Topic: Society

The Ethics of Changing History: Of Crockett, the Titanic and "One Small Step"

“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”

This cynical endorsement of our culture’s preference for soothing fantasy over harsh historical truth was the intentionally disturbing message of John Ford’s film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” But rejecting Ford’s grizzled old newspaper editor’s warped ethic does not justify the equally objectionable modern practice of using spurious logic to substitute one dubious historical account for another. Even more ethically suspect is the common practice of replacing an accepted, well-supported version of an historical event with a “new improved” version that exists less because of its accuracy than because of its advocates’ biases.

When Disney released the latest Hollywood version of the heroic story of the Alamo, it claimed that it was “historically accurate,” unlike John Wayne’s mythic telling of the tale in his 1960 version. “Historically accurate” apparently meant showing Davy Crockett (a decidedly unDuke-like Billy Bob Thornton) surviving the final slaughter, surrendering to the Mexican army and being executed by Mexican General Santa Anna, rather than fighting to the death like Wayne’s Crockett and those before him, including, according to most historians, the real one. The surrender story arises from a letter from one of Santa Anna’s commanders, stating that Crockett was among a group of Texans who were captured alive. The letter contradicts the testimony of Susannah Dickinson, who was in the Alamo during the battle and who claimed to have seen Crockett’s body with the rest.

There is only one reason to favor the account of a Mexican general who didn’t know what Crockett looked like (any captured Texan could have claimed to be Davy Crockett), over that of Capt. Almaron Dickinson’s widow, who knew Crocket but didn’t see him die. It satisfies those who enjoy undermining American heroes. No one who knew Crocket in life witnessed his death, so the actual circumstances of his demise will always be unknown. A genuine American hero, he deserves the benefit of the doubt, but an unholy alliance of biased historians and hypocritical film-makers (Disney’s “historically accurate” film still included Jim Bowie’s completely fictional death-bed combat with Mexican soldiers, a wonderful myth that is 100% at odds with the truth) is well on its way to establishing Crockett’s supposed surrender as fact.

A similar scenario has occurred regarding the sinking of the Titanic. James Cameron’s Academy Award-sweeping film showed the doomed ocean liner spectacularly splitting in half before going down, unlike several earlier versions including the scrupulously researched British film, “A Night to Remember,” based on Walter Lord’s book. Why? Well, when the wreckage of the ship was discovered in 1991, there were two distinct halves on the ocean floor. Computer specialists produced models showing that the ship must have broken apart as it sunk, and a Discovery Channel documentary suggested that science and technology, once again, had allowed historians to see into the past. The Titanic broke apart above the surface with a loud explosion. Hail technology!

There is one small problem with this, however. Hundreds of people witnessed the sinking of the Titanic, and many of them delivered extensive testimony about what occurred on that tragic night at the official inquest. Some were even on board the ship when it supposedly split in half. Oddly, virtually all of them seem to have missed seeing a sight approximately as big and horrifying as the explosion of the Hindenburg, though all reported that they heard a very loud noise as the ship went down. All missed it, that is, except some of the aged survivors of the disaster still living in 1991, who were interviewed regarding the new version of events and who conceded that the huge ship might have broken apart on the surface. It is important to remember that the youngest of these survivors was 84, and five-years old in 1912, while the oldest survivor, who was a teenager at the time of the sinking, was well into her 90s.

Common sense dictates that contemporary accounts from the crew and adult survivors are far more reliable sources than the accounts of 80 and 90 year-olds trying to recall what they witnessed as children four decades earlier. Yet in order to validate the high-tech investigations into one of the 20th Century’s most studied events, Cameron’s film’s version of the sinking has superseded well-supported fact. (For a fascinating analysis of the most likely timing of the Titanic’s rupture, see Ask anyone who saw the movie: the Titanic cracked down the middle. Who cares what the people who were there saw?

Now an Australian computer programmer says he has discovered that Neil Armstrong’s first words after he stepped onto the moon in 1969, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” were misquoted by NASA, misheard by millions of listeners around the world, and printed incorrectly in the history books. For decades, wags have criticized Armstrong for botching his iconic moment, since “man” and “mankind” mean the same thing, so the literal meaning of his famous words would be “One small step for man, one giant leap for man.” Armstrong has sometimes grudgingly acknowledged his gaffe and at other times maintained that he thought he included the elusive “a.” He hasn’t fought the consensus verdict very vigorously, as represented by NASA’a transcript:

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. (Long Pause) 

But Peter Ford claims that he found the missing “a” by analyzing the NASA audio through a special computer program. Armstrong is, of course, delighted, and corrections to all the accounts are now underway. Yet nobody actually heard the new version of his statement (“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”), at the time he supposedly said it, which is the usual requirement for famous quotations. (A notable exception, though fictional, is Charles Foster Kane’s last word “Rosebud!” which launches the plot in “Citizen Kane” that follows a reporter’s fevered search to find out what he meant. Kane utters the name of his cherished childhood sled as he dies alone. How did anyone find out what he said?) Listening to the tape, one is struck by the non-existent space between between “for” and “man,” as well as the long pause Armstrong takes after “man,” during which you can almost hear him thinking, “Rats! I said that wrong! Should I start again? No, that would sound terrible…maybe nobody will notice…” before he continues with “…one giant leap for mankind.”

Shouldn’t a famous quote be consistent with the experience and the memories of the people who first heard it? Shouldn’t the quote that is preserved for history be what was said, rather than what the speaker intended to say or wishes he had said? The man was landing on the moon; he was excited and nervous and didn’t give the perfect quote. So what? Everyone knew what he meant; everyone knows today. If Armstrong had said, “One small step…Yippeeee! We made it!!!” would we record what he had planned to say?

The Scoreboard agrees that ignoring the truth to “print the legend” is wrong, but before we discard an established historical account, it is only right to hold the proposed new version to a higher standard of reliability. Too often the primary virtue of a revised historical account isn’t that it is proven or well-supported, but that it serves someone’s agenda.

When that is the real motivation, Ford’s old newspaper editor is right.

“Print the legend.”

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