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Interview: James Piereson on Camelot and the Cultural Revolution

MR. DRISCOLL:  And yet, if you look at the Zapruder Film, with the exception of the man with an open umbrella, who was apparently protesting Kennedy’s father’s appeasement of the Nazis, by invoking the memory of Neville Chamberlain, it doesn’t resemble a climate of hate at all. There are no protestors other than the so-called umbrella man, and the crowd appears eager and friendly to see the 35th president. They certainly don’t appear at all angry.

MR. PIERESON:  No.  You know, we have to remember that Kennedy and Johnson carried Texas in the 1960 election.  And Kennedy's trip to Texas was an effort to keep Texas in the -- in the Democratic column in 1964.  And you know, this view that Dallas is responsible for it, as a city of hate, that was an idea that congealed immediately after the assassination, even though it made no sense, because the assassin was a Communist.  That continues to this day.  The New York Times has run two or three articles in the last week discussing Dallas as the city that was to blame for the assassination.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Jim, your book is titled Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. Let’s talk about the first half of that title. How did the myth of Camelot come to be associated with John F. Kennedy?

MR. PIERESON:  Well, the dominant interpretation of the event as it happened was that Kennedy was a victim of hatred and prejudice and bigotry in the American culture, in Dallas and across the South and America in general.  That was the interpretation.

They ignored the fact he was shot by a Communist.  I mentioned Reston.  Many preachers, political leaders, talked about hatred and prejudice and bigotry that weekend as the source of the assassination.  Many said we are all responsible for the assassination.  Chet Huntley went on television the night of the assassination and said that it was caused by hatred in the country and a spirit of lawlessness.  Again, this is a reflection of some of the events that happened across the South in 1963.

But it had nothing to do with the event itself.  The event -- the assassination was an event in the Cold War.  Oswald killed Kennedy.  There's no doubt about that.  And he probably killed Kennedy to protect Castro.

So but this was the first event in post-war America in which this idea is turned loose that America is to blame; the country is guilty.  It occurs with the Kennedy assassination.  And then through the 1960s, it spreads into other areas.

So this idea of America being the guilty party, the sense of anti-Americanism, becomes a prominent element in discourse on the American left through the 1960 as we proceed.  And it has its roots probably very deeply in the ideology of the left, but it surfaces in the Kennedy assassination.

And then as the 60s proceed, the Kennedy assassination is then listed as one item in the indictment of America.  We killed this president.  America killed John F. Kennedy.  He was too good for us.  And so America is guilty.  And that is a thread, I think, that continues to be prominent in commentaries on America, down to the present day.