Interpretation of Historical Fact
Camelot is the myth that surrounds John F. Kennedy, the hero of the American people during a Presidency cut too short by a malicious assassination that changed America’s and the world’s future forever, specifically in relation to Vietnam and the Cold War. This myth, still peddled by many today, perhaps more so given the growing years between us and the events that took place, is nothing more than that – a collation of numerous accounts that all rely on a complete dismissal of fact.
I have already written a piece in the past week that draws from this 1993 book by Noam Chomsky, on the Vietnam War and a critique of Australia’s education system on that topic, suggesting ways in which we should improve our approach towards the teaching of history. For that reason, I don’t really want to delve into the core themes of the book, namely JFK and the Vietnam War. Instead, there were a few pages at the end of the book that caught my eye that were talking about US political culture and interpretations.
My thoughts instantly went to E. H. Carr’s What Is History?, a series of lectures Carr did (coincidentally, at the time of the Vietnam War) in an effort to answer that question. One of the main takeaways from it is the idea of the “historian and his facts”. Who was the historian who wrote this text on a particular historic moment or figure? In what kind of society did they grow up and live in, and how would that have influenced them? Knowing that context, what facts out of the countless facts available do they emphasise the importance of (or, perhaps more interestingly, which ones do they neglect or downplay)? What is their interpretation of these facts, the potential biases they may be (knowingly or unwittingly) applying to them?
It is a fascinating read that I would recommend to anyone who has an interest in history. Earlier this year I also wrote a short series of pieces about it as I read it.
In Rethinking Camelot, Chomsky expertly and thoroughly reduces the Kennedy revival post-Tet Offensive to what it is – meaningless and quite misleading contributions to the historic narrative, but significant as pieces that reflect the political culture of the US at the time and the deifying of JFK, who must at once be disconnected from all atrocities committed during or following his time as President. He compares the works of certain historians and JFK associates from before and after the Tet Offensive (which took place in January 1968, little over four years after Kennedy’s assassination, the real turning point in which the US and global communities really tipped into anti-war sentiments.
The image of Camelot, of JFK’s immaculate leadership and uniqueness, could not be tarnished with the horrors of his Administration’s making. JFK was always in favour of withdrawal from Vietnam by 1965, even if victory was not attainable. JFK would have made the Cold War a piece of history, solving the Cuban Missile Crisis and averting global catastrophe. JFK would have torn down the CIA and corporate elements that sought to undermine the country and the vision that he had. All of that according to his proponents post-Tet. Many of them before that date had given little attention to withdrawal, which was always dependent on victory from the start.
As Chomsky explains, this shift is perception and image of JFK made sense from a political culture perspective but has essentially zero basis on actual fact. Using the public and internal records available, the fanciful rewriting of history and JFK’s legacy is shattered, and in my opinion, it is quite criminal how much the record was distorted to protect what was in reality quite an aggressive President. All US Presidents, if held to the same standards as the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, would be in some rather serious trouble – another observation by Chomsky in an interview he did.
John Newman is one such historian that Chomsky meticulously picks apart, saying that his work only serves to “reveal the extraordinary lengths to which it is necessary to go to try to make a case for the theses advanced by Newman, [Arthur] Schlesinger, and a wide range of others.” These theses being that JFK intended on withdrawing from Vietnam by 1965, without victory if need be, and that his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, drastically changed course by reversing JFK’s noble policies and escalating the War. Both, as the record shows, are entirely false – many of JFK’s advisors, including the doves, were the ones that guided LBJ’s approach to the war.
And so, with the record providing evidence to the contrary, many like Newman had to resort to wildly inaccurate and, at times, psychic assumptions and statements. Chomsky observes, “The facts, whatever they may be, are interpreted so as to conform to the central dogma.” Blatant refutations can be dismissed casually as simply being proof of the mystery surrounding the situation. Layers upon layers of deception on literally all fronts, even deception to oneself, must exist to uphold this conspiracy, none of which had been revealed or fallen apart in the 30 years following JFK’s assassination, nor since.
The tie to Carr’s work is, I hope, obvious here. JFK, at the time and most certainly still today, is looked upon with reverence, a leader the likes of which we have not seen since (although realistically, we have seen many). Those interested in maintaining the image of Camelot, the loyalists in the Kennedy camp, make liberal use (or misuse) of the historical record, often skipping important facts – like the military’s own opposition to the Vietnam War’s escalation – or distorting others so grossly that it’s shocking how intact their recreation remains.
The cultural and political contexts of these writers are important to understand when looking at their interpretations of the facts on hand. The facts chosen (and left out), as well as the biased lenses they view them through, reveal a lot about the intentions of the work produced. As mentioned above, Chomsky considered them irrelevant as historical works, but of interest when discussing the political culture of the US at the time. One could argue that that culture lives on today, with the essential deification of Obama, whose crimes are now lost behind the vicious obscurity of the Trump administration.
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