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JACK SMITH

Dubious Characters : No Amount of Documentation Can Convince Some Doubting Thomases That Certain Historical Events Really Happened

July 12, 1987|Jack Smith

Considering that people believe in ghosts, psychics, reincarnation, extraterrestrial visitors, astrology and telepathy, isn't it strange that some are skeptical of many documented historical events?

Among the most persistent disbelievers are the conspiracy advocates, who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was not acting alone when he shot John F. Kennedy, but that he was only a hit man in the employ of a web of conspirators, perhaps including Lyndon B. Johnson himself, or that he was an innocent fall guy.

The Warren Commission established that Oswald was a loner, but the conspiracy theory will never die. It's too provocative. It's like believing that Florence Nightingale had a baby out of wedlock.

We also have among us a gang of revisionists who insist that the Holocaust was a hoax; that 6 million Jews did not die; that none were executed in gas chambers.

One doesn't need a warehouse full of documentation to know that the Holocaust took place, although an abundance of documentation exists. Its historicity is proved, like the presence of certain celestial bodies, by its gravitational effects.

One simple circumstance is conclusive: If the Holocaust were a hoax, would the West German government accept it as history?

Mark Nichols of Beverly Hills suggests that the first historic moon walk might have been a hoax. As I have noted, most of us believe that the moon landing actually occurred because Walter Cronkite told us it had, and we believed what Walter Cronkite told us.

Also, who can ever forget the spellbinding pictures on television at 7:56 p.m. PDT, July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong jumped down from the Eagle onto the moon's dusty surface, took a step and said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Nothing else we have experienced in this marvelous century made us realize the soaring promise of our capabilities like that adventure.

Ever since that event we have all been asking, "If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we eliminate poverty?" Or war. Or disease. Or whatever.

But Nichols argues that we can't believe in Walter Cronkite absolutely. "If our belief in the man on the moon is based on Cronkite's credibility, remember that he did like Dutch Reagan used to do, reading play-by-play games (over the radio) as if he were watching them."

Here's what Nichols thinks happened:

"I do believe the Eagle crew landed in the night, showered, rested, maybe had a beer, so that the landing that we saw was a re-enactment."

Sounds possible. I am a bit suspicious myself that Armstrong stepped off so conveniently during prime time. I don't know how they would have showered, though, inside those space suits.

Nichols also says that the famous flag raising on Mt. Suribachi was a re-enactment. That isn't quite true. At 10:31 a.m., Feb. 23, 1945, two Marines of the platoon that was still fighting for the summit of Suribachi found a length of pipe and raised their company flag on it. But the captain was afraid the flag would be stolen. He sent a runner down the mountain to get another one. The runner returned with a larger flag, from a beached landing-ship tank, just as Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and two Marine photographers reached the summit. The new flag was lashed to a longer pipe, and six Marines shoved the pipe into the rubble and gang-raised it. Rosenthal's shot made history.

Says Bill D. Ross in "Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor," "It was a masterpiece of instantaneous composition and lighting that captured the mood of the unfolding drama . . . . The next day, when the photo appeared on front pages of virtually every newspaper in the States, it became an instant symbol for millions on the home front . . . ."

Rosenthal's picture was of the second flag raising, not the first, but it was not a re-enactment. He did not ask the six men to run through it again so he could get a better shot.

Perhaps the most shocking picture in the history of photojournalism was the one taken in the 1920s of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted with her lover of murdering her husband, just as the juice hit her in Sing Sing's electric chair.

It was taken for the New York Daily News by a Chicago photographer who strapped a forbidden camera to his leg.

Ethical newspapers (and there were some) were outraged by this breach of taste and faith. Some skeptics thought it was a fake.

If you have a skeptical turn of mind, you may believe that the Daily News set up a fake electric chair in a studio and shot the picture with a model.

I happen to believe that Oswald acted alone. I believe in the Holocaust. I believe that Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima picture was the real thing. I believe that Ruth Snyder was photographed in Sing Sing's execution chamber.

But I don't believe everything I see.

I've always had my doubts about that painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Do you mean to tell me that an experienced soldier like Washington would stand up in the bow of a small boat as it was being rowed across a river?

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