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Interview: James Piereson on Camelot and the Cultural Revolution


MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with James Piereson, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, and the author of the 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, which was recently republished by Encounter Books, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And Jim, thanks for stopping by today.

MR. PIERESON:  Ed, delighted to be here.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Jim, is it safe to say that your book is built on four assumptions:

One: Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin of President Kennedy.

Two: Lee Harvey Oswald was an admitted Marxist.

Three: This makes President Kennedy the most prominent victim of the post-World War II Cold War between, on the one side, the Soviet Union and its allies, and on the other, the free west, particularly the United States.

And finally, Four: The previous three facts caused an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance amongst American liberals in the 1960s, creating negative ramifications that influence American culture to this very day. Is that a fair assessment?

MR. PIERESON:  Ed, I think that's an excellent summary.  It starts with three facts which are hard to dispute, and it leads to a political conclusion that this event caused a great deal of difficulty for many Americans to absorb and interpret and understand.  And it stays with us to this day.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Almost immediately after Kennedy’s death, there was a collective official statement from the news media that it was a quote-unquote climate of race-based hatred that killed President Kennedy. How did that opinion manage to congeal so quickly, when it was also known very quickly after Oswald’s capture, that he was a capital-C Communist?

MR. PIERESON:  Well, Ed, that's the 100,000-dollar question.  Because you know, the -- on the day after the assassination, the New York Times ran, of course, a big banner headline, and down the center, they had a story written by a reporter, in which he detailed Oswald's arrest and all the evidence against Oswald, which summarized his various Communist activities:  his defection to the Soviet Union, his correspondence with pro-Castro groups, his lobbying for Castro, and indeed, his visit to Mexico City in an effort to travel to Cuba.

But next to that was a column by James Reston, the dean of American journalists at the time, who went on to say that Kennedy was the victim of a climate of hate in the country that sprung out of opposition to the civil rights movement and was promoted by anti-Communists and bigots of various kinds.

And so the question was, which of these things was going to stick?  Is it going to be the facts or is it going to be the civil rights interpretation of this event?  And the Reston interpretation is the one that dominated all the commentary of the Kennedy assassination.

There are a lot of reasons for why that happened.  Many of the events preceding the assassination were linked to the civil rights movement.  There was a lot of violence against civil rights activists in the South in 1963.  And so when Kennedy was killed, people interpreted it within that framework.