All my adult life, my November 19 birthday has come when Remembrance Day was still on my mind. My father and his brothers and sister all served in the First World War, my father as a medic on the Western Front, his two brothers as riflemen, and his sister as a nurse tending wounded soldiers. My father’s service ultimately led to his early death before I was three, a quarter of a century after Vimy Ridge. The Spanish Flu killed his sister in 1918. My father’s brothers survived, but one of their sons, a bomber pilot, was killed in a 1944 raid on Berlin.
Their deaths, joined with millions of others, came home to me fully when, with three friends, I first went overseas in 1960-61, working in England and hitchhiking all over Europe. Previously studying mathematics in university, the experience led me to start over in history. In Europe I began to grasp just how tragic the first half of the century had been, and how much it had shaped everything since. I also began realizing that distinguishing what happened in history from its constant mythic recapitulation was harder than I had thought, Half a century later, I now know that doing that is the work of a lifetime, as one learns new things from the past and new perspectives from the present.
I turned 25 in 1963, so the heavily mythical aspects of history have also long been long brought home to me by the assassination of John Kennedy three days before that. I heard the news in McGill’s Redpath Library, and when I left the building a couple of hours later, saw young women sobbing uncontrollably all over the campus. I was not comparably touched by this intense boomer grief. Only a few years older, I saw the world through the Dostoevskian filter of the deeply disillusioned literary figures of the previous two decades, and was far more influenced by Orwell, Koestler, and Camus than by any postwar political leaders. I did not dislike Kennedy, but had never been touched by his mystique. Having watched the 1960 Presidential election from Europe, I thought there was little to choose between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, two Cold War liberal hawks.. This may sound strange today, but was once commonly believed, including in the U. S., so much so so that Arthur Schlesinger produced a campaign pamphlet for the Democrats called Kennedy or Nixon: is there any Difference?
Like many young Canadians in the early 1960s, I was a ‘quasi-unilateralist’ anti-nuke, although growing more uncertain as I read the powerful arguments of the nuclear deterrence theorists. Kennedy was more hawkish than Nixon, and made me nervous, even when I approved of his actions. The possibility of worldwide nuclear annihilation was a theme of popular books and movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, oddly disappearing with the arrival of the real war in Vietnam. The last and most brilliant of these apocalyptic nuclear fantasies, the 1964 black comedy film Dr. Strangelove, actually showed an obsolete catastrophe by the time it appeared, based on the failed recall of a single H-bomb equipped B-52. New ICBMs were twenty times as fast, so that Soviet ones could arrive here in about twenty minutes from launch. When I watched the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis on TV in the Stanley Tavern, I wondered if I might be incinerated before closing time.
A year later, Jack Ruby’s bizarre murder of Lee Oswald swiftly launched the now 50-year-long mythic reconstruction of the Dallas events, laid on thick every November. I always found the assassination obsession almost ludicrously disproportionate. Many Montreal university students of the 1960s at least half-believed the early conspiracy mongering of Mark Lane, who came here in 1968 to plug his book, Rush to Judgement. I learned, from an American professor who knew him personally, that Lane was a colossal liar on all matters, and he was soon joined by a gigantic troop of honestly confused witnesses, plausible liars, and supermarket tabloid detectives. I have always been reasonably sure, on a conscientious and tedious reading over the decades, including the best of the conspiracy literature, that Oswald acted alone. But I have never expected that this view would ever completely prevail
Seventy years ago, Albert Jay Nock observed that only a few people try very hard to understand the real history of events; the many instantly convert all striking ones into myths. The fifty years since 1963 have shown him right. Conspiracy spinners have always been able to draw on a larger American myth, making the the Revolution a new Divine Revelation, the martyred Lincoln the sinning nation’s Redeemer. Kennedy’s murder provided a more recent and photogenic sacrificial lamb, and the invention of many rival Satanic agents. In Julius Caesar, after Brutus has called for all the assassins to stoop and wash their arms in the fallen demigod’s blood, Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!’ Brutus adds that the death will be marked in future ages ‘in sport’, thus long anticipating Oliver Stone’s JFK. Granted that Lyndon Johnson was a quite genuine monster, well-qualified for the role of Dallas Cassius, the conspiracists are unconvincing and inferior playwrights.
By the late 1960s, I was back in England, by then married and raising children, studying the role of the British scientific elite in both World Wars. I could by then see how much of WW II had been enshrouded in myths as well, in successive accumulating layers. I found the study of primary source documents both exhilarating and chastening. I found, for example, that Winston Churchill’s fabled matchless courage was genuine, but was combined with some huge faults, and that he had been a great mythmaker in his own right, obscuring how both Wars had quickened the overall decline of British power and the triumph of American hegemony. I also saw that the Wars displayed some enduring failings of all modern industrial societies.
Over my lifetime, I have had my own modest historical moments. I was almost blown up by an OAS bomb in Paris in 1961, and a few months later was in an equally tense Berlin, just days before the East Germans built its dividing wall. In August of 1965, I was in Berkeley, California, watching a New Left crowd of baby boomers mark the 20th anniversary of Hiroshima, and heralding a cultural revolution. I met creepy FLQ members in a Sherbrooke Street after-hours bar, two years before the murder of Pierre Laporte. In England, I interviewed many of its greatest scientists, including some who made crucial contributions to how WW II was won. From 1989 to 1994, elected to the Quebec Legislature as one of four candidates of the protest Equality Party, I had a ringside seat for the Canadian constitutional agony of those years. But I have mostly remained a moderately worldly history student and teacher, conservative, sceptical, and unfailingly fascinated by real human achievements and reliable foolishness. I have been very lucky, in when and where I was born, in the life I have led and thought, in my family, friends, and intellectual influences, and I am grateful to a God in whom I only partially believe. I learned early that studying and experiencing history will only be of limited help in changing oneself or changing the world, but that history is an antidote to the unrecognized madness and myth that always shapes the ideas of the moment. For that, it is indispensable.