The Record - May 1998

Teaching Approaches

Paula Nassen Poulos, Editor

"Evidence! Evidence! All You People Talk About is Evidence!"

By Sheldon Stern

Mr. Stern's article vividly demonstrates the value of close reading of primary sources and applying critical thinking skills to document analysis.

Students have a hard time defining historical evidence, often accepting "facts" from television, the movies, or the Internet at face value. In my own teaching experience, many students have been willing to express a historical "opinion," but seem hesitant and uncertain when asked for data to back it up. In one case, after reading a bizarre historical "interpretation" on the Internet, I asked for specific evidence and instead received the angry reply, which is the title of this article. Students, regrettably, rarely learn about or understand the critical connection between evidence and historical conclusions.

Historians, of course, must also be cautious in using conventional written evidence. Last year, for example, a potentially significant document turned up at the John F. Kennedy Library during the processing and opening of the Evelyn Lincoln Collection. Ms. Lincoln served as JFK's personal secretary from 1952 to 1963. The experience of tracking down the origins and meaning of the document convinced me it would make an effective case study for teaching high school and college students about the process of verifying historical evidence.

The document in question—a crumpled carbon copy—contains the typed transcript of a tape-recorded telephone conversation. Hundreds of pages of such transcripts are preserved in the Library's archives and their appearance and format are immediately recognizable. The date, October 1, 1963, is in Evelyn Lincoln's handwriting, and the typed text reads:

President: Yes, Secretary Vance.

Vance: We would like to come over this
noon, General Wheeler and I, to discuss
this proposed withdrawal plan.

President: I'll be right here.

Vance: Fine, sir, I'll see you then.

Transcript of tape-recorded telephone conversation between President Kennedy and Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance

Transcript of tape-recorded telephone conversation between President Kennedy and Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance. (Evelyn Lincoln Collection; Schedules and Diaries; John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)

Why is this document so intriguing and possibly so important? First, there is the date. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has written that President Kennedy, at a critical National Security Council meeting on October 2, 1963, the day after the conversation found in the Lincoln papers apparently occurred, decided to pull U.S. forces out of Vietnam by the end of 1965 and to start the process by withdrawing 1,000 troops before the end of 1963. Several historians have endorsed McNamara's interpretation.

Second, there is the identity of the participants—Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance and Army Chief of Staff, General Earl Wheeler. The document appears to place JFK at a White House meeting with the top civilian and military officials of the Army, to discuss "this proposed withdrawal plan." Although the word "troops" is not specifically mentioned, it is reasonable to assume that an Army withdrawal plan relates to troops. And since Kennedy was not planning to pull troops out of Europe or Korea in the fall of 1963, speculation inevitably focuses on South Vietnam.

How could a historian or history student prove that this document is, or is not, about Vietnam? Evelyn Lincoln's handwritten entry also includes the time of the call, 11:16 (obviously a.m., since the meeting with Vance and Wheeler was set for noon). The first sources to check were the files containing the President's daily schedules. Lincoln prepared the President's calendar in advance each day, but sometimes an important change might be added. The schedule for October 1, 1963, did not contain any reference to a noon meeting with Vance and Wheeler. However, the entry for 11:50 states that, "The President and Mrs. Kennedy departed the White House and motored to Union Station to greet His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia." Since nothing is more carefully scripted than the visit of a head of state, with every detail planned in advance, why would President Kennedy tell Cyrus Vance to come at noon, saying "I'll be right here"? Kennedy would likely have been reading State Department and CIA briefing papers on Ethiopia and would have been appropriately dressed and ready to leave at 11:16. Haile Selassie's visit could not possibly have slipped his mind. The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States confirm that JFK spoke at Union Station upon the arrival of the Ethiopian emperor at noon on October 1, 1963.

Where does the historical detective work go from here? Evelyn Lincoln also kept lists of JFK's telephone calls in annual calendar books, diaries, and in a typed log. But the lists for 1963 did not report a conversation with Vance at 11:16 on October 1st. Indeed, there were virtually no calls listed that day because the President was tied up with a state visit and was not in the office. Likewise, the Library's published log of recorded telephone calls revealed that no conversations were taped on that date. The trail seemed to have turned cold.

But since Lincoln's calendar books for 1961, 1962, and 1963 are stored in the same archives box, it was worth checking the phone call lists for the previous two years. On October 1, 1962, Lincoln noted a conversation between President Kennedy and Secretary Vance at 11:16 a.m.! A recheck of the President's daily calendar files quickly corroborated that Vance and Wheeler were in the White House at noon on October 1, 1962, attending the swearing-in of General Maxwell Taylor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This time, Evelyn Lincoln's log of phone calls also yielded very different results: 17 telephone conversations between the President and Vance were listed on that date in 1962, beginning just after midnight and continuing until 10:40 p.m. Seven calls were placed between 12:40 a.m. and 4:25 a.m., and one was listed at 11:16 that morning. The list of recorded telephone calls also confirmed that four conversations--including the call in question--had been taped that day. The topic of these discussions, which had kept the President on the phone throughout the night, was the University of Mississippi desegregation crisis. The enrollment of James Meredith on September 30th had sparked a campus riot in which two died and dozens were injured. The President had to send federal marshals and US troops to Mississippi.

Several secondary sources confirm that on October 1, 1962, the day after the violence, JFK was determined to withdraw the troops from Mississippi as soon as possible. The mid-term Congressional elections were just weeks away and US troops in the South would be political poison for the Democratic party.

But how can we explain the handwritten 1963 date? The box in which the document had been found contained a small set of materials, mostly from 1962, barely held together on the left side by a rusty and partially broken paper clip. When the mystery document, which had a rusted paper clip mark on the back, was held against this packet, the rust marks and indentations from the paper clip matched perfectly. Somehow, Lincoln mistakenly dated this loose document, which had become separated when the paper clip began to disintegrate, perhaps assuming a Vietnam connection because of the reference to an Army withdrawal plan. She likely made the error long after the phone conversation occurred since she would never, in 1962, have dated the transcript a year into the future. Evelyn Lincoln died in 1995, and we will never be able to corroborate exactly why she misdated the transcript.

The incorrect date, and the instinctive assumption that a plan to withdraw troops related to foreign affairs, had initially thrown me off the trail. We tend not to associate the use of troops with domestic affairs. The document had nothing to do with Vietnam!

This case study, using photocopies of all the documents discussed above, has been tested in workshops and classrooms many times over the last year. The lesson for history teachers and students is inescapable: historical interpretations and conclusions must be grounded in verifiable evidence rather than untested assumptions or opinions.

Sheldon M. Stern is historian and director of the American History Project for High School Students at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, MA. This article is reprinted with permission from the March 1998 issue of History Matters!, the newsletter of the National Council for History Education, Inc. Readers may request a complimentary issue of the magazine by contacting the National Council at 26915 Westwood Road, Suite B-2, Westlake, OH 44145. (440) 835-1776.