James Piereson, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. (Encounter, 2007), 250 pp. $25.95. Hardcover.
On November 22, 1963, Left and Right came together briefly in an awful contemplation. A hostile mob surrounded the headquarters of Barry Goldwater, the prospective Republican nominee against John F. Kennedy in 1963, chanting "Murderers!"
On the other side, the Eastern Republican establishment also got into the act. Immediately after Kennedy's assassination, Richard Nixon phoned FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and asked, "Was it one of the right-wing nuts?" Even in the Goldwater camp, there was suspicion that Kennedy had fallen victim to a right-wing assassin. Denison Kitchel, the manager of Goldwater's senatorial campaign, muttered, "My God, one of the Birchers did it."
This conspiracy theory, fueled by the media even after the arrest of committed Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald and the airing of his far-Left résumé, did more than distort the facts of the Kennedy assassination. According to James Piereson, it changed the course of American politics.
In Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, Piereson, a scholar and executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, argues that liberal anticommunism died that day. It was replaced by an anti-American lurch toward the Left.
This lurch manifested itself in a "blame America first" mentality among liberals. Whether in the form of race riots or angry demonstrators gathering outside American embassies in Vietnam or Iran, liberal politics post-1963 was driven by the desire to find something corrupt in Cold War-era American society. Oswald's palm print was found on the murder weapon, but in the view of liberal columnists like James Reston it was really American society that had pulled the trigger.
In this way, Kennedy’s death starkly demonstrated the political divide. The Right accepted that a Communist deadbeat such as Lee Harvey Oswald had motive to kill a Cold Warrior like Kennedy. But the Left, despite its supposed maturity about Communism's penchant for violence, opted for denial.
According to Piereson, liberalism before the Kennedy assassination argued for a big government to contain Communism abroad and at home. Abroad, this would be done through military and economic aid to countries menaced by communism, such as Laos, Greece and Vietnam. At home, New Deal-programs designed to deal with poverty, Communism's alleged breeding ground, would be enacted. A prerequisite for both of these approaches succeeding was trust in the government, from both its employees and its citizenry. But after the Kennedy assassination, something changed within liberalism. The Left would never look at its government -- or its country -- the same way.
Unwilling to accept that Oswald was inspired to act by his Communist beliefs, liberals looked toward their own government as the culprit. Robert Kennedy, who mere weeks before the assassination had been pushing the CIA to boost efforts to kill Fidel Castro, asked the agency even after Oswald's arrest and the exposure of his sympathies for Cuba, "Did one of your guys do it?" Denial that a Communist could have killed Kennedy afflicts the Left even to this day. A search for a more politically satisfying sniper -- a Cuban exile, say, or a CIA spook -- has obsessed them since 1963.
For such theories to be plausible, Kennedy has to be portrayed as an enemy of anti-communist right-wing forces. Hence, his characterization by liberals since 1963, in the words of filmmaker Oliver Stone, as an "American Gorbachev," a courageous dove who was trying to end the Cold War.
Piereson shows otherwise. Far from ending the Cold War, JFK was continuing, even intensifying it. He put more military advisors into Vietnam as a means to show Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev his backbone. Both the Kennedy brothers were pressuring the CIA to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and reportedly had an invasion of the island planned for December 1963. Far from attracting the ire of the anti-Communists, the real Kennedy mirrored their thinking. But none of this fit into the post-1963 mentality of American liberals. For them, Kennedy had to die for civil rights or for détente. Only his anti-Communism was ruled out as an acceptable motive.
What made the Left's refusal to accept that one of their own might have carried out the assassination all the more curious was that within a few years of Kennedy's death the far-Left would spawn many similar characters. Militants in the Oswald mold, they made targets of the same establishment liberals that JFK had represented. From the New Left came the Weathermen, a paramilitary group that, like Oswald, engaged in rifle practice and expressed sympathy for Castro's Cuba. Like Oswald, too, they trained their sights not on conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. or Barry Goldwater but on anti-Communist liberals like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.
Piereson has written that rarest of JFK assassination books: a sober one. But it is unlikely to please many on the Left. The fact that Kennedy's assassin was a Communist sympathizer with possible ties to Cuba's intelligence service (and perhaps even the KGB) fits uneasily into a political script in which the president is seen as a liberal martyr. By contrast, seeing Kennedy as the victim of an unmonitored CIA or sinister Southern corporations allows the modern Left to justify its opposition to counterterrorism policies in the War on Terror and its disdain for free-market capitalism. The truth, in other words, is politically problematic.
With Kennedy's assassination, the American Left became progressively unhinged. As Piereson shows in this engaging book, and as the paranoid style of the contemporary Left suggests -- think of the theories about the American government engineering the September 11 attacks, a common theme on MoveOn.org and related websites -- it has never recovered.