The question of why this should be so, is something which has been an ongoing source of extreme irritation and discomfort. It is a question I have asked myself time and time again – first as an undergraduate studying the US and now as a graduate student studying history and politics, and delving even more deeply into the workings of the US political system, but finding that subjects deemed to be too controversial or ‘conspiratorial’ in nature are ignored or dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’. And heavily frowned upon. You only have to read
The Paranoid Style in American Politics by the late Richard Hofstadter, a widely lauded scholar of the US Presidency, to understand this deeply ingrained attitude of the historical profession.
There are of course academics such as Peter Dale Scott, Walt Brown and Gerald McKnight who have done outstanding work on the Kennedy assassination, but sadly they are in the minority, and tend to be dismissed by mainstream academia. Why? Where are all the rest? Why is it seen as acceptable amongst academics to have debates about the causes of the American Revolution, but still, after 51 years, not to discuss the circumstances surrounding the murder of the 35th President of the US? Instead it is treated almost as a footnote to history, a sort of annoying irrelevance, disrupting the flow of the accepted historical narrative, which must be lightly skipped over before getting back to the business of ‘proper’ history; yes, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22nd, 1963, but anyway, on to the Presidency of LBJ and Vietnam…
Having mixed in academic circles for a good few years now, every so often, the subject of the Kennedy assassination comes up. The 50th anniversary of the assassination last year, meant that the subject came up more than it usually would, given the huge media coverage of the event. The comments I heard amongst history professors ranged from ‘Oh, you’re not interested in THAT are you?’ to ‘Why can’t people just accept what happened and stop believing these crazy theories?’ But you know for a fact these ‘highly educated’ and esteemed professors will have hardly read anything on the subject whatsoever – because their academic training will not have permitted it. They will not have been exposed to this type of history. To them, history is that which they read in the accepted history texts, see reflected in the mainstream media, and are convinced of by the official government narrative. These people may have a PhD in their field, but are completely unaware of the nature of ‘deep politics’ that people such as Professor Peter Dale Scott has written about.
Many of these people I count amongst my good friends and acquaintances, and are honest, intelligent people, doing informative research who I am loathe to bash because they are also victims of the system, and have to operate in a very narrowly defined area of what is acceptable. Studying the nature of US voting patterns in the 20th Century, for example, might be interesting, but is hardly likely to shake the foundations of power, or really get to the root of understanding what happened to the US in the 1960’s, when a wave of assassinations fundamentally changed the political direction of the country.
Apart from one professor so ignorant about the assassination that he downloaded slides from the internet in which conspiracy believers were compared to nuts that believe man never landed on the moon, I have been lucky to be taught by those who are more open minded than many of their colleagues. One of my former professors even taught a class on the JFK assassination for a while, which was extremely popular, but this is very unusual. In any event, whilst you might be able to get away with this at undergraduate level, in terms of studying something like the assassination as part of a peer-backed research project at Masters or PhD level, you can forget it.
As with the mainstream media of course, I believe that the key to explaining the reluctance by academia to deal with controversial subjects, is funding. Academics need funding to carry out research, and in the UK, a large portion of this comes either directly from the government or indirectly via government-backed research councils. I am sure it is a similar story in the US. ..Added to this, you have the involvement of wealthy foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation (who has a long history of connections to US intelligence agencies), and other largely corporate sponsors whose financial support virtually guarantees the type of subjects they will and will not approve; state involvement in assassinations not being one of them.
I see this as one of the main reasons why academia shies away from controversial topics such as the Kennedy assassination– I know for a fact that you would never be allocated research funding to study ‘who really killed Kennedy?,’ or even what really happened on 9/11. In historians minds it is always important to be moving on and not dwelling too long on unresolved or contested points in history. The truth of what happened is not as important as reaching an agreed ‘official’ consensus. In the JFK assassination, the attitude generally is that an official body has looked at this, they have reached a verdict and we need to just accept it and move on. As the comedic genius that was Bill Hicks brilliantly summed up: “…talking about Kennedy, people come up to me and say ‘Bill, quit talking about Kennnedy, man….Let it go…it was a long time ago, just forget about it’…To which I reply ‘well, don’t bring Jesus up to me.’”
But I see yet another reason why Historians ‘don’t like’ the JFK assassination – the psychological aspect. Historians by nature don’t like loose ends – they like neat and tidy explanations for events. They like to look back and say ‘ THIS is what happened and THIS is the reason why.’ Part of the problem with the JFK assassination, is precisely that it is messy. It doesn’t fit into a tidy box, and when you consider the evidence of intelligence agency involvement, it is hardly surprising. Obfuscation and outright deception are the intelligence agencies stock-in-trade. There are still so many questions we will never know the answer to and also such a lot of disinformation in the case that historians do not want to deal with it. It is too complicated to get involved in.
What I find extremely frustrating is that, even amongst historians and even political scientists that study US foreign policy, they can only go so far in their thinking. They can acknowledge for example that the CIA was active in Latin America, instigating coups and overthrowing governments; facts they cannot today refute as there is documented evidence to support this, but most still cannot bring themselves to believe that it could happen in the United States. I’ve had several conversations like this with academics, and I come away wanting to bang my head against the wall in frustration. It is part of the cognitive dissonance that affects people.
George Orwell called this way of thinking, ‘Crimestop.’ In 1984, he described ‘Crimestop’ as “….the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments…and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”
Even if some historians do believe in a conspiracy, they are not willing to shout about it for fear of reprisals. One of my heroes – the former HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi summed up the problem perfectly. In The Last Investigation, he wrote that “Today, most Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, but they don’t know it. They don’t want to know it – and our government doesn’t want to know it, and our elected representatives don’t want to know it, because knowing it would mean having to do something about it. That is an awesome thought.”
It isn’t even a question of believing a pro- or anti-conspiracy viewpoint, as historians disagree with each other all the time. It is that the subject isn’t even up for discussion in the first place. THIS is the problem. An honest debate of the available evidence is not even ALLOWED….To give you an example, last year just before the 50th anniversary of the assassination, I went to a conference at the US Embassy in London. They had commemorative postcards of JFK with Jackie in her pink Chanel suit at Love Field airport, and posters on the wall, but do you think the conference actually discussed the events of 22/11/1963? Not at all. Apparently, the only other events included an official screening of a documentary repeating the official government line of ‘50 years later, Oswald still did it.’
Historians don’t like the JFK assassination because it makes them feel uncomfortable. It forces them to confront issues they would rather avoid, and question their assumptions about everything they have ever been told – not just about the Kennedy assassination, but history in general. After all, if the government has lied about that, what other events in the nation’s history might they also have covered up? Instead, I find that most academics are unwilling to do this and just go through the system, without ever questioning the validity of that system.
Not to forget of course, that the last thing anyone pursuing an academic career wants is to be labelled a ‘conspiracy theorist’ –the negative programming associated with that label is still very strong. In academia, there has always been a strong emphasis on the ‘peer review,’ system, which is basically, making sure that your thinking is in line with everyone else on a particular subject of study. Perhaps that is too simplistic a dismissal, but this is largely how I see it. It is one thing if being peer reviewed means other experts on a topic in your field are honestly judging your work for accuracy and objectivity, which IS incredibly important no matter what the topic is, but another if it is to merely dismiss views that are seen as ‘conspiracy theory,’ by people who have no knowledge of the subject, because they do not fit in with the established academic norms.
Although, this article has painted a fairly negative picture, I must say that I do see signs of hope. I think that younger people coming into the profession tend to be more open-minded and less likely to have this block in their thinking that the older academics have. It is up to those newer voices, to challenge the system by using the very skills that historians are taught to use – to be objective and critical in our thinking and analysis, and to challenge people to look at the evidence in the JFK assassination, instead of dismissing those who do not accept the official narrative as ‘conspiracy theorists’. Historians need to be constantly asking questions and re-evaluating their beliefs as new evidence comes to light. That is their job.
I often get dejected by the attitude I encounter in the academic world, being somewhat of a free thinker and sceptic of the ‘system’. It isn’t easy having a foot in both camps so to speak, but then again, nothing worthwhile doing ever is. As JFK himself once said in his famous Rice University speech:
“We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win!”