The Magazine

The Oswald Effect

Johnny, we hardly knew ye after November 1963.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Alongside the idea of the collective guilt of American society, Kennedy's assassination disoriented American liberals in several other ways. "The claim that the far right represented the main threat to progress and democratic order," Piereson writes, "was no longer credible after a Marxist assassinated an American president." In addition, Piereson reminds us of the years prior to JFK's killing, when there was an extensive literature from liberalism's premier intellectuals sneering at the far right's preoccupation with conspiracy. The right's fascination with conspiracy theories, writers like Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell thought, was a sign of the unseriousness of conservatism. The obsession with JFK assassination theories--which was done in part to deflect the implications of Oswald's communism--has put the shoe on the other foot: From the Grassy Knoll to Halliburton's role in 9/11, it is now the left that is consumed with conspiracies.

The genius of this book is that Piereson situates his account of the radicalization of liberalism in the 1960s within the long tradition of liberal philosophy going back to the progressive era, and it's worth its price for the second chapter alone, which offers a trenchant synoptic account of the evolution of 20th-century liberalism.

Drawing on the perceptive self-criticism of Lionel Trilling and other mid-century liberal thinkers, Piereson notes that liberalism's rationalist and progressive assumptions were too brittle to survive a tragedy on the scale of Kennedy's assassination. The assassination "seemed to call for some kind of intellectual reconstruction" on the left. Instead, the left lost its mind. As the Time package attests, liberalism still has not come to grips with this, preferring instead to recycle the old themes and regurgitate the conspiracy theories for the umpteenth time.

Piereson was an academic political scientist before becoming the longtime executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation in the 1980s. As is well known (especially on the left), Olin's support for conservative scholarship was instrumental to building a counter-establishment over the last generation. The Olin Foundation, in keeping with the wishes of its founder, closed down and distributed all its funds in 2005. Reading Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, one might have wished it had closed down sooner to release Piereson to write works such as this.

Steven F. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980.