Subscribe

When Historical Myth Collides With Reality

By Pat Murphy Created: February 9, 2013 Last Updated: February 11, 2013
Related articles: Opinion » Viewpoints
Print E-mail to a friend Give feedback

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy with his aide Theodore Sorenson are pictured on April 3, 1968. Sorenson was President John F. Kennedy’s lead speechwriter and went on to write a bestselling biography of the president. (National Archive/Newsmakers via Getty Images)

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy with his aide Theodore Sorenson are pictured on April 3, 1968. Sorenson was President John F. Kennedy’s lead speechwriter and went on to write a bestselling biography of the president. (National Archive/Newsmakers via Getty Images)

Dead since 1485, Richard III was back in the news recently, courtesy of the potential discovery of his earthly remains under a parking lot in Leicester, England. Although conventional history has it that Richard was a murdering tyrant, he’s not without his defenders.

In their view, his reputation has been unfairly maligned by supporters of the Tudors—the dynasty founded by the man who deposed him. And prominent among the alleged mythmakers was one William Shakespeare.

Beware of historians and journalists who fall in love with their subjects.

Whatever the truth of Richard’s case, there are much more current examples of historical mythmaking. For instance, the historian Sheldon M. Stern tells us that most of what we think we know about 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis is wrong.

And Stern is in a position of some authority on the matter. As historian at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 to 1999, he listened to the secret tape recordings Kennedy made during the crisis, specifically, the proceedings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). In Stern’s reckoning, these “tapes are the closest thing imaginable to a verbatim record of the crisis.”

Stern doesn’t mince words, decrying what he describes as the “one-dimensional” and “heroic” rendering, which was promoted to “gullible journalists” by the Kennedys and “popularized by the selective and manipulative writing of administration insiders like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen.” In particular, Stern notes the role played by Robert F. Kennedy’s crisis memoir “Thirteen Days,” published posthumously in 1969.

While Stern’s overall assessment of the crisis is worth a column of its own, for now we’ll just focus on the role of one player—Robert F. Kennedy; or Bobby Kennedy, as he was generally known back in the day.

Many of us first heard of Bobby when he was the high profile manager of his older brother’s successful 1960 presidential campaign. But that wasn’t the first thing he’d done. Earlier, he’d briefly served as a staff member for the communist-pursuing Senator Joe McCarthy. And he was subsequently chief counsel for the McClellan committee investigating union racketeering in the late 1950s, a role in which he’d gone up against Jimmy Hoffa.

In short, Bobby’s reputation was that of a ruthless and single-minded tough guy. He liked to win and wasn’t always fastidious about the means.

But in the years since his assassination, a Saint Bobby legend has been assiduously cultivated. In it, he appears as a compassionately romantic politician, an American liberal icon presented as the martyred prince of peace and justice. And a chunk of this legend comes from the dovish role that he purportedly played during the 1962 crisis. However, having listened to the tapes, Stern is having none of it.

As he tells the story, Bobby was consistently one of the most hawkish voices, arguing for an outright invasion of Cuba, concerned about America appearing weak, and anxious to get rid of Fidel Castro.

Referring to Bobby by his initials, Stern pithily makes the point: “If RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.”

Stern also pays special attention to the hagiographic role Arthur Schlesinger Jr. played in perpetuating the Bobby myth. Although a bona fide historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, Schlesinger was very much in thrall to the Kennedys. Even when the ExComm tapes became available, he continued to spin the legend.

Mind you, Schlesinger could be said to have had pre-Kennedy form when it came to the business of politically-motivated historical interpretations. He won his first Pulitzer in the mid-1940s for “The Age of Jackson,” a book in which he enlisted the 19th century president as a prop to support Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

So what should one make of all this? There are at least two takeaways.

First, never forget that all personal memoirs are self-serving. Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best when he observed that history would treat him kindly because he intended to write it himself.

And second, beware of historians and journalists who fall in love with their subjects. For all its undoubted virtues, love can be very blind. So if you’re looking for a reliable historical guide, begin by finding someone who doesn’t confuse reality with romance.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 21 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.




   

GET THE FREE DAILY E-NEWSLETTER


Selected Topics from The Epoch Times

Arleen Richards