Saturday, 29th March, 2014
I have been a historian for over forty years. I have always been interested in subjects where there is a shortage of evidence. That there is a certain amount of mystery involved. Probably the first research I ever did was into the lives of working people in Britain at the end of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century. I was drawn to this subject because we knew very little about the way this group saw the world. Most of them were unable to read and write and have left only a small amount of documentary evidence.
During my research I read a book that I found disturbing. The book was by the historian, E. H. Carr. In What Is History? (1961) Carr addresses the problem of the politically motivated historian. He points out that the historian is likely to only write about subjects he/she cares about. In the words of another historian, W. H. B. Court: "History free of all values cannot be written. Indeed, it is a concept almost impossible to understand, for men will scarcely take the trouble to inquire laboriously into something which they set no value upon."
Carr argues that the historian starts off with a theory that needs to be tested by the evidence. The theory will reflect the political views of the historian. Carr makes the important point about the nature of the facts that the historian uses: "The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation."
After reading Carr's book I began asking myself some serious questions. When I was researching working class life was I being totally objective? Was I testing a theory that was highly subjective? Was I only looking for "facts" to support my theory and rejecting evidence that suggested other interpretations? As a historian you attempt to act in a completely objective way, but is it really achievable?
For example, let us take one theory of the JFK assassination. In 1981 G. Robert Blakey (with Richard Billings) published The Plot to Kill the President (reissued in paperback in 1993 as Fatal Hour: The Assassination of President Kennedy by Organized Crime). Blakey was in a good position to write a book on the assassination as he served as chief counsel and staff director to the House Select Committee on Assassinations from 1977 to 1979. He was therefore in a good position to examine all the evidence available.
Carl Oglesby summarized Blakey and Billings theory as follows:
(a) Oswald alone did shoot and kill J.F.K., as the Warren Commission deduced.
(b) An unknown confederate of Oswald's, however, also shot at the President, firing from the celebrated "grassy knoll." This shot missed.
(c) Apart from the question of the number of assailants in the attack, Oswald acted as the tool of a much larger conspiracy.
(d) The conspiracy behind Oswald was rooted in organized crime and was specifically provoked by J.F.K.'s anti-crime program. Singly or in some combination, prime suspects are Carlos Marcello and Santos Trafficante, godfathers respectively of the New Orleans and Tampa Mafias, and Teamster racketeer James Hoffa. Each one had the motive, means, and opportunity to kill J.F.K.
The book successfully accumulates the evidence that supports the theory that the Mafia was behind the assassination. Although there are other researchers who agree with Blakey, the vast majority of JFK research community either supports an alternative theory or rejects the whole idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a conspiracy. These people will say that the evidence that Blakey provides is from "unreliable" sources.
This is of course true of any theory of JFK's assassination. I happen to believe that the assassination was organized by CIA officers, David Morales and Carl Elmer Jenkins and carried out by a team led by Rafael (Chi Chi) Quintero. However, I am fully aware that people like John McAdams and Gary Mack will have little difficulty in questioning the reliability of the evidence I could produce.
Some researchers believe the answer to the question of who killed John F. Kennedy will be found in the archives of the CIA and FBI. However, is it possible to imagine what kind of document will convince McAdams and Mack that he was murdered as part of a conspiracy? The same is also true of those who believe in the idea of a conspiracy.
I recently became aware of this problem during an investigation into the political assassination of Sergi Kirov on 1st December, 1934. Leonid Nikolayev was immediately arrested and after being questioned by Genrikh Yagoda he signed a statement saying that Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev had been the leaders of the conspiracy to assassinate Kirov.
Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent based in Moscow at the time, was willing to accept this story. "The details of Kirov's assassination at first pointed to a personal motive, which may indeed have existed, but investigation showed that, as commonly happens in such cases, the assassin Nikolaiev had been made the instrument of forces whose aims were treasonable and political. A widespread plot against the Kremlin was discovered, whose ramifications included not merely former oppositionists but agents of the Nazi Gestapo. As the investigation continued, the Kremlin's conviction deepened that Trotsky and his friends abroad had built up an anti-Stalinist organisation in close collaboration with their associates in Russia, who formed a nucleus or centre around which gradually rallied divers elements of discontent and disloyalty. The actual conspirators were comparatively few in number, but as the plot thickened they did not hesitate to seek the aid of foreign enemies in order to compensate for the lack of popular support at home."
Nikolayev was executed after his trial but Zinoviev and Kamenev, two senior figures in the Soviet government, refused to confess. Ya S. Agranov, the deputy commissar of the secret police, reported to Stalin he was not able to prove that they had been directly involved in the assassination. Therefore in January 1935 they were tried and convicted only for "moral complicity" in the crime. "That is, their opposition had created a climate in which others were incited to violence." Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years hard labour, Kamenev to five.
However, on 19th August 1936, a second trial began. This time they made a full confession. Kamenev said: "I Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organised and guided this conspiracy. My motives? I had become convinced that the party's - Stalin's policy - was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the party; but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow. Stalin's leadership we were actuated by boundless hatred and by lust of power." Zinoviev also confessed: "I would like to repeat that I am fully and utterly guilty. I am guilty of having been the organizer, second only to Trotsky, of that block whose chosen task was the killing of Stalin. I was the principal organizer of Kirov's assassination. The party saw where we were going, and warned us; Stalin warned as scores of times; but we did not heed these warnings. We entered into an alliance with Trotsky."
Zinoviev and Kamenev were both executed. The Western media accepted that these two men had been guilty of this crime. An editorial in The Observer on 23rd August, 1936, commented: "It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government's case against the defendants (Zinoviev and Kamenev) is genuine." The New Statesman added: "Very likely there was a plot. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing. It is their (Zinoviev and Kamenev) confession and decision to demand the death sentence for themselves that constitutes the mystery. If they had a hope of acquittal, why confess? If they were guilty of trying to murder Stalin and knew they would be shot in any case, why cringe and crawl instead of defiantly justifying their plot on revolutionary grounds? We would be glad to hear the explanation."
The New Republic argued: "Some commentators, writing at a long distance from the scene, profess doubt that the executed men (Zinoviev and Kamenev) were guilty. It is suggested that they may have participated in a piece of stage play for the sake of friends or members of their families, held by the Soviet government as hostages and to be set free in exchange for this sacrifice. We see no reason to accept any of these laboured hypotheses, or to take the trial in other than its face value. Foreign correspondents present at the trial pointed out that the stories of these sixteen defendants, covering a series of complicated happenings over nearly five years, corroborated each other to an extent that would be quite impossible if they were not substantially true. The defendants gave no evidence of having been coached, parroting confessions painfully memorized in advance, or of being under any sort of duress."
As far as the media was concerned, the case was closed. However, in the summer of 1937 forty NKVD agents serving abroad were summoned back to the Soviet Union. Three of these agents, Alexander Orlov, Walter Krivitsky and Ignaz Reiss received information via a source at headquarters that Joseph Stalin planned to have them all executed. The three men decided to defect to the West. Reiss was assassinated in Switzerland but Krivitsky and Orlov managed to get to the United States.
Orlov and Krivitsky gave the FBI full details of how the confessions of Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were obtained. Orlov pointed out. "Towards the end of their ordeal, Zinoviev became sick and exhausted. Yezhov took advantage of the situation in a desperate attempt to get a confession. Yezhov warned that Zinoviev must affirm at a public trial that he had plotted the assassination of Stalin and other members of the Politburo. Zinoviev declined the demand. Yezhov then relayed Stalin's offer; that if he co-operated at an open trial, his life would be spared; if he did not, he would be tried in a closed military court and executed, along with all of the opposition. Zinoviev vehemently rejected Stalin's offer. Yezhov then tried the same tactics on Kamenev and again was rebuffed."
In July 1936 Nikolai Yezhov told Kamenev and Zinoviev that their children would be charged with being part of the conspiracy and would face execution if found guilty. The two men now agreed to co-operate at the trial if Stalin promised to spare their lives. At a meeting with Stalin, Kamenev told him that they would agree to co-operate on the condition that none of the old-line Bolsheviks who were considered the opposition and charged at the new trial would be executed, that their families would not be persecuted, and that in the future none of the former members of the opposition would be subjected to the death penalty. Stalin replied: "That goes without saying!"
Walter Krivitsky published his account of the case in I Was Stalin's Agent (1939). He also visited London where he told MI5 details of the spy network set up by Theodore Maly and Arnold Deutsch, now both recalled to Moscow. This included information that should have enabled the authorities to catch Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Michael Straight.
Walter Krivitsky was found dead in the Bellevue Hotel in Washington on 10th February, 1941. At first it was claimed that Krivitsky had committed suicide. However, others claimed his hiding place had been disclosed by a Soviet mole working for MI5 and had been murdered by Soviet agents. Whittaker Chambers definitely believed that he had been killed by the NKVD: "He had left a letter in which he gave his wife and children the unlikely advice that the Soviet Government and people were their best friends. Previously he had warned them that, if he were found dead, never under any circumstances to believe that he had committed suicide." Krivitsky once told Chambers: "Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to commit a good natural death."
When Alexander Orlov defected he was concerned about his mother and mother-in-law, were still living in the from the Soviet Union. He sent a letter to Joseph Stalin (a copy was sent to Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD). He warned that an account of Stalin's crimes were lodged with his attorney and should he, or any member of his immediate family, be kidnapped or murdered by the NKVD, his attorney was under instruction to have the record of Stalin's crimes published immediately.
Orlov kept his promise and his book, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, was not published until Stalin's death in 1953. Historians now accepted that Stalin had indeed ordered the assassination of Sergi Kirov. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev made a speech on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He argued: "Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient co-operation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint, and the correctness of his position, was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of communism, fell victim to Stalin's despotism."
Khrushchev condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. During the speech he suggested that Stalin had ordered the assassination of Kirov. In 1961 Khrushchev launched an investigation into the assassination of Kirov and other Stalin crimes. However, according to one insider, Feliks Chuev, the Shvernik Commission "found nothing against Stalin" but "Khrushchev refused to publish it - it was of no use to him."
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union promising an era of political reform. One of his first moves was to launch a new official investigation into the assassination of Sergi Kirov. An inter-agency team re-examined the evidence but with all previous investigations, the commission failed to produce a report. As one historian pointed out: "Their efforts dissolved into mutual recriminations among the members that leaked into the press, as some pressed for a conclusion implicating Stalin while other members argued that the evidence pointed the other way." This is of course what will happen if the CIA and the FBI opened up their archives. The members of any such commission would be unable to agree about the Kennedy assassination.
All the government files concerning the Kirov assassination have now been released. Over the last few years there have been two books published by American historians on the case: J. Arch Getty's The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (2010) and Matthew E. Lenoe's, The Kirov Murder and Soviet History (2010). Both men came to the same conclusion. The evidence does not exist to prove that Stalin ordered the assassination. They claim that the early evidence from Walter Krivitsky and Alexander Orlov, is unreliable as the information was secondhand and based on hearsay.
John Archibald Getty makes the interesting point: "While it is true that most Leningrad police officials and party leaders were executed in the terror subsequent to the assassination, so were hundreds of thousands of others, and there is no compelling reason to believe that they were killed 'to cover the tracks' of the Kirov assassination, as Khrushchev put it. Moreover, they were left alive (and in some cases at liberty) and free to talk for three years following the crime. It has seemed to some unlikely that Stalin would have taken such a chance for so long with pawns used to arrange the killing."
If historians cannot agree on the assassination of Kirov, how will they ever agree on the Kennedy assassination? It is possible that some researcher will come up with some new evidence over the next few years. Whatever, the quality of the evidence, the response is predictable. Some will use it to back up the theory they have been pushing in books, blogs and forums. However, the vast majority, will be able to ask difficult questions about this new evidence. These are questions that they would not ask about the evidence that they believe supports their own theory. As John Maynard Keynes once pointed out: "The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones."
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