Political assassination: Liberalism ‘shattered’ over JFK
Nearly a half-century after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, that fateful November day in Dallas has produced numerous books and movies promoting or debunking conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
But one new book focuses on the aftermath of Mr. Kennedy’s assassination and how this changed the environment of American politics.
In “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism,” James Piereson said many liberals in the 1960s refused to accept that Mr. Kennedy was killed by a communist gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, and influenced public opinion about the assassination in such a way as to portray Mr. Kennedy as a civil rights martyr.
“When Kennedy was assassinated, they proceeded to interpret his death in that civil rights context even though Kennedy was killed by a communist,” Mr. Piereson said. “Kennedy was obviously a casualty of the Cold War, and the liberals were reluctant to acknowledge that fact.”
Mr. Piereson said liberal thinkers of the 1950s were convinced that the chief danger to the United States wasn’t communism, but the “radical right” and “McCarthyism.” Suspicions of communist influence in the United States raised by Sen. Joseph McCarthy had been ridiculed by some liberals.
“In certain ways, the Kennedy assassination reinforced what McCarthy had said, that communism was a threat internally, not just abroad,” said Mr. Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation. “The Kennedy assassination shattered the assumptions of liberalism as it had developed from the New Deal onward.”
The liberals of the period were convinced that the future belonged to them and that the New Deal was just the first step in perfecting American democracy, Mr. Piereson said.
“For the liberals of that period, the right was irrational, it was fighting against modernity, opposed to democracy and progress and in some ways, anti-American,” Mr. Piereson said. The assassination in Dallas, he said, “also undermined their faith in the nation, they couldn’t accept the fact that a communist killed President Kennedy [so] they deflected the blame onto the country and they said Kennedy was caused by a climate of injustice and bigotry.”
Mr. Piereson said Kennedy’s assassination drained a lot of political energy out of the liberal movement, causing many liberals to focus more on social ideals.
“How do we get from 1963, where the country is relatively conservative culturally, but liberalism is in the saddle as the dominant physical philosophy of the country, to 1968, when the country is unraveling, there are campus demonstrations, urban riots, crime had escalated, and the liberals and leftists were denouncing the U.S. as a sick society?” Mr. Piereson said.
When the president’s brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968 — shortly after winning the California primary — by Sirhan Sirhan, Mr. Piereson said, liberal leaders again tried to change the public’s view of events.
“Robert Kennedy’s assassination was again viewed in context of civil rights, even though his assassin had nothing to do with civil rights,” Mr. Piereson said.
Sirhan Sirhan was a Palestinian nationalist who wanted to kill Kennedy because of his support for Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, Mr. Piereson said.
“The liberals in the country interpreted both these events as martyrs to civil rights and judged the nation to be guilty of these crimes when, in fact, both assassins were American haters. [. . . ] They didn’t reflect America,” Mr. Piereson said.
Mr. Piereson compares the assassination of President Kennedy with the assassination of President Lincoln. The Lincoln assassination made moral and political sense, Mr. Piereson said, in that Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln, the leader of the Union cause.
“It fit into the story perfectly, but Kennedy being shot by a communist made no sense to the liberals,” Mr. Piereson said. “If an aboli- tionist had come and killed Lincoln, that would have been difficult for the North to understand within the framework of the Civil War.”
Kennedy’s assassination by a communist, in a way, violated the script the liberals had written in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Piereson said, causing them to invent a new script.
“Lincoln’s assassination united the country around emancipation and freedom, but Kennedy’s assassination divided the country and in many ways turned liberals against the country,” Mr. Piereson said. “It bred a kind of anti-Americanism [that] said American culture is deeply flawed.”
Kennedy’s funeral was organized similar to Lincoln’s funeral, Mr. Piereson said, in order to “reinforce the imagery of the brave leader slain for his support of racial justice and equal rights.”
Kennedy’s coffin was placed in the East Room for private viewing, just like Lincoln’s and then the flag-draped coffin was taken down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda and placed for public viewing on a catafalque originally constructed for Lincoln’s funeral.
“The Lincoln funeral was used to promote the Union cause to establish Lincoln as a martyr to the Union and demonstrate what the Southerners were capable of, it was that funeral to some extent that turned him into the great martyr we remember him as today,” Mr. Piereson said.
Just as liberalism of the 1930s is identified with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Piereson said, the liberalism of the 1960s is as- sociated with the Kennedys.
“The liberalism we see today is very much shaped by the events of the 1960s,” he said. “That period continues to be a decisive factor now, much like the New Deal shaped things for decades after.”
President Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination prompted many theories, including those espoused in a new book, “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution” by James Piereson.