Isabella Ginor & Gideon Remez: Why Getting to the Bottom of the Story About the 6-Day War Isn't Easy

Roundup: Talking About History

[The writers are based in Jerusalem.]

Six months ago - on May 16 - The Jerusalem Post featured a report about our book Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War. Our book challenged the almost universal consensus on the origins and conduct of the conflict that has shaped the Middle East ever since.

We demonstrated that the crisis and war of May-June 1967 were deliberately instigated by the USSR, which jointly with Egypt and Syria planned to provoke Israel into a first strike. This would brand Israel as the aggressor and legitimize a direct Soviet military intervention to assist an Arab counterattack. One of the Kremlin's main motives, and a factor that determined the timing, was the Soviets' intent to prevent Israel from attaining nuclear weapons.

In that Post report, historian Michael Oren became the first of several critics who disparaged our thesis on the grounds that they (or we) had not found "any documentary evidence to support" the book's central claims - although Oren admitted that he had visited the Soviet archives and "not a lot has been declassified."

The Post report was widely (though often inaccurately) reproduced in the Russian media and Internet, arousing some heated debate - and stimulating the emergence of numerous new testimonies. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they confirmed the picture we had assembled. Some of this new evidence was presented in another feature in the Post (on August 23).

But the renewed discussion has also revealed information that pertains directly to general questions of historical research methodology. It bore out our argument that by insisting on archival documents alone as the touchstone of factual truth, historians can become accomplices in the concealment of the actual events - instead of facilitating their exposure.

THE MOST dramatic instance is an article in the Russian weekly VPK by a retired KGB colonel, Boris Syromyatnikov, entitled "The Six-Day War Might Not Have Occurred: If the Soviet General Staff Had Heeded the Arguments of a Military Intelligence Operative."

The former counterintelligence officer relates that in "early 1967," he submitted a lone dissenting opinion as to the results of the already-anticipated war: he estimated that the Arabs would lose. It was shelved as heretical.

In November 2000, the retired Syromyatnikov attempted to retrieve his memorandum. "But I received a letter from the FSB [KGB successor agency] Central Archive, stating: 'Unfortunately, the document in which you are interested is not …held at the Russian FSB Central Archive. For your information, a number of files from 1967… were destroyed in 1978.' That is how the state security agencies treated their own history."

In Foxbats, numerous participants of the abortive Soviet intervention spoke of orders that they had received only orally; at the leadership level, note-taking was forbidden at Politburo sessions. Even president Mikhail Gorbachev, less than a decade after the USSR invaded Afghanistan, could not find any written resolution to do so.

We also showed how official documents often were designed - with their possible future release in mind - to distort the facts rather than to reflect them. Now the FSB's response to its own former officer provides the first direct and official confirmation by a Russian state agency that entire categories of documents, to the extent that they were ever promulgated and might offer valid insights, do not merely remain classified but no longer exist.

In fairness, it must be stressed that the suppression of archival evidence is not an exclusively Soviet or Russian practice. Our book cites several examples in which the United States and Israel have also blacked out matters that their governments preferred to conceal - including Soviet-related aspects of the Six-Day War. Indeed, only last month - in a different context - it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who, by posthumously decorating a Soviet spy for penetrating the Manhattan Project, first exposed a major nuclear espionage case which the United States had covered up for more than 60 years.

Historians are thus faced with the choice whether to countenance such Orwellian effacement of past events by tossing the records down the "memory hole" - or to utilize, as we did, a wide variety of alternative sources in order to piece together the actual facts as they took place: what the Soviets and others did, rather than what they declared or put in writing.

This meant tracking down, cross-checking and verifying myriad memoirs, publications, and sometimes even official documents that slipped through security filters with inadvertently revealing remarks. That is harder work than waiting for archives to be systematically opened, and then relying on their neatly arranged boxes and files as exhaustive and authoritative. But it is essential if future generations are to know what actually happened, rather than what the interested parties preferred posterity, as well as their own contemporaries, to believe.

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Maarja Krusten - 12/4/2007

A few more thoughts generally on assessing archival records, as I have a lot of experience in working with archival records, having worked for the U.S. National Archives from 1976 to 1990.

I noted above that you have to take into account how archival disclosures are handled. This includes understanding the underlying philosophies, procedures and intent of the archival institution. So, in addition to the factors I described above, you should consider also the role of the press and historians’ access to internal deliberations about how to handle records. (The latter is hard to come by, just as we in government are unlikely to gain access to internal deliberations about complicated issues within an academic institution.) Professor Cox’s blog entry, to which I linked above, mentions the role that Trudy Peterson, former Acting U.S. Archivist, recently played as a consultant in working with atrocity files in Guatemala. I have known and respected Dr. Peterson for 31 years, ever since she interviewed me in 1976 for the position which launched my 14 year career as an archivist and subject matter specialist. (I’m now an historian at another agency.)

Even when there is press coverage about archival issues, it may not be complete. That adds a layer of complication to considering what lies in archives and what is disclosed to historians. Dr. Peterson’s tenure as acting U.S. Archives chief (1993-1995) saw sharp criticism of her in the The Washington Times, a newspaper whose editors often reflect a conservative perspective. But the reporting in the articles was incomplete. For example, the Washington Times wrote on May 13, 1994 that "Differing philosophies over access to government records - especially control of the presidential libraries - may be at the heart of the controversy that has divided the Archives community and led to the demotion of two senior Archives officials.

. . . . Mrs. Peterson and many scholars are said to favor earlier access to such records. Others, like Mr.[Don W.] Wilson [U.S. Archivist, 1985-1993], argue that government officials need a certain amount of confidentiality to function.”

The newspaper reported on “Mrs. Peterson's decision in January to give 'unsatisfactory' performance appraisal ratings to three Archives officials, all members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). . . . The three are strong proponents of limited access philosophy.”

Unreported by the Washington Times was the fact that the Inspector General of the National Archives looked at the issues and compiled a report, "Fiscal Year 1993 SES Appraisals and the Presidential Library System," OIG Report No. 94-05, September 2, 1994. (This circulated outside the agency in 1994). The OIG reported on internal discussions among Archives officials, among them the Acting Archivist (Peterson) and the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries. The 1994 IG report stated that “With regard to privacy information, the Assistant Archivist [for Presidential Libraries] argued that the Presidential libraries had never applied the public interest versus the privacy interest test to Presidential records because a legitimate public interest argument could be made for most of their files. He then questioned whether FOIA case law should be strictly applied to Presidential documents even after PRA restrictions on privacy information terminates.

. . . . Regarding privacy information, the [NARA special] counsel [for information policy] noted that, to follow the suggestion of the Office of Presidential Libraries that the public interest should not be considered, would require ignoring the word unwarranted in the restriction. In interpreting the same FOIA exemptions, the Supreme Court has ruled that the word unwarranted means that an agency must balance the individual's privacy interest in not having information withheld against the public's interest in disclosing the information. The public's interest in disclosure that the Supreme Court has stated is to be weighed in this balancing process is narrowly defined as information about the government's operations and activities.

The White House and the Department of Justice concurred in the conclusion of the Acting Archivist [Trudy Peterson]."

When you visit an archives, it helps to know at a minimum what its policies and procedures are. In a few cases, by studying news articles and asking the right questions, you might even gain insights into how they were formulated (were there conflicting philosophies, is there the potential for continuing conflict among officials), and so forth. One is more likely to gain insights into such issues in a free and democratic society, of course – at least the opportunities are there, even if they may not be followed through on very often.

Sally Gee - 12/3/2007

So it was a Soviet conspiracy what dunnit and it was not a sneaky Jewish plot after all?

Maarja Krusten - 12/3/2007

In the discussion of research methodologies, this statement caught my eye: “It bore out our argument that by insisting on archival documents alone as the touchstone of factual truth, historians can become accomplices in the concealment of the actual events - instead of facilitating their exposure.”

Is it true that historians insist on archival documents alone? Don’t they use a mix of oral and written information and in using the latter, take into account why the records were created and how they were handled? Much depends on when records were written as conditions might change. Writing in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Michael Beschloss pointed out a few years ago that "People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian." (Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 32 Issue 4, Page 642-646, December 2002)

In using records, you definitely have to consider the record keeping culture, what expectations the officials had for the records created, how secure the data was, who may have had opportunities to alter it (electronic records presenting many new challenges), who controlled archival disclosure, and so forth. (Richard Nixon’s records are uncommonly rich because he expected to control them as private property only to have the government seize them in place when he resigned office.) Professor Richard Cox recently wrote an interesting blog entry about atrocity files in Guatemala which touches on the culture of record keeping. See )

In addition to what I learned about historical research in graduate school, I’m influenced by what I know of the ethical principles embodied in the Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS). In developing their findings, auditors, as do historians, consider cause, criteria, condition and effect. How the work is done is spelled out with an acknowledgement that “There are different types and sources of evidence that auditors may use, depending on the audit objectives. Evidence may be obtained by observation, inquiry, or inspection. Each type of evidence has its own strengths and weaknesses.”

Although HNN’s readers may not all be familiar with the culture of auditing, I daresay many other historians also recognize this precept:

“When auditors use information gathered by officials of the audited entity as part of their evidence, they should determine what the officials of the audited entity or other auditors did to obtain assurance over the reliability of the information. The auditor may find it necessary to perform testing of management's procedures to obtain assurance or perform direct testing of the information. The nature and extent of the auditors' procedures will depend on the significance of
the information to the audit objectives and the nature of the information being used.”

Oral and written evidence both may be necessary to flesh out what happened. (Assuming conclusions are possible. Some historical questions are impossible to resolve.) Context always matters, as noted well in these standards:

“d. Testimonial evidence obtained under conditions in which persons may speak freely is generally more reliable than evidence obtained under circumstances in which the persons may be intimidated.

e. Testimonial evidence obtained from an individual who is not biased and has direct knowledge about the area is generally more reliable than testimonial evidence obtained from an individual who is biased or has indirect or partial knowledge about the area.

f. Evidence obtained from a knowledgeable, credible, and unbiased third party is generally more reliable than evidence from management of the audited entity or others who have a direct interest in the audited entity.

Testimonial evidence may be useful in interpreting or corroborating documentary or physical information. Auditors should evaluate the objectivity, credibility, and reliability of the testimonial evidence. Documentary evidence may be used to help verify, support, or challenge testimonial evidence.”

Sounds a lot like what most historians do, even though our standards are not codified and published the way those of auditors are.

posted on personal time

Elliott Aron Green - 12/3/2007

This reminds me of david irving's idiotic claim that hitler had nothing to do with the Holocaust because he [irving] couldn't find a document signed by hitler ordering the Holocaust in the archives.