The New Statesman Essay - History isn't always a cock up

Frank McLynn argues that conspiracy theories sometimes happen to be right

Recently I was discussing with a friend the events of 1978, "the year of the three popes". I happened to mention casually that the death of John Paul I, the so-called "smiling pope", after only 33 days in office, was clearly a case of murder. "Ah," my friend replied, "so you're a conspiracy theorist." In vain I tried to draw the distinction between a conspiracy theorist, who is presumably someone who believes that significant events in history happen as a result of conspiracy by hidden, unseen forces, and the honest historian who is sometimes forced to the conclusion that undetected conspiracies have occurred. But the encounter, and others like it, have left me with a firm conclusion. Anglo-Saxon culture, justifiably suspicious of conspiracy theory, has parlayed reasonable scepticism into the dogmatic assertion that conspiracies never take place.

I do not believe that the world is secretly run by the Jews, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the CIA or even by a global network of organised crime encompassing the Sicilian Mafia, the American Cosa Nostra and Colombian drug barons, though I do think the power of these groups is probably underrated. Critics of my view of John Paul I say that, once you believe in a particular conspiracy, you will believe in another, and then another, on a slippery slope taking one eventually to full-blooded conspiracy theory. I think this is an elementary logical fallacy. In some quarters, it is asserted that if you believe John Wilkes Booth was not the sole conspirator against Abraham Lincoln, you are thereby committed to a view of the world as run by dark forces, Schopenhauer's "will", Hardy's "immanent presence" or whatever the master principle may be. Another fallacy. Other critics say that a taste for conspiracies is the same sensibility that always sees deep structures behind everything, whether it is Marx's "base" and "superstructure" or Freud's "latent" and "manifest" content. Yet another fallacy.

A subtle attempt to discredit the idea of conspiracy comes from literary criticism. This asserts that all who discern patterns in the universe are confusing metaphors for life with life itself. It may be legitimate for a writer like Alexandre Dumas in Le Vicomte de Bragelonne to tell a riveting story about the "Man in the Iron Mask" conspiracy, but that it is all it is, a story. People who believe in conspiracies confuse life with art. Life, and real history, is concerned with the contingent, the adventitious and the aleatory; story-telling, historical novels and imagined history are concerned with necessity, patterns and structure.

Robert Louis Stevenson put it well: "Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate . . . No art is true in this sense; none can compete with life; not even history, built indeed of indisputable facts, but these facts robbed of their vivacity and sting." Aristotle's famous distinction in The Poetics is often cited: the plausible impossibility is always to be preferred to the implausible possibility. In life, it is the other way round. To put in bluntly, in real life we are in the world of the cock-up, of the blunder, of Sod's and Murphy's law. To bring in the idea of conspiracy is not just to offend against Ockham's razor (never use a complex explanation when a simple one explains the same facts), but is in a very real sense an imaginative delusion.

Where does this leave someone who, like myself, believes that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Lincoln, J F Kennedy and John Paul I died as a result of conspiracies, but has no time for the "cover-up" theories that Princess Diana was a victim of the British secret service, that William Rufus was killed in the New Forest in 1100 by a fertility cult, that Clive of India was murdered by political enemies, that General Patton's death in 1945 in a car crash was a disguised assassination or that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947? It seems to me that the devotees of the eternal cock-up, or to put it in politer language, the standard-bearers of the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition, straightaway offend against their own principles. They fall into the Hegelian trap of assuming that if you believe in some conspiracies you must therefore believe in all. And, by insinuating a kind of law of excluded middle whereby one is either a blunder theorist or a conspiracy theorist, they offend against their own principle that life, as opposed to art, does not obey the principles of logic.

Let us get down to cases. Powerful arguments can be advanced for saying that Alexander the Great, Lincoln, Napoleon and John Paul I were assassinated as a result of conspiracy. Space does not permit one to do much more than put names on a charge sheet. In the case of Alexander, circumstantial evidence points in the direction of agents working under the direction of Antipater, the regent Alexander left in Macedonia when he set out to conquer the Persian empire. In Lincoln's case, the idea that the radical republicans, especially the secretary of war Edwin Stanton, were manipulating John Wilkes Booth has been fiercely contested. But there is much that simply does not make sense in the "lone assassin" theory of Lincoln's death, especially the bizarre circumstances surrounding the trial of Dr Samuel Mudd, the physician who innocently treated John Wilkes Booth's wounds. In my own biography of Napoleon, I have examined the circumstances of the emperor's death and endorsed the findings of Ben Weider that Bonaparte was slowly poisoned by arsenic over a number of years by the Comte de Montholon, an agent of the Bourbons. As for John Paul I, I do not see how anyone can read the brilliant work by David Yallop, In God's Name, and still believe that John Paul I expired from simple stress-induced heart failure.

Then there is the case of John F Kennedy. Just as everyone grown to adulthood in 1963 can remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, so most people by now know the ancient and even hoary arguments used against the Warren Commission's conclusion that Kennedy died at the hand of a lone assassin. To sum up briefly, these are the acoustical evidence: viz, a dictabelt, made of transmissions from a motorcycle cop's open mike to headquarters, recording three shots, not two; the Zapruder film showing Kennedy's head jerking backwards, indicating that the fatal shot was fired from the front; the impossibility of locating Lee Harvey Oswald at the Book Depository at the required time; and Gerald Ford's 1997 testimony that in 1975 he had suppressed CIA and FBI evidence showing Kennedy caught in a crossfire. Add to that the circumstantial evidence: the implausibility of the "magic bullet" thesis required by the Warren Commission - that a single bullet followed a bizarre up-and-down trajectory through Kennedy's body, smashed through Governor Connally's fifth rib and wrist and emerged unscathed; the "coincidence" of Jack Ruby, Oswald's killer, a man with Mob connections, knowing exactly when and where to find him; the unexplained slaying of Police Officer Tippett, supposedly by Oswald, on the other side of Dallas at the exact moment Oswald was supposed to be lining up Kennedy in his sights; the mysterious deaths of 188 material witnesses within a few years, rated actuarially as a statistical impossibility; and the wholesale tampering with evidence, even by Robert Kennedy himself.

Advocates of the "lone assassin" theory have dealt with these objections in two main ways. The hard evidence has been subjected to nitpicking and often far-fetched scrutiny (once again we are in the realm of the plausible impossibility and the implausible possibility). The entire subject of a Kennedy conspiracy has degenerated into farce, with rival conspiracy theorists cancelling each other out. Black Dog Man, Badge Man, Umbrella Man and Manhole Cover Man have competed with each other as chief assassin in the conspiracy theorists' demonology. Woody Allen and others have turned the very phrase "the grassy knoll" into a crude excuse for a belly-laugh. The astounding double non sequitur is often uttered that believers in a conspiracy must all believe in and say the same thing, otherwise the case for a conspiracy fails, and that, without such unitary clarity, we should accept the commission's findings.

Working from the particular to the general, a study of the Kennedy controversy enables us to see what is wrong with the empiricist "cock-up" critique of conspiracies in history. In the first place, the denial of large forces in history is simply absurd in principle. Schopenhauer and others may have overplayed the card of irrationalism with their wills, libido and elan vital, but that does not mean that the idea of pattern and meaning in existence falls because of their excesses. For the empiricist, quantity can never transmute into quality, you look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves and, pace Freud, a cigar is always a cigar. For the empiricist, democracy means merely the study of voting behaviour, philosophy means the trivial study of usage in ordinary language and history is simply a list of the contingent errors of Gladstone, Gustav Stresemann, Sir Edward Grey or whoever. Social science, which proceeds largely on the basis that a macrocosm is not simply an aggregate of myriad microcosms, would be impossible on this basis.

Second, the empiricist always demands a higher standard of proof from his rivals than he does of himself. The man who believes in the Warren Commission report does not need to buttress his belief with sustained argument; but the man who believes in a conspiracy does. The point about aggregated microcosms is relevant here, for an empiricist by definition cannot believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Kant liked to argue that in every single report of ghosts, one could pick holes with the evidence and cite "rational" explanations, but that the totality of reports of the supernatural was simply too great to be explained away in that fashion. Similarly with the Kennedy assassination. One may explain away, after a fashion, the "magic bullet", the dictabelt transmission, even Kennedy's head snapping backwards on the Zapruder film (though I have never heard anyone even attempt to explain away the mysterious 188 deaths). But the sheer weight of material incompatible with Warren finally makes it impossible that the commission's report can be the final truth.

I have already mentioned the third point, the bizarre non sequitur that a failure to prove the existence of a conspiracy in every detail must entail a reversion to cock-up theory. Psychologically this can be explained as "running for cover". The distinguished American journalist Ron Rosenbaum once investigated the Kennedy assassination and became self-confessedly exhausted by the awesome complexity of the case and the sheer mountain of material one needed to master to make headway. He wrote at the end of his investigation: "I find myself almost longing to succumb to the simplicity and conventional comfort of lone-assassin certainty." One can sympathise, but such an abdication involves a chain reaction in reverse. To arrive at Warren as your intellectual anchorage, you have to accept that no evidence has been tampered with, then you have to embrace the "magic bullet" theory, then you have to accept that Oswald fired the magic bullet, and so on ad infinitum. This is no seamless web: every single one of these propositions is independent of the others and has to be assessed independently. But the empiricist stands Ockham's principle on its head; he now says you should not seek a complex explanation, even for the most complex phenomenon.

The fourth consequence of the empiricist position is even more bizarre, for it implies that in the history of mankind there has never been a successful undetected conspiracy. The empiricist accepts that, say, the Guy Fawkes plot or Titus Oates intrigue all happened, for they failed, and in so doing came to light. But for the empiricist, no undetected conspiracy can ever have happened, for he works only on hard evidence and by definition there is no evidence.

The fifth implication is that we live in a world of certainty. The empiricist wants certainty and says that, if a fully elaborated plot cannot be sustained in every last detail, the sensible man opts for the most simple imaginable explanation superficially compatible with the facts. He thereby shows himself unable to tolerate ambiguity or what Keats called "negative capability" - the ability to face the truth that there may be no final answer. Rosenbaum summed it up well: "An epistemological conundrum . . . the JFK case is a lesson in the limits of reason, in the impossibility of ever knowing anything with absolute certainty."

Those, like myself, and the entire House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, who believe that John F Kennedy died as a result of a conspiracy, can tolerate the conclusion that we may never know all the answers. Were the masterminds really the Mafia chiefs Carlos Marcello and Johnny Marcello? Maybe, maybe not, but what is really important is that we can detect a conspiracy. The believer in the Warren Commission's conclusions, with all its manifold absurdities, is like the frightened child who closes his eyes when the witch appears on the cinema screen. In appealing for us to take conspiracies, but not conspiracy theory, seriously in the study of history, I am asking for a dash of adulthood as well as common sense.

Frank McLynn is the author of biographies on Robert Louis Stevenson, Carl Jung, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Napoleon among others. His latest book "1066" is published by Cape (£18.99)