The Magazine

Willful Misunderstanding

When JFK was assassinated, liberals couldn't stand the truth. Can they now?

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By JAMES PIERESON
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Not the event itself, but the official reaction to the shootings at Fort Hood last week, invites troublesome parallels with the assassination 46 years ago this month of John F. Kennedy.

In the Fort Hood case, officials rushed forward to dampen any speculation that this might have been a terrorist attack, even though the gunman is a Muslim and there are credible reports that he shouted praises to Allah during his rampage. He "snapped" under pressure, as some were quick to explain, or he was a misfit who did not adapt well to Army life. Worse still, prominent officials immediately began to express concern, not that the shooting might signal a broader pattern of attacks against the United States or a shocking breakdown of the military's ability to recognize danger in its midst, but rather that it might cast a shadow over the Army's diversity initiatives or lead to a backlash against Muslims.

By the end of the week, however, these evasions were coming into conflict with some disquieting facts. For more than a year before the shooting, for example, the gunman had carried on a correspondence with an al Qaeda operative who, one infers, encouraged him to undertake the deadly mission. It was also learned that he had often expressed the view that Muslim soldiers should not be sent to fight against other Muslims. The Army knew this, through information collected and transmitted by the FBI, but did nothing about it for fear of taking steps that might be seen as prejudicial against a member of a minority group. Because of this failure to act, 13 soldiers are dead, many more are wounded, and families are shattered.

The tendency to evade unsettling truths when they threaten cherished ideals is not uncommon in political life. It was expressed in a most vivid form in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

President Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, by a devoted Communist for motives linked to the Cold War. For many reasons, the liberal leadership of the nation found this explanation difficult to accept. As a consequence, they said things that only added to the confusion surrounding the event. President Kennedy, they said, was a martyr to civil rights; he was a victim of a climate of hate and bigotry then expressed in opposition to civil rights across the South; he died because America is obsessed by violence and permits too easy access to guns. Kennedy's assassination was actually an event in the Cold War, but the liberal leadership of the country said it was an event in the struggle for civil rights.

There is no doubt at this late date that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and that he almost certainly acted alone. Nor should there be much doubt that his motives were linked to his Communist ideology, and in particular to his wish to protect the Castro regime in Cuba from the Kennedy administration's efforts to topple it. The evidence condemning Oswald is every bit as strong as that which condemned John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Lincoln. Shortly after his arrest, the press began listing Oswald's extensive Communist associations and activities, including his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959, continuing membership in left-wing organizations after his return in 1962, establishment of a pro-Castro front group in New Orleans in 1963, and trip to Mexico City in September 1963 to visit the Cuban and Soviet embassies as part of an effort to travel to Cuba. It soon became known that the previous April, Oswald had taken a shot at General Edwin Walker, a spokesman for right-wing causes in Dallas.

Notwithstanding these known facts, liberal leaders sought to cast a different interpretation over the assassination. Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States, said on the evening of the assassination, "A great and good president has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." This was a theme that Warren repeated two days later in a eulogy for President Kennedy given at the Capitol at the invitation of Mrs. Kennedy, who had made clear in personal remarks that she wanted her husband remembered as a martyr for civil rights, not a victim of the Cold War. Warren further implied that the climate of opinion in Dallas had contributed to the assassination, another popular theme (outside of Texas). On the same occasion, Senator Mike Mansfield, majority leader of the Senate, compared Kennedy to Jesus Christ and hoped that his death would bring to an end "the bigotry, the hatred, prejudice, and the arrogance which converged in that moment of horror to strike him down."