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.
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.
WORLD: You note that in 1963 leftist radicals were preoccupied with cultural politics-the transformation of education, the family, relations between the sexes, etc.-but liberals saw the radicals as sentimental, ineffective, utopian, and contemptuous of the beliefs and attitudes of the common man. How did the Kennedy assassination affect the relationship of those two groups within the Democratic Party?
PIERESON: During the post-war period and up until Kennedy's death, liberals (like JFK) tried to maintain a separation from leftists and radicals. Many of the radicals criticized capitalism as an exploitative economic institution; others criticized American life from a cultural standpoint, viewing our cultural institutions (the family, school, and church) as the main source of repression. Liberals sought to improve the economic security of the working and middle classes-not to upset their moral or religious outlooks. With Kennedy's assassination and the upheavals of the 1960s, the walls between the radicals and liberals crumbled, and cultural radicalism entered into the mainstream of liberal thought-where it remains today. The Democratic Party, overtaken by these forces, began to lose support among the working and middle classes, who defected to the Republicans. In this way, the Democratic Party lost its majority status in the 1970s and the liberal era, which began with FDR in the 1930s, came to an end.
WORLD: If blame for the Kennedy assassination had been properly assigned to a communist acting out of ideological motives, what would have been the effect on the development of radicalism over the subsequent 10 years?
PIERESON: This is a difficult question to answer because it involves a counter-factual. If JFK's death had been properly interpreted at the time as an event in the Cold War, it may have provided something of a barrier to the rise of the radical left in the later 1960s and a further reason for liberals to resist the advances of the cultural radicals. After all, their hero had been killed by a communist. How could they have any sympathy for the doctrines of his assassin? The misinterpretation of Kennedy's death opened the floodgates to the rise of the radical left in the 1960s.
WORLD: Which political grouping today emphasizes the themes and concepts that dominated John F. Kennedy's rhetoric?
PIERESON: This is another paradox: Kennedy, representing the liberal convictions of his time, was an optimist about the future and saw the American past as a tale of progress. Following Kennedy's death, liberals were overcome by a wave of pessimism about America and our institutions. Our abundance was based on greed and selfishness; our democratic institutions were based on the oppression of minorities; our conquest of the continent on genocide of indigenous peoples. The nation deserved punishment more than praise. When liberals abandoned their progressive narrative, it was eventually picked up by conservatives in the person of Ronald Reagan-who memorably said that America's best days are still ahead of us. Reagan was determined, like Kennedy, to win the Cold War, and he turned conservatism into the governing doctrine that liberalism represented in Kennedy's day.