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Revising the History of Camelot: The JFK Legacy Re-Examined

PJM Debate: James Sterngold strongly attacked the recently published %%AMAZON=1594031886 Camelot and the Cultural Revolution %% in his book review, calling it "right-wing agitprop." Now the book's author, James Piereson, fires back.

by
James Piereson

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December 23, 2007 - 12:16 am

My %%AMAZON=1594031886 book %% on the Kennedy assassination makes two large claims:

First, that though President Kennedy was assassinated by a communist, the liberal leadership of the country deflected the responsibility on to other groups and forces: the radical right, a climate of hatred and bigotry promoted by opponents of civil rights, or a spirit of violence and lawlessness in the nation (also reflected in violence against civil rights workers). In truth, Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War but his death was interpreted against the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the time.

Second, that this interpretation of the assassination was incorporated into the unfolding radical narrative of the 1960s which saw American society as “sick” and the United States as an out of control colossus on the world scene – the latter point, of course, an aspect of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Thus, Kennedy’s assassination came to be seen in the 1960s as a piece of a broader indictment of American society and the nation’s role in the world.

It was this general indictment that discredited post-war liberalism and brought about the end of the liberal era. The traditional optimism and progressivism that had marked liberal thought since the time of the New Deal could not be sustained against this cultural attack that gained great strength by the end of the 1960s. Various radical and oppositional themes that had been bubbling for years on the margins of American life burst during the 1960s into the mainstream of liberal thought – redefining that doctrine as it did so. The Kennedy assassination was not a cause of this development, but one of the important unfolding events in the 1960s that contributed to it.

The first of these points, I think, is plainly validated by the historical evidence; the second point is more interpretive in character and far more controversial. Yet the two points are closely linked.

Mr. Sterngold appears to accept this first point, as he acknowledges that members of the Kennedy family and liberal allies tried to use President Kennedy’s death as a means of advancing his agenda. This, I think, is a large admission, though he passes it over very quickly, as if an effort to deceive the nation about a large event in order to advance a political agenda is perfectly legitimate, so long as that agenda itself is worthwhile. What is not noted here, of course, is that while Kennedy supported a civil rights bill he was also an ardent cold warrior. Why should not his death have been used to justify fighting the cold war? That at least would have made more sense in terms of the motives of the assassin.

Mr. Sterngold claims that I cite no evidence to show that President Kennedy was a victim of a worldwide communist conspiracy. This is true. I do not suggest or imply that President Kennedy was a victim of a wider conspiracy. There is no evidence to suggest that Lee Harvey Oswald – the assassin – acted in concert with other groups or foreign governments, such as Cuba or the Soviet Union. In my book, I criticize the various conspiracy theorists (most of them on the left) for concocting scenarios of the assassination that have no evidence to back them up.

The evidence suggests that Oswald probably acted alone in carrying out the assassination. However, he was not a “nut,” if by that term we mean someone who is mentally or emotionally unstable. He was rather a dedicated communist who was prepared to give his life for his cause. The evidence suggests that he shot President Kennedy in order to protect Fidel Castro – in other words, to interrupt Kennedy’s efforts to overthrow Castro’s regime in Cuba. This is why Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War rather than of the Civil Rights movement.

Mr. Sterngold is under the misimpression that my aim in the book was to discredit John F. Kennedy. I intended nothing of the kind. Kennedy remains in many was an admirable figure, notwithstanding the facts that have emerged over the years about some of his personal conduct. We have not had a president since his time who spoke so admirably and clearly about the hopes and ideals of the American people. He did so not only in connection to civil rights but more often and more consistently in connection to America’s role in the world and the stakes at issue in the Cold War.

A major point that I make in the book is that the liberalism that emerged out of the 1960s had little in common with the kind of liberalism that Kennedy championed. Kennedy was an exemplar of the post-war liberalism that the radicals of the 1960s attacked and eventually discredited, even as they cited JFK as a liberal hero.

Mr. Sterngold thus misunderstands the points I make about Profiles in Courage, JFK’s Pulitzer Prize winning book published in 1956. He thinks that my criticisms of that book are part of an attempt to discredit Kennedy. This is not true. It is true that Profiles in Courage is a muddled book (as I say) because it sometimes praises political leaders for having the courage to compromise and at other times for having the courage to stand on their principles. My point in this discussion, however, is to show that Kennedy in the 1950s was careful not to pigeonhole himself as a liberal, since he praised both Democratic and Republican leaders, along with liberals and conservatives (Senator Taft, for example). Kennedy understood that being tagged as a liberal was the kiss of death in national politics – and thus he was careful to position himself as a moderate or as a “pragmatist.” This aspect of Kennedy’s career conflicted with the posthumous myth that developed in the 1960s of JFK as a liberal idealist. Kennedy in life was by far the more admirable figure than the mythic character that was constructed by Kennedy loyalists after his death.

Mr. Sterngold seems particularly exercised by my characterization of the movements of the 1960s as being politically radical and proto-violent. This is not the place to get into a debate about the 1960s. In my view, the late 1960s were an unhappy time in American life because of the many negative and destructive developments associated with it. Mr. Sterngold views it as a time of hope and needed change. That debate is best left for another time. Readers might note, however, that nearly all of the reformist legislation that is associated with the period was enacted in 1964 and 1965 before the radical movement became widely influential. The Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Medicare and Medicaid programs were approved in 1965. The radical movements began to develop wide followings beginning in 1967 and 1968.

Mr. Sterngold argues that the Kennedy assassination could not have been linked in any causative way to the rise of radicalism in the 1960s because the radical movement was already taking shape years earlier in the 1950s with the rise of the “Beat” movement and then in the early 1960s with the beginnings of the New Left. To prove this he points to the episode in 1958 in which James Wechsler, the liberal journalist, debated Jack Kerouac at Hunter College in New York City. Wechsler, commenting later on Kerouac’s wild behavior, noted that he was dealing with a man from “outer space.”

Mr. Sterngold is wrong, I think, to locate the effective origins of the 1960s in the fringe movements of the 1950s. As I argue in the book, left wing movements of various kinds were active in American life going back at least to the turn of the 20th century. Some were communists and socialists who attacked capitalism as the source of oppression for the common man. Others were cultural radicals who saw the family, school, and church as institutions of repression and targets for reform. Yet both groups operated out on the margins of national politics with little in the way of popular followings.

This was true as well of the socialists and Beat poets of the 1950s – the latter representing an updated expression of the old cultural radicalism. Liberals were interested in practical reform to help the working and middle classes; the cultural radicals wished to upset their entire way of life. Liberals like Kennedy kept a wide distance between themselves and the socialists and cultural radicals of the time. The influential liberal intellectuals – Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Hofstadter foremost among them – criticized the radicals as sentimental, impractical, and largely irrelevant to the political controversies of the time.

During the 1960s, the wall of separation that had been erected between the radicals and the liberals came crashing down – and many of the ideas associated with the socialists and cultural radicals of the earlier time entered the mainstream of left/liberal thinking. Central to this new thinking was the critique of American society as repressive, materialistic, and violent. It is certainly possible (as Mr. Sterngold says) that these ideas would have achieved a mass following in any event – that is, in the absence of Kennedy’s assassination or the war in Vietnam. I have my doubts. There was little sign in 1963 or even in 1964 that a significant portion of the educated population in the United States was about to embrace a body of ideas that just a few years earlier was thought to exist on the lunatic fringe of public life.

Mr. Sterngold criticizes my observation that from World War II until Kennedy’s death, most of the political violence in the United States came from the right, but for a generation after that time it came from the left. He mentions as evidence against this the bombing of the federal building in 1995 and the bombings carried out by Eric Rudolph in the mid-1990s. These events occurred more than thirty years – or a full generation – after Kennedy’s death. He also notes the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. While the King assassination no doubt came from the right, Robert Kennedy’s assassination was something different altogether (and a subject I discuss in the book). Sen. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian national whose family had emigrated from Jordan to the United States some years earlier. Sirhan’s dispositions were anti-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-Israel. He hated Kennedy because of the Senator’s support for Israel that he expressed on the presidential campaign trail. He resolved to kill Kennedy before the one-year anniversary of the “Six Day” war which began on June 5, 1967 and in which Israel staged a successful preemptive war against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Sirhan shot Kennedy on June 5, 1968 – the one year anniversary of the war. Sirhan acted independently of anything going within American society – just as Oswald had done.

There is little doubt that this assassination came from the left – even though (once more) the assassination was interpreted at the time as an event arising from the madness and violence of American life. Indeed, nearly forty years later, Mr. Sterngold is still so characterizing it in contradiction to the facts.

I do not say that President Kennedy’s assassination caused the downfall of post-war liberalism and a reconstruction of that doctrine out of the upheavals of the 1960s. I acknowledge the influence of other events, most especially the war in Vietnam and the growing opposition to it from the mid-1960s forward. Still, as I argue, the Kennedy assassination was an important early event in that unfolding process. The curious aspect of the whole thing was that, since Kennedy was killed by a communist, some significant intellectual contortions were required to fit the event into the radical narrative then being constructed.

My book has been called a “revisionist” interpretation of the Kennedy assassination. If this is so, what then is the standard or consensus interpretation? It seems fair to conclude that Mr. Sterngold has expressed it: President Kennedy was killed by a “nut” who happened to be a communist, but that this latter fact is irrelevant to the meaning of the event. The assassination arose from the generally violent temper of American society and the easy access provided to guns. While the assassination was a tragedy for the nation and the Kennedy family, it had no wider political meaning – and in this sense resembled more the assassinations of Garfield and McKinley than the assassination of Lincoln.

In my book, I dispute this interpretation in just about every respect. Readers who are interested to look into this further can read my book, which is inaccurately and unfairly characterized in Mr. Sterngold’s essay. While any revisionist assessment is bound to arouse controversy and consternation among those with settled views of a subject, there is little reason for it to close off discussion of a major event that is now more than forty years in the past. Mr. Sterngold says that I am out to discredit liberals when my main purpose has been to try to understand how a popular and potent political doctrine was turned on its head in just a few short years.

James Piereson is the author of %%AMAZON=1594031886 Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism %%

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