During the last decade of his life, Bertrand Russell was much interested in the problem of the underground activities of the secret police engaged in combating revolutionary movements. He wanted to know about the infiltration methods of undercover agents and how they trumped up charges. His inquiries into this dark part of history had been inspired by the assassination of President John Kennedy. During one of our meetings in London, he asked me whether I believed that President Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy organized by conservative circles in America.
I pointed out to Russell the difficulties of finding primary historical sources which could help an objective researcher to do his job honestly. I told him of my own experiences in this respect. In the vast literature on the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, there were several historians who claimed that Princip and other young assassins were the blind instruments of different groups of secret police. It took me almost fifteen years of hard study in the archives of many countries to evaluate some of the most important primary sources which described the fatal event (for instance, the minutes of the assassins’ interrogations in Sarajevo, the original text of the trial proceedings); only then did I feel free to conclude that Princip and his friends were not secret agents, but had decided for themselves that it was right to kill a tyrant.
I agreed with Russell that there are many dark questions surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Not only historians but all honest men are entitled to the historical truth. But I declined to write anything about the assassination of Kennedy before I had in front of me all or most of the primary historical sources about the event. Without them no serious opinion could be expressed. I could do no more than hope that one day the full story would come into the open, as a result of the inquisitiveness of the Americans, of their urge to probe the great secrets of their contemporary history.
From the subject of the secret of John Kennedy’s murder, Russell and I went on to discuss the vast question of the work of undercover police agents in revolutionary movements. We talked about the problem of finding out whether or not rumors that a man is an undercover agent are true, how the danger of accusing an honest man for the worst of crimes can be avoided, how both treason against fellow revolutionaries and the work of real police agents can be exposed.
For me the worst penetration of revolutionaries by any Establishment was done by the English Secret Service, which succeeded in infiltrating the inner core of the Irish rebels a century ago. On May 25, 1870, The New York Times announced the news that the Irish American Army for the liberation of Ireland had invaded Canada. The invasion was organized and executed by an Irish secret revolutionary society, the Fenians, which was founded in 1858 by …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.