2009 Retrospective: History Stories
Being a Historian, every year holds many exciting new revelations about key historical figures and events, from archives, memoirs or new interviews. These are some of my favourite History-news stories from 2009:
While studying the papers of former MI5 agent and Conservative Party MP Sir Samuel Hoare, Historian Peter Martland found evidence that during World War One MI5 paid the future Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini £100 per week to spread pro-war propaganda via his socialist newspaper (about £5,000 a week in today’s currency).
The aim of the payments, which followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, was to help stall revolutionary tendencies within the Italian working classes. Of course, Mussolini eventually developed a far more effective way of subduing these tendencies: fascist Blackshirt squads. So British intelligence funded Mussolini in his initial experimentations with pro-war, socialistic politics. Was this money funnelled into his political activities? Well, maybe, but it seems it was mostly spent “on womanising”.
“Castro’s Sister Spied for the CIA”
It turns out that Juanita Castro, Fidel Castro’s sister, spied for CIA for three years between 1961 and 1964, before fleeing to live in Miami. Juanita says in her new memoir that she had become disenchanted when Fidel’s revolution moved from nationalist uprising to Marxist revolution, and the regime began cracking down on their opponents. She originally met with a CIA officer called “Enrique” in Mexico City in 1961, and was given the codename “Donna” and codebooks; after which Ms Castro helped to warn and hide Cuban dissidents.
Of course, these were some pretty turbulent years for little old Cuba, with the United States launching its failed ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion in 1961, and continuing ‘Operation Mongoose’ – its terrorist/subversion/assassination campaign against Cuban interests. The tensions of this period climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis (the closest the world has come to nuclear war) in October 1962, and may have been related to the eventual assassination of JFK in November 1963. So if Fidel was a little bit paranoid during this period, perhaps it was because even his own sister was spying on him…
Speaking of JFK, newly declassified audio tapes covering more than 250 hours of meetings demonstrate how in August 1963 US President Kennedy and his advisers weighed the pros and cons of supporting a coup in South Vietnam, against their own ally President Ngo Dinh Diem. Two South Vietnamese generals approached US officials in Vietnam and asked what position the United States would take towards a military overthrow of the leader in Saigon. One might think that coups against allied governments would be something to be generally discouraged, but Kennedy thought that while “Congress might get ‘mad’ at him for supporting coup-minded Vietnamese generals … it [would] ‘be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain'”.
The new evidence shows that during the discussions Kennedy pressed for better information in considering the coup, and agreed that at a minimum President Diem’s family members had to be pushed out of the government, even if it required military intervention. Many officials who have historically been recorded as being opposed to the coup were actually among the most active participants in discussions of how the US could support the military plotters. When President Diem was eventually killed by the Vietnamese generals, it was only after approaching the US for approval and receiving notification that it may be supported “under certain circumstances”. The tapes also weaken claims by some that President Kennedy was intending to get out of the conflict in Vietnam before he was killed.
“Fake Photo of JFK on Naked Orgy Boat Fulfills America’s Steamiest Wish, 50 Years Running”
Meanwhile, this photo made a splash last year, supposedly of the future-President Kennedy, frolicking on a boat full of naked women in the 1950s (he was said to be the man laying on the deck on the centre-left of the photo). It turns out that this is actually a shot from a 1967 Playboy photo-spread called “Playboy’s Charter Yacht Party”. The story was fun while it lasted…
And finally General Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, turned 90 in 2009 and was presented a prestigious Hero of Russia award by President Dimitry Medvedev at a ceremony at the Kremlin. Then-Staff-Sergeant Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 after being wounded fighting the Nazis during World War II, and its capability of withstanding rugged battlefield conditions has made it extremely popular with insurgents across the world ever since, with over 100 million in current circulation. President Medvedev praised the AK-47 as “a national brand which evokes pride in each citizen”.
But Kalashnikov, a hero in Russia and throughout the developing world for his invention, who has even been hailed from space by Russian cosmonauts, says that really all he ever wanted to do was be a poet… “‘I wrote poetry in my youth, and people thought I would become a poet. But I didn’t become one,’ he told reporters. ‘There are many bad poets out there without me. I went along a different path'”. Kalashnikov has come a long way during his life, from his humble birth to a poor Siberian peasant family in 1919. In his later life he has authored six books – the quality of which I cannot vouch for – and continues to be an amateur poet. In 2004 he also launched Kalashnikov brand vodka, in the hope of diversifying his family’s legacy. No doubt that legacy will be felt for some time to come.