TCS Daily

Trapped In Camelot

By Edward B. Driscoll - July 23, 2007 12:00 AM

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."

Disorientation Occurs

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.



Were you even there?
Honestly, Edward, I don't remember any of that at all.

As I recall, there was little reluctance at the time to accept Oswald as being the assassin, or at least one of them... but there was quite a disparity in our willingness to sweep the whole affair under the table, and stamp it "case solved". Part of our problem had to do with police procedures.

If the Dallas police had apprehended a suspected rapist, or a burglar, they would have conducted a thorough interrogation in the first hours of his detention, and kept a careful record of his statement. This initial statement is the thing prosecutors rely on most in framing an indictment, and is the most basic of investigational procedures. And we were led to believe that somehow, in the commotion surrounding the biggest crime of the era, they forgot to ask the guy any questions. For what, eleven hours?

...before being conveniently killed by someone at the fringes of the mob world. Who was also instantly removed.

All very clean. So most of us with our brain cells intact felt that some tracks had been carefully swept clean, and further pursuit of the full story was going to prove impossible.

But yeah, Oswald pulled the trigger. If you're trying to equate the group "all liberals" with the group "Oswald denying, communist loving Chavez apologists", that dog won't hunt. It creates a simplistic world inhabited only by two types of people: freedom-loving, right thinking libertarian patriots and blind, America-hating, leftist appeasers of evil. Better leave that approach to the X-Box gamers. It's not a good fit with reality.

Second point. Per the author, "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".

I remember the Eisenhower era very well. And I certainly don't recall that being the case. Who were these "liberal elites"? Would that be someone like Adlai Stevenson? And who were the disparate conservatives? Weren't they all either right wing big business Republicans or reactionary southern Democrats?

The prevailing feeling among us "liberal elites" was that we faced two dangers. Communist aggression from abroad and McCarthyite witch hunts at home. I don't recall anyone ranking one above or below the other-- they were both grave pitfalls to be averted if a democracy was to be preserved.

Real history was a little more complicated than this hasty rewrite. The stick figures in your piece fall down if they're not held up by a hidden hand.

From my generation....
and reprinted from Powerline blog:

"I read with interest your generational observations, Boomers vs. 9/11 generation.

I'm 46 -- too young for Vietnam (though you might remember I spoke in about the Vietnamization of this war back in 2004 and John Kerry, which Paul commented on in Power Line). I'm on the tail end of being a Boomer, born in 1961.

My contemporaries and I were just old enough to remember the turmoil of the sixties, but too young to participate. Our parents were the silent majority, tsk-tsking the "hippies" at the dinner table, too old to participate in the Summer of Love, just trying to earn a living and keep us away from a world gone mod. We saw Munich, Entebbe, the Achille Lauro and other terrorism-related events. We watched Navy diver Robert Dean Stetham sacrifice for us in 1985, during the takeover of TWA flight 847. His name comes freely to mind, even after 22 years.

When we went to college in the late '70s, we knew we were there to learn, not to protest. We were the impressionable generation in elementary school when Americans walked on the moon. They were heroes, and we were too young to be cynics. We watched the space shuttle land safely for the first time while in college, and many of us realized space travel would be a reality for us. Unlike the seemingly untouchable astronauts of the Apollo days, we knew (even the girls) we could actually attain that job, or any other, if we just wanted it and worked hard.

We were also the group who saw the remnants of a troubled, post-Vietnam military, savaged by the left (opportunists like Kerry) and wrongly regarded as pathetic by most. Jimmy Carter almost broke that military, but it was the young men of my generation who joined anyway because they were patriots DESPITE the boomers who tried to tell us service to this country was a joke. Those same boomers went on to take from this country in so many ways, while never giving back. And those optimists who joined and made the service their career are the ones who lead us today.

Most of all, we watched our embassy held hostage in Iran, and we cried when American soldiers were tragically killed during a rescue attempt.

We were the Reagan generation, watching from our dorms as his impending presidency ended Nightline's neverending daily countdown. Reagan talked to us about the Shining City on the Hill, the Boys of Point du Hoc, and tearing down the wall. We listened.

I absolutely believe that military families hand down their ideals of service. But I also believe my generation understands today's threat in a way the average Boomer cannot (because his facts are so clouded by his experiences in the 60s). And it's our kids who're out there on the front lines as second lieutenants and gunnery sergeants, having been raised to believe our country's ideals are worth fighting for.

I only hope the aging hippies, socialists, Che-lovers, etc. will begin dying off before they do much more damage. It's time for the Reagan kids to have their turn."

Laura B. Armstrong

When Clinton entered office he was more worried about militia groups in Idaho than muslim terrororists in the Middle East.

Clinton adored JFK and seems to have done exactly what this article describes. Ignore reality.

Roy Bean's stick figures
McCarthyite witch hunts at home are a bit more than stick figures needing holding up by a hidden hand, Roy.

Turns out that McCarthy rightly accused those folks of being communists. Upsetting to the left, but correct nonetheless.

The left in the US got many things wrong over the years, among them:

1. mcCarthy was wrong;
2. the germans and italians in WWII were right wing;
3. the biggest threat to the world is the US.

Funny thing about Clinton (responding to another post here) is that he and Hillary focused so much on Nixon that Bill became Richard for all intents and purposes.

I think that is hilarious.

1962 Manchurian Candidate a far right conspiracy film? Not!
Unless you consider North Korea, where the brainwashing and programming in the film occurred, to be a far right regime. That film was as anti-communist as you can get and fit right in with the tone of the 'I Led Three Lives' TV show of the mid '50's about an FBI undercover agent in the US Communist Party.

Confusing the first and 2d Manchurian Candidate films
dpayne, you're right. I think the author confused the first and 2d Manchurian Candidate films.

Which makes the title of the remake highly questionable.
Manchuria is in China after all. And last I heard, it's still a Communist country. There were uniformed Chinese (I think) military officers in the original film, justifying the title. The whole brainwashing thing from the treatment of American POW's in the Korean War was still fresh in everyone's minds at the time of the original.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up both movies on Rotten Tomatoes. The original has a rating of 100%. The remake only scores 82%. That's still a positive rating, but even some of the positive reviews of the remake were not all that kind. One of the reviews of the original did refer to liberal Cold War paranoia. I have no where that idea came from.

Oswald's Communist Beliefs
I have been an amateur assassination researcher since I borrowed my brother's copy of "Inquest" 30 years ago and read it while in college. I was in the first grade when JFK was assassinated and the events of that weekend are some of my earliest memories. After reading "Inquest" I read many books on the subject over the years including several of the more prominent ones. I always believed in a conspiracy/coverup after reading "Inquest". My belief peaked when I read "Best Evidence" by David Lifton in 1987. I looked for CIA agents around every corner who would question me because I had read so much on the assassination. Then I started to think - why couldn't Oswald have done it alone? When I saw the movie JFK in 1990 I became disillusioned with conspiracies - I had read so much that I knew that Stone's film was full of lies.

Then in 1993 I heard that a new book was coming out - "Case Closed" (the Gerald Posner book, mentioned in the article). I immediately purchased a copy and read it. It convinced me completely that Oswald acted alone. The other amazing thing about "Case Closed" - Posner goes extensively over Oswald's life. Oswald's ties and beliefs in radical communism/socialism floored me - this guy was a whacked-out leftist who was disenchanted by his time in the USSR because they did not recognize his "brilliance". After returning to the US he then focused on moving to the worker's paradise known as Cuba. Most of the "conspiracy" books that I had read covered little or none of this. Why not? This was critical in trying to understand just why he may have done it.

It just so happens that I am now re-reading "Case Closed", in preparation of buying Vincent Bugliosi's new book, so I can compare and contract the two. And, last night, I got to the point in "Case Closed" where Oswald was only a few days away from November 22. If anyone is in doubt that Oswald was a dedicated Marxist/socialist, I encourage them to find a copy of "Case Closed" and read the first 250 pages.

Why has the MSM and the conspiracy lobby not discussed Oswald's politics more extensively? The article explains why in excellent detail.

I do not think that Kennedy or his assassination were important at all.
I do think that it is funny what people say Kennedy would have done had he lived. Evidently to a Politician dying young many attribute what they hoped would have happened.

Guess you don't know much history.
That's one of the main reasons Ted Kennedy is still in office.

Ask people who remember and they will tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news.

It wasn't Kennedy that was assassinated, it was hope.

BTW, while the mission to the moon was based more on the cold war, his speech to the nation put everyone behind the program. A twofer.

Outstanding post
The problem is that the aging hippies have already continued their damage well into the future. Many of our kids are being innundated by their idology. From the protests of the war in Iraq to their AGW nightmare scenarios; it is being heaped on the present 5-25 crowd in big heaping crap piles.

Sad really!

I was alive and in school when...
Kennedy was killed.

You wrote:

"It wasn't Kennedy that was assassinated, it was hope."

I disagree, I think that hope was vested in Kennedy after his death. People loved to say he would have done this or that but with very little evidence. He was a corrupt politician just like most of the others and of very little consequence.

Perception is reality
I wouldn't argue that had JFK lived he may not have been granted the same status as now.

How do you explain the shock and despair following his assassination if he was perceived as just another corrupt politician like his father?

Erjazz, have the courtesy to respond to my counter-argument
One of the most persistently annoying aspects of this site is some posters' blatant disregard of counter-arguments.

I directly answered your claim that Naazism was left-wing - y - yet here you are again making precisely the same charge 3 days later.

You really should give a reasoned response or stop your repetition of the same tired old argument.

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