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John Simkin

An interview with Gerald D. McKnight

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Gerald D. McKnight is professor of history at Hood College, where he is chair of the History and Political Science Department. He is the author of the books, The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King Jr., the FBI and the Poor People's Campaign (1998) and Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why (2005).

(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an historian?

(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?

(3) How do you decide about what to write about?

(4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your research will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

(5) Did you have any problems having The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King Jr., the FBI and the Poor People's Campaign (1998) and Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation (2005) published?

(6) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?

(7) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in, and covered-up, serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

(8) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

(9) Why is it that most books written about political conspiracies: assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. are written by journalists rather than historians? Is it because of fear or is it something to do with the nature of being a historian?

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(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an historian?

I started college with the idea that I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then came the Korean War and I got caught up in "History." I spent some time in Korea and saw war up close. Enough said on that score. But it changed all my plans. When I got back to college I decided that I wanted to go into history. I had seen history close up and now I wanted to understand how things really work. Also, I'd have to say that during my last year in high school I feel in love with books.

(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?

Investigating journalists are focused on breaking news, contemporary events, etc. Good investigating journalists (like Seymour Hersh and the late Izzy Stone) do rely on history for context and, in return, historians who are studying a topic by going back to the roots of the matter and carrying it forward can and do at times cite the works of a Hersh or a Stone. Sources for the Hersh's of this world in most cases are live and associated in some way with the object of his study. For historians most of their sources are from those who have passed on or from records and documents.

(3) How do you decide about what to write about?

I came to political consciousness during the 1960s. I believed then as I do now that the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X were defining events of that decade. That the beginning of the decline of the US to the current "Dark Ages" we find ourselves today had its roots in that decade. So I had an abiding interest in the Kennedy and King assassiantions and their impact on American politics.

(4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your research will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

No. I am just a college professor (emeritus) who happened to write a book or two that has attacted the attention of a few interested and well-informed readers. I am sure I am on some list held by the FBI because I have said unflattering things about the bureau. But considering the current status of our civil liberties in the last stages of America's empire I don't think I am any more vulnerable than any one else the government wants to hassle. Having said that, I do not take much comfort in the current state of things. We should worry.

No it never harmed my career. I taught at a small liberal arts women's college for more than 25 years. I never felt any pressure about my line of interests. On the contrary, I was supported by Hood College administration and by my colleagues. Now, had I been at one of our prestigious universities it is more than likely that my line of research interest would have been discouraged and if I persisted I would never have received tenure. I only say this on the basis of other peoples experience that I am aware.

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(5) Did you have any problems having The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King Jr., the FBI and the Poor People's Campaign (1998) and Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation (2005) published?

I had no trouble getting "Last Crusade" Published. It was snapped up right away. It was supposed to go into paperback edition and be plugged as the kind of source useful for supplementary reading in upper level college courses. The publisher was bought up by a German source and I never heard any more about it.

As for "Breach" that was another story. It was turned down by half a dozen trade publishers. Generally the comments I got back from by agent was that the initial reader gave it a thumbs up but the collective board said no. I got the impression that all these idiots had read Posner and as far as they were concerned the case was closed.

University of Kansas Press snapped it up right away because the editor-in-chief was a guy with a social conscience and recognized that the JFK assassination was a valid subject for academic research and publication. He is a rare bird I am sad to say.

I think the way establishment thinkers or conventional thinkers best handle a work like "Breach" is basically to ignore it. Pretending it does not exist or is not worthy of a review in the mainstream press or even the self-proclaimed "progressive" journals or even the E-book circuit is to render it harmless and the author ineffectual. Nothing new in this.

(6) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?

No. My career was advanced by "The Last Crusade" and I wrote "Breach" after I had retired from college teaching. However, my college was a small liberal arts women's college and it had progressive leadership and my colleagues were almost all of the same political persuasion. I even taught courses in "The Politics of Assassination" for many years. Once again I was very fortunate in my 27 years at Hood.

(7) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in, and covered-up, serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

I think they fear being labelled a "nut." The reality is, of course, that while not all history is a conspiracy there are conspiracies in history. It is a topic that has as much validity as say the politics of railroad building or migration patterns in Missouri. The JFK thing is largely verboten among the professoriate because it has attracted so many loose canons and dishonest elements. One wonders if the CIA didn't have a central casting and set loose a lot of these nut jobs just to poison the well, so to speak. Of course even that sounds paranoid. The other factor, and it is real, is that the available documentary body of material available is overwhelming. Consider that the holdings at National Archives 2 in College Park, Maryland, is in the area of 4 to 5 million pages. Not all of it is absolutely relevant but still. . . .it intimidates.

(8) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

First off I was lucky again. I lived but minutes away from Harold Weisberg. Weisberg, as far as I am concerned, knew more about the JFK assassination than any other living person. He forgot more than I will ever know. Moreover, his personal collection of JFK documents was available to me at any time. Now his archive is housed at Hood College and I am the on-site archivist and have ready access. All this made it almost a no-brainer to go ahead with the business of writing "Breach." Under any other circumstances I would probably never have undertaken this task. And now I am planning to write a second JFK book dealing with the first three weeks after the assassination before there was a Warren Commission.

(9) Why is it that most books written about political conspiracies: assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. are written by journalists rather than historians? Is it because of fear or is it something to do with the nature of being a historian?

Do you think this is basically true? Perhaps. My feeling is that unless the republic turns into a closed authoritarian state that there is going to be a strong reaction to the political radicalism of the current administration and a resurgence of interest in how we came to this state of affairs. Of course the fact is that basically what - only 5% of the population reads books. How the hell do we change this?

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While it is true that the history profession has exhibited a thin diet where some conspiracies are concerned, yet I would have to say that American historians do more to write about the ugly and disgraceful aspects of our history then is true of any other historians fromm around the world.

For example, I thionk it is to our credit that some 60 plus years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that American historians still write, agonize, and question the decision to lay these terrible weapons on the Japanese.

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