June update: the power of photos and another anniversary

Monday 11 June 2018

What can we learn from a photo? Also, the significance of Bobby Kennedy's assassination and an update on new materials to the site.

What can we learn from a photo?

As historians, we are fascinated by ‘iconic’ photos that capture a key moment in history, for example, the ‘tank man’ photo during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 or the ‘napalm girl’ photo from the Vietnam war, to name but two.

This month saw the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death; just how much a photo can reveal is shown by journalist Boris Starling’s interpretation of this photo of Robert Kennedy, Johnson and John Kennedy (click on the eye beneath the photo).

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, here's a picture worth many thousands of words. Lyndon Johnson talking, as he did so well. Jack Kennedy listening, hands on hips, challenging: 'you think? Convince me.' 

But for once Jack isn't the focus here. Because look at the way Bobby's glowering at Lyndon, who is in turn totally ignoring him. They *hated* each other, a burning feud of mutual contempt (the last two words are also the title of the definitive book on their vendetta, by Jeff Shesol.)

It wasn't just the differences in social class, age and home state which divided them - after all, the same applied to Lyndon's relationship with JFK, which was cordial without being particularly close. 

No: the Bobby and Lyndon show was personal. Lyndon called Bobby a 'grandstanding little runt': Bobby returned the compliment by calling Lyndon 'mean, bitter, vicious... an animal in many ways.' Lyndon used his height to intimidate: Bobby was the scrapper, always punching above his weight. Lyndon was a brilliant speaker, fluent and funny and vulgar and erudite all at once, capable of persuading anyone of anything: Bobby could be shy to the point of being monosyllabic. Lyndon dealt in endless shades of grey, Bobby in black and white. Lyndon gave and received political insults in the spirit of the game: Bobby took every slight personally. Lyndon thought Bobby a lightweight: Bobby thought Lyndon unprincipled.

And if the lid was kept on the rivalry, more or less, while JFK was President, it blew apart pretty much the moment he was killed in Dallas - a trip he'd taken to Lyndon's home state at Lyndon's suggestion, as Bobby would never forget.

For Bobby, it stuck in the craw that a man he saw as so uncouth and unprincipled had not only taken the presidential mantle from his beloved big brother, but had also been the man to pass the great wave of civil rights legislation which should have had Kennedy pawprints all over it, with Jack as president and Bobby as attorney-general. 

For Lyndon, the sight of Harvard millionaire Bobby as populist torchbearer for the downtrodden - the hungry in the Mississippi Delta, the unemployed in the northern ghettos and the disenfranchised in the migrant camps of central California - made him want to retch. 

Lyndon committed ever more troops to Vietnam: Bobby joined the anti-war protestors. Lyndon refused to run for re-election in 1968 after the failure of the Tet Offensive: Bobby was assassinated while on the campaign trail for the consequently vacant Democratic nomination. Lyndon increasingly found it hard to connect with audiences: Bobby, through hard work and determination, turned himself into an inspirational speaker. Lyndon had a legacy: Bobby had a legend.

There's another photo which I can't find on google, but which I remember clearly: that of Lyndon sitting in the Oval Office watching the TV coverage of Bobby's assassination. Bobby was alive for a day or so after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan, and the photo is taken during that time, with Bobby in the liminal zone between life and death. On Lyndon's face as he watches is every emotion imaginable: a death he must have half-willed more than once, the extinguishing of a man whose star might have in time eclipsed his own, and yet in the set of his face and the slump of his shoulders is the recognition that nothing defined him like this rivalry, and the realisation that its ending diminishes him rather than sets him free


Meanwhile, the world has been pondering on the significance of this much more recent photo from this month's G7 summit:

An activity for students could be to find their own ‘iconic’ photo and explain to the rest of the class why it can be seen as iconic in what it shows or the message that it gives, and what value it has for a historian.

Bobby Kennedy and counterfactual history

This month has also seen much discussion of Robert Kennedy’s legacy, as well as ‘counterfactual’ history – what would have happened if Bobby Kennedy had not been shot and had gone on to become president?

These are just some of the many articles in the news which pick up on these themes:





Site update

We are currently working on Topic 12, China and Korea, for Paper 3, Asian region. Two sections are already up and the it should be finished by the end of this month.


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