Camelot and the Cultural Revolution
How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism
by James Piereson
Encounter, 176 pp., $25.95
Encounter Books, the publisher of this provocative and penetrating new book about John F. Kennedy, could scarcely contrive a more apt confirmation of its thesis about the destructive self-delusion of the left than Time's cover package for the week of July 2 on "What We Can Learn from JFK."
"Americans are still trying to figure out nearly a half a century after his abbreviated presidency who Jack Kennedy really was," David Talbot's jejune thumbsucker tells us.
But whoever he was, we know he was great--or at least would have been great had he lived to fulfill his promise as "a man ahead of his time." Talbot faithfully reiterates the family/party line that "there was a heroic grandeur to John F. Kennedy's Administration," adding the latest thinly based revisionism that JFK had in mind a grand strategy to end the Cold War. In a separate piece Robert Dallek reminds us of the second part of liberalism's coda that Kennedy was committed to progress on civil rights, and the manner in which his murder helped propel the Civil Rights Act to passage has lent verisimilitude to the theme that his death amounted to a "martyrdom" for civil rights.
If we are still trying to "figure out" Kennedy after all these years, it is because, James Piereson's book argues, we so grossly distorted him in the aftermath of his death for a variety of confused and debilitating motives.
None of the eight--eight--articles in Time's JFKfest, including the obligatory pro and con on whether his killing was a conspiracy, mentions the one fact that Piereson finds most salient to probing the political effects of JFK's death: JFK was murdered by an ideological Communist.
"The assassination of a popular president by a Communist should have generated a revulsion against everything associated with left wing doctrines," Piereson writes. "Yet something close to the opposite happened. In the aftermath of the assassination, left wing ideas and revolutionary leaders, Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro foremost among them, enjoyed a greater vogue in the United States than at any time in our history." Piereson argues convincingly that it was the reaction to the assassination itself, within the mainstream American establishment as well as among liberal intellectuals, that caused liberalism essentially to suffer a nervous breakdown.
That Kennedy was killed at the hands of a Communist should have had a clear and direct meaning: "President Kennedy was a victim of the Cold War." Everyone had reasons for averting their gaze from this fact. For Lyndon Johnson, it would have carried frightful implications for foreign policy if it turned out that Lee Harvey Oswald had links to Castro or the KGB (which Piereson suggests is remotely possible). Liberals didn't want to dwell on this fact for a mix of other reasons. In the early hours after JFK was shot, we didn't yet know of Oswald's Communist background, and the media jumped to the conclusion that Kennedy's killing must have been the work of right-wing extremists. The day after the assassination, James Reston wrote in the New York Times that the assassination was the result of a "streak of violence in the American character" and that "from the beginning to the end of his administration, [Kennedy] was trying to tamp down the violence of extremists from the right."
This "meme," as we would say today, so quickly took hold that it could not be shaken, even after Oswald's noxious background began to come out. Indeed, the notion of collective responsibility would be repeated five years later after Robert Kennedy was murdered by a Communist Arab radical who professed deep hatred for America. Piereson's analysis prompts the thought that the phenomenon of liberal guilt owes it origin to JFK's assassination: "Once having accepted the claim that Kennedy was a victim of the national culture, many found it all too easy to extend the metaphor into other areas of American life, from race and poverty to the treatment of women to the struggle against Communism."
Piereson's discerning eye draws out the debilitating consequence of this: It de-legitimated the great liberal tradition of incremental reform, and robbed liberalism of its optimistic patrimony and belief in progress.
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.