History of Historians

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes has some interesting musings on history in the first part where Tony Webster and his trio of book-crazy friends analyze the meaning of everything, sometimes in subtle mockery or high seriousness. In one scene, the teacher asks one of them to offer his thoughts as the Serbian gunman who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.  The boy, Finn, explains one of the central problems of history in his answer, “The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

Later, there is a more detailed discussion of exactly what history is. “History is the lies of the victors,” one replies to which the teacher retorts, “It is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” Another one has a simpler explanation, ““History is a raw onion sandwich, sir” and he explains further, “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.” Another one has a more precise definition, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Some of these observations come to reality in Benjamin Schwarz’s piece which is a review of Sheldon M. Stern’s The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory in The Atlantic. For years, through books and movies, we have been fed a story about the incident and how a tough Kennedy averted a global nuclear war and forced the Soviet Union to do a U-turn without offering anything in return. It turns out that this version of history was one scripted by the Kennedy administration. It was repeated by historians and has now been proved to be the lies of the victors. According to the book, the Kennedy administration was not innocent and  bore “substantial responsibility” for the crisis.

According to the new version Kennedy himself admitted that Soviet missiles in Cuba were the same as the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy. For him, it was not a military issue but a political one. Since he had made Cuba one of his campaign issues, he could not be seen acting soft on it. For this political reason, he had to create an image of toughness and show that he enforced a unilateral Soviet withdrawal.

Even though the crisis was averted by a mutual withdrawal of missiles, it was a different story that came out. The article explains how this story was minted

Only a handful of administration officials knew about the trade; most members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, did not. And in their effort to maintain the cover-up, a number of those who did, including McNamara and Rusk, lied to Congress. JFK and others tacitly encouraged the character assassination of Stevenson, allowing him to be portrayed as an appeaser who “wanted a Munich” for suggesting the trade—a deal that they vociferously maintained the administration would never have permitted.

He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.[The Real Cuban Missile Crisis]

The truth finally came out because Kennedy had secret recordings of all the deliberations and thanks to that we now have the history of the historians.

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