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Parting shot

Interview | How Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated liberalism

Issue: "Giving thanks," Nov. 24, 2007

James Piereson served for many years as executive director and trustee of the John M. Olin Foundation. In the process he was instrumental in distributing grants to conservatives and neoconservatives not taken in by the cultural and political fantasies that emerged from the troubled 1960s.

Now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Piereson has had time to research the origins of recent American radicalism. He has produced a thoughtful analysis of the event that, three years into the decade, truly began the '60s: the Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy assassination.

Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books, 2007) shows how the assassination and its interpretation in media and academia led many Americans to begin looking for love in all the wrong places.

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WORLD: What did President Kennedy stand for?

PIERESON: Kennedy said he was a "liberal without illusions," meaning that he did not accept the sentimental view of politics and human nature associated with extreme liberals or leftists. Kennedy certainly believed that the Cold War was a struggle between human freedom and tyranny. The United States, he said in his inaugural address, would "pay any price and bear any burden" to ensure the success of liberty. He said that strong and consistent economic growth was the key to social progress. He came slowly to support civil rights, only proposing a civil rights bill in June of 1963. He most definitely was not the liberal idealist that Kennedy loyalists made him out to be following his assassination.

WORLD: And what about the depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald as a confused loner in search of meaning-accurate?

PIERESON: No, most definitely not-if by this we mean a man who committed a violent act because he was confused about his identity or unstable. If anything, Oswald was cold and logical to a fault. Oswald was a dedicated communist who shot President Kennedy in order to interrupt Kennedy's efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro and to overthrow his communist regime in Cuba. Oswald saw Third World revolutionaries like Castro as the wave of the future. He was a dedicated communist revolutionary-and in this sense, President Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War.

WORLD: You ask about the cultural confusion that would have occurred in 1865 had Abraham Lincoln been assassinated not through a conspiracy of Southern partisans but by an abolitionist. Why is that a relevant question?

PIERESON: I raised that hypothetical question in the book as a way of accounting for the general confusion that followed from Kennedy's assassination. Lincoln's assassination by a band of pro-Southern conspirators fit into the political and moral narrative of the Civil War. The public could readily interpret the event and place it into a moral and political context. In the years and months leading up to Kennedy's assassination, liberals were convinced that the greatest danger to the nation came from the radical right, not from communists, so when a communist assassinated a liberal president, liberals were thrown into total confusion as to how to interpret this event. It contradicted all expectations and was thus a discordant event-much as if Lincoln had been assassinated by abolitionists.

WORLD: Why was public reaction to the Kennedy assassination so unlike reaction to Lincoln's assassination?

PIERESON: Lincoln's assassination was the final act of the Civil War. He was shot five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Lincoln's extended funeral proceedings turned him into a martyr for Union, liberty, and emancipation. Kennedy's death seemed to leave a vacuum of moral meaning. Why was he killed? What did he stand for? How should we interpret his death? Kennedy loyalists did not wish him to be remembered as a martyr to the Cold War-which meant that the assassin's communist motives could not be highlighted to the American people. Into this vacuum flowed another moral interpretation-that Kennedy was a victim of a national culture of violence and bigotry. This was the confusion that settled over Kennedy's assassination-that he was shot by a communist but that somehow the nation itself was guilty for the death of its president.

WORLD: Out of the confusion and disorientation surrounding Kennedy's death, which political and cultural doctrines gained new adherents and influence?

PIERESON: Strangely enough, Kennedy's death and the confusion surrounding it gave new impetus to various left-wing doctrines associated with communism and Marxism. By 1968, left-wing doctrines were in vogue on American campuses to a degree previously unknown in American history. Much of this, of course, grew out of opposition to the war in Vietnam. However, it was pushed forward as well by the confusion surrounding Kennedy's death, to the extent that many interpreted the assassination as an act that grew out of the vices of the nation itself. Thus, though a communist shot President Kennedy, many of those who mourned Kennedy's death later embraced the doctrines that motivated his assassin. The final irony is that these same people saw Castro as a hero, even though Oswald shot President Kennedy to protect Castro's communist regime in Cuba.

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