Jump to content
The Education Forum

David Kaiser: American Tragedy


Recommended Posts

David Kaiser is professor in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College and the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990) and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000).

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

(5) 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?

post-7-1152183458_thumb.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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

I was fascinated by the past!

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

Yes - a lot. The investigative journalist relies mainly on interviews. The historian relies mainly on documents. There is overlap, but that's the main difference.

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

I like answering big questions. My last two books (including the one in progress) deal with events in my own lifetime.

(4) 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?

Political history in general is very unfashionable, and before me, only one professional historian, John Newman, has written about the JFK case. It frightens people because so many crazy folk are involved with it, I think. It also requies a huge time commitment.

(5) 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?

The basic rule is that before-the-fact (in this case, pre-November 1963) documents are more important than after-the-fact ones. There's a hierarchy of evidence. People who come forward years later with stories are suspect, and if they said something different at the time, one has to discount them heavily. Meanwhile, one has to read as many documents as possible to understand the context of a particular event. Almost everything Oswald did looks, actually, like part of something bigger that was happening at the time.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The basic rule is that before-the-fact (in this case, pre-November 1963) documents are more important than after-the-fact ones. There's a hierarchy of evidence. People who come forward years later with stories are suspect, and if they said something different at the time, one has to discount them heavily. Meanwhile, one has to read as many documents as possible to understand the context of a particular event. Almost everything Oswald did looks, actually, like part of something bigger that was happening at the time.

It is true that in some areas of history writing, documents are far more important than interviews. However, in some areas, such as writing about the activities of the intelligence services, documents have to be treated with extreme caution. For a start, documents can be destroyed, doctored or withheld. Senior CIA officials have gone on record as saying that details of some actions, for example, illegal ones, do not appear in documents. If they do, code names are used to make it extremely difficult for researchers to discover “who was doing what”.

CIA agents also create documents with false information (disinformation is an important aspect of the work of a CIA agent). There is an interesting passage in Felix I. Rodriguez’s book, Shadow Warrior. He explains how in 1976 he was asked to carry out CIA work in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This included the organization of using B-26K bombers and helicopters against insurgents in these countries. The problem was that Rodriguez was known to be working for the CIA and if he got caught it would have caused the government political embarrassment. Therefore he was asked by Ted Shackley to make a very public retirement from the CIA. This included being awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor (page 254).

Of course, Rodriguez, only revealed this information after he had been exposed by the Iran-Contra investigations. If certain investigative journalists had not had the courage to write about these matters, historians would not be able to write about the involvement of the CIA in illegal activities.

It seems to me that historians should be more willing to question the official account that appears in government documents. For example, the brave work of Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972) and A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2006). These are books that could not have been written if McCoy had only used official documents.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It is true that in some areas of history writing, documents are far more important than interviews. However, in some areas, such as writing about the activities of the intelligence services, documents have to be treated with extreme caution. For a start, documents can be destroyed, doctored or withheld. Senior CIA officials have gone on record as saying that details of some actions, for example, illegal ones, do not appear in documents. If they do, code names are used to make it extremely difficult for researchers to discover “who was doing what”.

CIA agents also create documents with false information (disinformation is an important aspect of the work of a CIA agent). There is an interesting passage in Felix I. Rodriguez’s book, Shadow Warrior. He explains how in 1976 he was asked to carry out CIA work in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This included the organization of using B-26K bombers and helicopters against insurgents in these countries. The problem was that Rodriguez was known to be working for the CIA and if he got caught it would have caused the government political embarrassment. Therefore he was asked by Ted Shackley to make a very public retirement from the CIA. This included being awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor (page 254).

Of course, Rodriguez, only revealed this information after he had been exposed by the Iran-Contra investigations. If certain investigative journalists had not had the courage to write about these matters, historians would not be able to write about the involvement of the CIA in illegal activities.

It seems to me that historians should be more willing to question the official account that appears in government documents. For example, the brave work of Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972) and A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2006). These are books that could not have been written if McCoy had only used official documents.

There is certainly some truth in what you say. I do not think internal CIA documents say A when not A is the truth very often, but it is obvious that many things are never documented, and any response to any other agency is based upon what is in the documentation, nothing more. (When some one asks, inside the CIA, "what is our conneciton to x?", the answer is, in actual fact, "what is in the files about X?" ) The FBI is a different matter altogether. Data inside the FBI becomes scared as soon as it is written down (or it did.) And they are in the business of collecting data. I have just discovered (actually Newman discovered it) a case in which a senior FBI official created an alternative vision of history but that is VERY rare.

The problem for a responsible historian dealing with the CIA is this: just because various things MIGHT be true must not be taken as a license to believe ANYTHING might be true. I will discuss this point a good deal in the book.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

On page 275 of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War you argue that Richard Nixon, during his presidency, made several “unsuccessful attempts to prove – wrongly – that Kennedy had ordered Diem’s assassination.”

Could you tell us anything more about these attempts by Nixon to smear Kennedy? Is it linked to Watergate? For example, John Dean gave FBI Director L. Patrick Gray an envelope on 28th June, 1972, that apparently contained documents that implicated Kennedy in Diem’s assassination? Later Gray disclosed that he destroyed these papers that originally came from E. Howard Hunt’s White House safe.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

On page 275 of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War you argue that Richard Nixon, during his presidency, made several “unsuccessful attempts to prove – wrongly – that Kennedy had ordered Diem’s assassination.”

Could you tell us anything more about these attempts by Nixon to smear Kennedy? Is it linked to Watergate? For example, John Dean gave FBI Director L. Patrick Gray an envelope on 28th June, 1972, that apparently contained documents that implicated Kennedy in Diem’s assassination? Later Gray disclosed that he destroyed these papers that originally came from E. Howard Hunt’s White House safe.

Yes, E. Howard Hunt had been asked - I'm not sure by whom, probably Chuck Colson - to fabricate cables directly linking JFK to Diem's assassination, and he did so. L Patrick Gray testified about reading, and then destroying, one of them after John Dean gave him the documents in Hunt's safe. That is the main episode I remember.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...