Did the 1963 murder of John F. Kennedy validate the all-consuming paranoia about Communism that swept the U.S. a decade earlier? Having lived through that period, I never would have thought so.
However, according to conservative historian James Piereson, liberalism began to disintegrate as a governing force in this country as a result of JFK’s assassination. Why? Because Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist. This fact was so unacceptable, it sent liberally-inclined Americans in a search for more abstract root causes, which in turn imbued the once-idealistic liberal movement with a pessimistic, conspiratorial view of America and Americans. Habits of mind, Piereson says in a new book, liberals still can’t shake.
Here’s his theory, explained in an interview on National Review Online:
(Interviewer) JOHN J. MILLER: You write of JFK’s assassination that “no other event in the postwar era, not even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has cast such a long shadow over our national life.” How did JFK’s murder change American politics and culture?
JAMES PIERESON: Kennedy’s assassination, happening the way it did, compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism that had been the governing philosophy of the nation since the time of the New Deal. It did this in two decisive ways: first, by compromising the faith of liberals in the future; second, by undermining their confidence in the nation. Kennedy’s assassination suggested that history is not in fact a benign process of progress and advancement, but perhaps something quite different. The thought that the nation itself was responsible for Kennedy’s death suggested that the United States, far from being a “city on a hill” and an example for mankind, as Kennedy had described it (quoting John Winthrop), was in fact something darker and more sinister in its deepest nature.
MILLER: How did this play out politically in the 1960s and beyond?
PIERESON: The conspiracy theories that developed afterwards reflected this thought. The Camelot legend further suggested that that the Kennedy years represented something unique that was now forever lost. Liberalism was thereafter overtaken by a sense of pessimism about the future, cynicism about the United States, and nostalgia for the Kennedy years. This was something entirely new in the United States. It was evident in the culture during the 1960s. George Wallace tried to confront it in the electoral arena in 1968, as did Richard Nixon — though it was somewhat difficult to do so because neither Lyndon Johnson nor Hubert Humphrey represented this new orientation. It was not until this mood of pessimism was brought into the government during the Carter administration that it could be directly confronted in the political arena, which is what Ronald Reagan in fact did.
MILLER: Would liberalism have unraveled even if JFK had lived?
PIERESON: It is hard to say what would have happened if Kennedy had lived. He may have lost his popularity in a second term. He may have avoided the dead end in Vietnam. It’s hard to say. Kennedy was in the process of renewing liberalism when he was killed, expanding it into cultural areas beyond issues of economic security and national security. I am certain that liberalism would not have unraveled when it did and in the way that it did if Kennedy had lived. The assassination shattered its core assumptions.
MILLER: Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist. Have liberals been reluctant to accept this fact? And is their reluctance at the heart of all the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination?
PIERESON: Liberals who were rational and realistic accepted the fact that Oswald killed JFK but at the same time they were unable to ascribe a motive for his actions. They tended to look for sociological explanations for the event and found one in the idea that JFK was brought down by a “climate of hate” that had overtaken the nation. Thus they placed Kennedy’s assassination within a context of violence against civil rights activists. They had great difficulty accepting the fact that Kennedy’s death was linked to the Cold War, not to civil rights. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1,000-page history of the Kennedy administration, published in 1965, could not bring himself to mention Oswald’s name in connection with Kennedy’s death, though he spent several paragraphs describing the hate-filled atmosphere of Dallas at the time — suggesting thereby that Kennedy was a victim of the far right. The inability to come to grips with the facts of Kennedy’s death pointed to a deeper fault in American liberalism which was connected to its decline.
What’s ironic is that JFK was a “Cold War liberal,” which at the time meant he was more of an anti-Communist than he was an anti-anti-Communist. With Joe McCarthy’s disgrace and death, combined with the revelations of Soviet espionage and betrayal after Stalin’s death in the mid-50s, many liberals became more willing to acknowledge that Soviet expansionism and the Communist ideology posed a threat. JFK was a leader of that group.
Kennedy’s “ask not…” inaugural speech has a less-quoted passage of Cold War vigilance:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.
Piereson would argue that Kennedy was a martyr to this responsibility. But surviving liberals’ unwillingness to identify properly the cause for which he was martyred has continuing repercussions today.