What happens to a nation when a world-changing event occurs of such tremendous magnitude that half the population can't process who caused it?
September 11? Try the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As James Piereson recently told me, "If Kennedy had been killed by a right winger with the same evidence that condemned Oswald, there never would have been any talk about conspiracies. It would have fit neatly into the moral framework of 1950s and '60s-style liberalism. And the liberals would have been off and running with it, and no one would have talked about conspiracies."
That's the subject of Piereson's new book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, in which he argues both that Kennedy was a victim of the Cold War, and that the repression of his killer's ideology caused tremendous psychological damage to the collective health of the nation.
It's not primarily an attempt to once again prove that Oswald acted alone, as authors such as Gerald Posner, and most recently, Vincent Bugliosi have demonstrated, to the satisfaction of virtually everyone whose name isn't Oliver Stone. But it is an attempt to explain an incredible transformational shift in American culture, which occurred during the years from 1963 and 1968, particularly in the media and on college campuses.
Even simply looking at photographs, it's obvious that a decade that began with Sinatra and Miles Davis in cool sharkskin suits and ended in the mud of Woodstock had undergone a enormous cultural shift. In 1973, Pat Moynihan looked back on the decade which had recently concluded and said, "Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade." The attitudes amongst liberal elites changed particularly radically during that decade.
Piereson believes that it was a combination of the news of the days leading up to Kennedy's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy's desire to have her husband be a Lincolnesque martyr to civil rights, and a fear of upsetting the Soviet Union and Cuba that caused the background of Oswald to be suppressed.
But the actual causes of liberal disorientation regarding Kennedy's death and the motives of his killer predate his assassination by several years. It was during the 1950s and early '60s that that liberal elites declared America's nascent and disparate conservative movements to be a greater threat to the nation than the Soviet Union, as illustrated by films of the day such as Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. And the subtext of those films was very much based upon "a vast literature that developed in the '50s and early '60s about the threat from the far right," Piereson says, specifically mentioning Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style In American Politics, and Daniel Bell's The Radical Right.
As Piereson writes, leading up to Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas, there was a remarkable amount of violence in the south, caused by a backlash against the civil rights movement. In October of 1963, Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' presidential candidate in the 1950s who had been appointed the ambassador to the UN by Kennedy, traveled to Dallas for a speech on United Nations Day. Stevenson is heckled, booed, spat upon, and hit over the head with a cardboard sign. Stevenson says publicly, there's a "spirit of madness" in Texas. And Kennedy's White House staffers believe that he should cancel his already announced November visit to Dallas.
Thus, at the beginning of November 1963 a framework has been established that the far right is the threat to American democracy, "and that they've moved from heated rhetoric to violent act," Piereson says.
"So when the news spreads that Kennedy has been killed, the immediate response is that it must be a right winger who's done it," Piereson notes. And while the Birch-era right definitely had severe issues, JFK's assassin on November 22, 1963 had, of course, a polar opposite ideology. "When the word is now spread that Oswald has been captured, and that he has a communist past, and they start running film of him demonstrating for Castro in the previous summer, there is a tremendous disorientation at this."
The shock that Kennedy was in reality a victim of the Cold War simply did not compute on a national level. This was in stark contrast to the narrative that framed the death of Abraham Lincoln a century prior. "When Booth shot Lincoln, everybody knew that Booth was a southern partisan, and they could easily understand why he wanted to kill Lincoln," Piereson says. "Northerners blamed the south for this, and you assimilate it into the moral framework of the Civil War."
In contrast, "Liberals had great difficulty assimilating this idea that a communist would kill Kennedy. It made sense to them that an anti-civil rights person might do it, or an anti-communist might do it, but not a communist."
But that's exactly who Oswald was, having defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and then spending two and a half years there, and attempting to denounce his American citizenship along the way. Piereson says that his April 1963 attempt to kill Edwin Walker, former army general, anti-civil rights leader, and head of the John Birch Society in Texas says much about Oswald as well. In addition to his anti-civil rights action, Walker also gave frequent speeches calling for the overthrow of Castro. Piereson believes that Oswald's attempt to kill Walker sheds light on why he killed Kennedy: his policies towards Cuba and his leading the nation's other Cold War actions of the time.
"However, that is not how the Kennedy assassination was interpreted," Piereson says, with enormous understatement. Instead, a sense of collective guilt is imposed on the nation through its liberal elites and media. "And this is really the first time that you get on the liberal-left this idea that America is guilty. But this however now becomes a metaphor for the left for everything that happens moving on in the 1960s."
Off The Rails
Kennedy's death also marks the beginning of a remarkable shift in the nation's culture as a whole, particularly since, unlike today's widely diversified media, the nation's "overculture" was remarkably straightforward: three TV networks, a handful of national wire services and news magazines, and the then-omnipresent New York Times. Combined, they formed what blogger Shannon Love recently described as a "Parliament of Clocks," all essentially moving in near-lockstep in their ideas and worldview.
"In 1963, you have a fairly conservative country, culturally," Piereson notes. "You have a communist assassinate the president, a popular president. In 1968, the country has kind of gone off the rails, especially liberal-left culture as you find in the universities, and places like that. The students are taking drugs, and they're demonstrating, and they're rioting against the war in Vietnam.
"Their hero is Castro, and people like Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung," Pierson says, noting the surfeit of Castro and Ché-style army fatigues being worn on campuses. "So how do you get, really, from this place in 1963, where Kennedy is shot by a communist, to '68 where communists like Castro are heroes to the left?"
Piereson believes this could have only happened due to the cultural disorientation caused by the airbrushing of Kennedy's assassination and the attempt to "view it as a civil rights event, instead of a Cold War event."
The conspiracy theories were also fueled by propaganda generated by the Soviet Union and Cuba, Piereson adds. The Soviet Union itself "was very quickly out of the box on November 23, 1963. TASS claimed that Oswald was being setup; and that the real assassins were Klansmen, rightists and 'Birchists' as they called them. They all claimed that it was a right wing conspiracy which brought Kennedy down. And some of them said that Barry Goldwater was responsible."
Which seems to neatly foreshadow the wild conspiracy theories that reached their zenith in Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK, which paints Oswald as a near-completely innocent victim and pins Kennedy's assassination on virtually everyone from the mafia to LBJ. Stone's 1995 follow-up, Nixon, would, not surprisingly, also implicate its title character in Kennedy's assassination as well.
But such conspiracy theories actually began almost immediately after the Warren Commission report was issued in 1964. As Piereson writes in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, conspiracy theorists used the Warren Commission as their guide to understanding the assassination, even while simultaneously concocting reasons why everything in the report was in error. Pierson places this into context by noting that a sort of flip-over had begun to occur in the mid-1960s, with the left increasingly sounding like the paranoid Birchers of the 1950s.
This was a trait that a few journalists had spotted even before the far left's recent attempts had gotten started to conflate 9/11 into a conspiracy theory involving President Bush, the Pentagon, and presumably everyone in the federal and local governments.
Similarly, the overheated language of the modern left, such as Al Gore's attempt to demonize his critics as "Digital Brownshirts" begins to grow out of this mid-1960s period. "Just as the Birch Society had accused Eisenhower of being a communist," Piereson says, "by the late sixties, the liberals and leftists were accusing everyone else with being Nazis and fascists. That, and anti-Americanism. These now became features of the left."
The psychological discord in the wake of JFK's assassination also destroyed the line that had previously separated New Deal-style liberals with the more extreme hard left. "The anti-Americanism and the conspiracy theorizing and the rough political language characterized by the left now enters into liberalism," Piereson says. "These movements now meld from the sixties on. Now, it wasn't just the Kennedy assassination; obviously, the war in Vietnam was a factor, too. But the Kennedy assassination's in there-a significant event which breaks down the wall between the far left and the liberals. And this is one of the things that now leads, as I say, to the collapse of liberalism, to the kind of thing that we have now."
Although I think that David Frum's thesis, that the 1970s shaped our modern era even more than the 1960s did, is correct in many ways, there's little doubt that the assassination of Kennedy helped to open the floodgates to the seventies' era of wide-scale social experimentation, which the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan only partially ended. In the interim, the nation took a surprisingly sharp turn towards the very collectivism which Lee Harvey Oswald espoused.
"Oswald turned out to be one of the most consequential assassins in history," Piereson says. "He's a communist who shoots the president of the United States. You would think that there would be a reaction against communism. But there is no reaction against communism in the United States after Kennedy's killed. In fact, communism is the vogue," particularly on college campuses. "Kennedy's death sparks a kind of anti-Americanism, and creates among the youth a vogue for the left which was completely unpredictable."
Another trait which hasn't completely abated. Just look for the Ché T-shirt on a college kid—or his professor.
Which may be the most curious element of Kennedy's death: Oswald may have been the ultimate "liberal in a hurry," as communists were often called during the Cold War. But Kennedy's death and the left's reaction to it caused many sixties and seventies liberal ideas to become seemingly frozen in amber. Which is the final remarkable paradox for a group that likes to call itself "progressive" these days.