakable disaster they are certain to provoke unless they change their attitude toward one another and recognize their responsibility in shaping a safe future. We helped create this new weapon in order to prevent the enemies of mankind from achieving it first; given the mentality of the Nazis, this could have brought about untold destruction as well as the enslavement of the peoples of the world. This weapon was delivered into the hands of the American and the British nations in their roles as trustees of all mankind, and as fighters for peace and liberty; but so far we have no guarantee of peace nor of any of the freedoms promised by the Atlantic Charter. The war is won, but the peace is not.

Very interesting post, John! As the Times piece said, 2005 is the centenary of Einstein's annus mirabilis in 1905, the year in which he published his papers showing the existence of the atom; the validity of quantum physics; and introducing the world to his theory of special relativity.

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