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Thursday, 11 March 2010

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

In the introduction of the book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, David Aaronovitch claims that the book was inspired by a BBC film producer, Kevin Jarvis, who claimed that “the Apollo moon landings had been faked by NASA and the American government”. Aaronovitch was shocked why such an intelligent man should believe such a ridiculous story. My response would have been similar. However, Aaronovitch’s next step is to lump this particular conspiracy theory to all other conspiracy theories, by claiming that “we in the West are currently going through a period of fashionable conspiracism”. He adds: “Books alleging secret plots appear on the current affairs and history shelves as though they were as scholarly or reliable as works by major historians or noted academics. Little distinction is made between a painstakingly constructed biography of John F. Kennedy and an expensive new tome arguing – forty-four years after the event – that the president was killed by the Mafia.”

Aaronovitch is implying that historians do not concern themselves with conspiracy theories whereas these books are written by journalists after making a “quick buck”. Of course Aaronovitch is a journalist who admits in the introduction is trying to make money out of the subject matter (he claims that the royalty statements will determine whether he has put the last seven years to good use). I will return to this subject later because Aaronovitch constantly shows his ignorance in the role of historians in dealing with political conspiracies.

Aaronovitch is enough of an academic to realise that you have to first determine your terms of reference (he studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, but was sent down after failing his first-year exams – I am sure we would have got a different book if he had completed his studies). However, this causes him problems. “If a conspiracy is defined as two or more people getting together to plot an illegal, secret or immoral action, then we can all agree that there are plenty of conspiracies.” (page 4)

Aaronovitch considers two alternative definitions by historians Daniel Pipes and Richard Hofstadter. He rejects these because they do not suit his purpose and so he comes up with his own definition: “I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be: the attribution of deliberately agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another.” This is so woolly that Aaronovitch is virtually saying that a “conspiracy theory” is anything I say it is. However, I will try to assess his work based on his definition of conspiracy theory.

The problem for Aaronovitch is that anyone who has read much history is that the past is full of proved “conspiracies”. People in power have always used this power to try and control events. Their power is based on working closely with others in their position. In a democratic society, these people are forced into trying to prevent their actions from becoming public knowledge. The problem for them is that they are competing for power with other groups who share different political philosophies. This means that sometimes, the government itself is a victim of a political conspiracy.

In the introduction Aaronovitch looks at some suggested political conspiracies in the 20th century. His brief survey of US history leads him to argue that “not counting Watergate, which was a rather pitiful botched conspiracy to cover up an attempt at political espionage, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-6 is the closest the US has come to a full-blown conspiracy.” Even this admittance shows Aaronovitch’s lack of knowledge of these subjects. He understands Watergate as a Nixon conspiracy rather than as a conspiracy against Nixon. The same is true of Iran-Contra. He has only understood the surface conspiracy of Reagan against the will of Congress rather than the conspiracy against the Jimmy Carter administration. These mistakes would have been corrected by the reading of just one of the standard texts written by historians on these subjects. However, his bibliography and his notes (only 15 pages in a 327 page book) show that he has not read any books on these subjects.

In his study of 20th century UK history he only comes up with one political conspiracy, the Zinoviev letter of 1924. He quotes from Gill Bennett, the chief historian of the Foreign Office, who concluded that the letter had been forged by anti-Communist White Russians and passed over to MI6 who believed it to be genuine (of course it was MI6 who believed there was WMD in Iraq). Aaronovitch then goes on to quote the Labour foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, “there is no evidence that MI6 forged the letter. There is no evidence of an organised conspiracy against by the intelligence agencies.” (4th February, 1999)

I am sure the Foreign Office told Cook that the Labour Party had not been a victim of a conspiracy organized by the intelligence services. However, Aaronovitch seems to be unaware of Christopher Andrew’s book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009). Andrew is no friend of conspiracy theorists but after being given access to previously unclassified files he has had to confirm that MI5 were indeed involved in a number of political conspiracies. This includes the Zinoviev letter. On page 149 he points out that on 9th October 1924 SIS forwarded the Zinoviev letter to the Foreign Office, MI5 and Scotland Yard with the assurance that “the authenticity is undoubted” when they knew it had been forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians. Desmond Morton, the head of SIS, provided extra information about the letter being confirmed as being genuine by an agent, Jim Finney, who had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Andrew claims this was an “outrageous lie” as the so-called Finney report does not make any reference to the Zinoviev letter. Of course, it did not stop there, the forged document was then sent to the Daily Mail, a newspaper that was running a campaign against the Labour government. Andrew also argues that it was Joseph Ball, head of B Branch who passed the letter onto Conservative Central Office on 22nd October, 1924. Ball later went onto work for the Conservative Party, as Andrew points out: “Ball’s subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party-political advantage while at central office in the later 1920s strongly suggests” that he was guilty of this action.

It is clear in this case that Aaronovitch’s comments on the Zinoviev letter is just based on a casual look at newspaper cuttings. While this might be the research method used by a journalist writing an article on the subject, it is not acceptable when you are writing a book about past events. Especially as the main thrust of his argument is that people who write conspiracy books are not historians (and have not studied the evidence rigorously enough).

Anyway, I want to concentrate on how Aaronovitch deals with the assassination of JFK. In fact, it only covers 15 pages and appears in the chapter, “Dead Deities”. He starts of by quoting from his mother’s diary who wrote on the 23rd November 1963: “everybody abuzz with Kennedy assassination. Man called Lee Oswald arrested. Wonder if it is a frame-up, he is billed as having communist associations.” Aaronovitch’s mother, like his father, were members of the British Communist Party, and so it is not surprising that she reacted in this way to the assassination.

Aaronovitch argues that it was not unusual for the left to think that JFK had been killed as a result of a right-wing conspiracy. It was not only those on the left who thought this. A poll carried out in the US showed that one week after JFK’s death, 29% thought that Oswald did not act on his own. However, he claims that it was Mark Lane, with his article in the left-wing National Guardian in December 1963, that instigated the idea that JFK had been the victim of a right-wing conspiracy.

Aaronovitch dismisses Lane as a left-wing activist (he was the only public official arrested as a Freedom Rider). He also points out that most of those who played a public role in the claim that JFK had been a victim of conspiracy in Britain were on the left (J. B. Priestley, Michael Foot, Bertrand Russell, Victor Gollancz, John Calder, Bishop of Southwark, etc.).

He quotes from the article by I. F. Stone, who he describes as “one of the most prominent progressive US journalists”, who “warned the Left that they were falling prey to the same paranoias as the American Right” for arguing that JFK was a victim of a conspiracy (5th October, 1964). Stone believed, as did many on the left at the time that JFK was just a traditional conservative politician, and was an unlikely target of a right-wing plot. This was not an uncommon feeling on the left at the time, it was definitely my view of the assassination, however, we now know from declassified documents, that JFK had moved to the left in office and at the time of his assassination, was involved in secret negotiations to end the Cold War. I would suggest that Stone would not have been so convinced of Oswald’s guilt if he knew what we know now.

He then goes onto to suggest that Lane made a good living out of pushing the conspiracy theory. It is true that Lane’s Rush to Judgment (1966) did sell well. However, he fails to say that the earliest conspiracy books by people like Thomas G. Buchanan and Joachim Joesten had to go to Europe to find a publisher. It was only after the success of Lane’s book that convinced US publishers that there was good money to be made out of the JFK case. That is the way capitalism works.

He dismisses the early books on the case as being written by journalists. He tries to undermine Richard H. Popkin’s The Second Oswald, by claiming that while he was an academic, he was a philosopher rather than a historian. It does not seem that Aaronovitch has read any of these books and they do not even appear in his bibliography.

Aaronovitch then goes onto argue on page 123 that: “If one reads the Warren Report, the circumstantial evidence that Oswald was the lone killer seems overwhelming.” He then goes on to list this “circumstantial evidence”. For example: “he worked at the Texas Schoolbook Depository…” etc. He ends the passage with “the words slam dunk come to mind”. I am afraid that is the kind of analysis that Aaronovitch provides in the book.

Aaronovitch goes onto attack the critics of the Warren Commission by claiming that most of them would not have read the full report. It is unlikely that Aaronovitch has read the report. If you go to the very skimpy notes you will find that he only quotes the report via Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (2003), Larry Sturdivan’s The JFK Myths (2005) and Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History (2007), three books that do appear in the Bibliography. In fact, the only pro-JFK conspiracy books that appear in the Bibliography are: Madeleine Brown’s Texas in the Morning (1997), Robin Ramsay’s Who Shot JFK? (2002) and James Di Eugenio and Lisa Pease’s The Assassinations (2003).

This is clearly not a very exhaustive study of the case. What is worse, he seems completely unaware of the House Select Committee on Assassinations that carried out an investigation into the assassination of JFK between 1975 and 1976. The published report claimed that the Warren Commission "failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President." The report was also highly critical of the Secret Service: "The Secret Service was deficient in the performance of its duties. The Secret Service possessed information that was not properly analyzed, investigated or used by the Secret Service in connection with the President's trip to Dallas; in addition, Secret Service agents in the motorcade were inadequately prepared to protect the President from a sniper."

The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that "scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy." It added that "on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”

One can see why Aaronovitch was not keen to examine the findings of the Select Committee on Assassinations report. But to completely ignore its existence is unacceptable. This is especially important as the US official government position is that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK. The issue is not really about if Oswald was the lone gunman but who was behind the conspiracy to kill JFK.

Aaronovitch makes much in his book that conspiracy books are written by lawyers and journalists rather than historians. While this is true of anti-conspiracy books, it is not true of conspiracy books. It is true that many historians, when writing about JFK, tend to leave the assassination of him well alone. However, as far as I am aware, no historian has ever gone on record as saying the Warren Commission got it right. Those historians who have looked at the assassination, people such as David Kaiser, Gerald McKnight and Michael Kurtz, have concluded that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK.

Aaronovitch’s book has nothing to tell us about the JFK assassination. As a journalist who is attempting to write a book as quick as possible, he does not have the inclination or the skills, to investigate the considerable amount of material relating to the case. However, maybe I am not a careful enough reader and maybe others can point out what I have missed.


lwtc247 said...

Little distinction is made between a painstakingly constructed biography of John F. Kennedy and a tabloid column piece written by jellybean journalists like David Aaronovitch

voiceofourown said...

David A's definition of a conspiracy theory is risible.

the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another.

But Dave dear boy, ALL conspirators work on the assumption that other explanations look more likely. If they didn't, it wouldn't be much of a conspiracy now would it?
Unmitigated bolleaux.

lwtc247 said...

An concise David Zionavitch defn of conspiracy:

"Whatever, but Israel isn't involved"

Kurosawafan said...

I was looking for a good assessment of a the recent book discussing nutty conspiracy theories. Instead, all I found was just another nut who believes in wacky theories himself. I would recommend he save his amazing criticism and publish his own book; however, I think this blog is as far as his thoughts will go. There are so many important facts to learn in the world. That people would spend one instant chasing nut theories is truly beyond my capacity for reason.