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."

The idea that Kennedy was a victim of the far right surfaced the day after the assassination in an influential article by James Reston on the front page of the New York Times. Reston was then chief of the Times Washington bureau, and his piece ran under the headline: "Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation." Reston wrote,

America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young president, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.

He continued to develop this theme: "The irony of the President's death," he wrote, "is that his short administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character." He went on to observe that, "from the beginning to the end of his administration, he was trying to damp down the violence of extremists on the Right." The fact that the assassin was a violent extremist from the left did not deter Reston. He blamed the right wing notwithstanding the fact that a detailed article listing Oswald's Communist associations ran adjacent to his article.

The developing consensus about the assassination implied strong parallels between the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy. Both, after all, had been cut down in their prime in the midst of the struggle for equal rights. President Kennedy's funeral was scripted in important ways in imitation of Lincoln's, so much so that Russell Baker could write, also in the Times, that "the analogy to Lincoln's death must have been poignantly apparent to most of those who passed [Kennedy's] flag draped coffin." Under the circumstances, it would have been difficult for a dissenting voice to challenge the wishful consensus.

President Lyndon Johnson, for his part, was concerned that Oswald's Communist loyalties could lead to another round of anti-Communist recriminations that would complicate his diplomatic efforts with the Soviet Union. He was thus not displeased with the developing consensus that Kennedy had been a victim of the far right or of a climate of violence. A week after the assassination, in a Thanksgiving message to the nation, Johnson urged Congress to pass a civil rights bill as a memorial to his slain predecessor.

The cultural and political understanding of the Kennedy assassination was soon detached from the details of the event itself. Instead of accepting the facts and following them to a logical conclusion, the liberal leadership of the country came together to formulate their preferred explanation. Surprisingly, they made that explanation stick, producing no end of questions and conspiracy theories about who was really responsible. And because the false but prevalent explanation was one that blamed American culture itself, it unjustifiably shook the faith of many Americans in their institutions and way of life.

Five years later, in 1968, President Kennedy's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles on the evening of his victory in the California presidential primary. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, decided to kill Kennedy after reading that he had made a campaign pledge to support Israel. Sirhan was determined to carry out the murder before the anniversary of the Six Day War in the Middle East, which had occurred almost exactly a year earlier. Yet this event, too, was portrayed as if it reflected some distemper in American society about bigotry and violence.

The repercussions especially of the long-running misunderstanding of President Kennedy's assassination should serve as an object lesson for anyone who would distort the facts surrounding the events at Fort Hood. Whatever those facts turn out to be, we will be far better off facing them than pretending that they are other than what they are.

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.