In the guise of education, John Simkin’s website delivers agitprop.
By Don Bohning
If newspapers write “a first rough draft” of history, as the publisher Philip Graham once put it, then the internet can be said to host a “worst draft” of history.
There are tens of thousands of reliable websites about historical topics, of course, and many provide the actual tools (instant access to primary documents) that enable readers to reach their own, independent conclusions. But many other sites are extraordinarily tendentious and shroud their advocacy behind a mask of false scholarship.
A case in point is a website, Spartacus Educational, established in 1997 by John Simkin, a British historian. Spartacus is billed on Google as a “British online encyclopedia [that] focuses on historical topics . . . articles are geared toward students.” And the website, according to one description, is “one of the most established and popular history sites on the world wide web.” In the late 1990s, apparently, Simkin was one of the very first history teachers to recognize the potential of the internet and take advantage of the new digital medium. As for Simkin, he presents himself as a history teacher and prolific author of books about a diverse number of subjects—which he is, although his short books are mostly self-published.
An innocent student who stumbles onto Spartacus Educational would probably think the Google description is apt, and be impressed by Simkin’s credentials. It takes a little digging to figure out Simkin is much more interested in indoctrination than education, in keeping with his unreconstructed left-wing views. Simkin exemplifies the kind of militant socialists, once peculiar to the Labour Party, who were all but run out of that party by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
I first encountered Spartacus Educational three years ago, when Simkin contacted me after publication of my 2005 book, The Castro Obsession. At first I was impressed with Simkin’s diligence and outreach, and the portion of his website dedicated to US history, particularly intelligence history during the cold war. But it did not take long to learn that more often than not, the articles he featured were at variance with well-documented facts, including information I had gained directly from interviews and thousands of official documents declassified in recent years. Worse still, Simkin proved impervious to the idea that falsehoods should be corrected rather than perpetuated.
One of the most egregious misrepresentations on the Spartacus site involves “Operation 40.” The website describes it as a Central Intelligence Agency unit that was organized in the early 1960s to engage in sabotage operations against Cuba. Operation 40 then supposedly “evolved into a team of assassins.” No credible documentation is supplied to support either the sabotage or assassination claims, and for good reason: none exists.
To be sure, there was a CIA-organized group called Operation 40 involved in anti-Castro activities. And though it bears scant resemblance to the Simkin’s fictionalized version, the unit’s interesting history needs to be recounted before one can appreciate how much Simkin bends and distorts it.