[Kennedy's] kind of liberalism -- "tough and realistic," as Piereson puts it, in the tradition of FDR and Truman -- was carried away in the riptide of his death. In a crucial and counterintuitive interpretive act, the nation's opinion elite made JFK a martyr to civil rights instead of the Cold War. Kennedy had been killed by a communist, Lee Harvey Oswald, who a few years before had tried to defect to the Soviet Union. Liberals nonetheless blamed the assassination on, in the characteristic words of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, "the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots."Fred Siegal disagrees:
Thus, the assassination curdled into an indictment of American society: "Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation," read a New York Times headline. Until this point, 20th-century liberalism had tended to see history as a steady march of progress. Now, the march had been interrupted by the country's own pathologies. "Kennedy was mourned in a spirit of frustrated possibility and dashed hopes," Piereson argues, and that sense of loss came to define the new liberalism.
Mr. Piereson's own argument is persuasive and well-presented, but liberalism was never as reasonable as he assumes. The irrationalism that exploded later in the 1960s had been a component of left-wing ideology well before. Herbert Croly, the liberal founder of the New Republic magazine, was drawn to mysticism. In the 1950s ex-Marxists fell over themselves in praise of Wilhelm Reich and "orgone box," hoping that sexual therapy might replace Marxist theory as the toga of the enlightened. And in the very early 1960s a veritable cult of Castro, informed by Franz Fanon's writings on the cleansing virtues of violence, emerged among intellectuals searching for an alternative to middle-class conventions.Ed Driscoll, too:
It's not reason that is at the heart of modern-day liberalism but rather the claim to superior virtue and, even more important, to a special knowledge unavailable to the unwashed or unenlightened. Depending on the temper of the time, such virtue and knowledge can derive disproportionately from scientism or mysticism--or it can mix large dollops of both. "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution" lays bare the long-ignored failure of intellect that hastened the decline of American liberalism. If liberals can belatedly come to grips with their failure to acknowledge Oswald's political identity, they might be able to celebrate a revival that involves more than a Broadway show.
But the actual causes of liberal disorientation regarding Kennedy's death and the motives of his killer predate his assassination by several years. It was during the 1950s and early '60s that that liberal elites declared America's nascent and disparate conservative movements to be a greater threat to the nation than the Soviet Union, as illustrated by films of the day such as Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. And the subtext of those films was very much based upon "a vast literature that developed in the '50s and early '60s about the threat from the far right," Piereson says, specifically mentioning Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style In American Politics, and Daniel Bell's The Radical Right.
As Piereson writes, leading up to Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas, there was a remarkable amount of violence in the south, caused by a backlash against the civil rights movement. In October of 1963, Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' presidential candidate in the 1950s who had been appointed the ambassador to the UN by Kennedy, traveled to Dallas for a speech on United Nations Day. Stevenson is heckled, booed, spat upon, and hit over the head with a cardboard sign. Stevenson says publicly, there's a "spirit of madness" in Texas. And Kennedy's White House staffers believe that he should cancel his already announced November visit to Dallas.
Thus, at the beginning of November 1963 a framework has been established that the far right is the threat to American democracy, "and that they've moved from heated rhetoric to violent act," Piereson says.
"So when the news spreads that Kennedy has been killed, the immediate response is that it must be a right winger who's done it," Piereson notes. And while the Birch-era right definitely had severe issues, JFK's assassin on November 22, 1963 had, of course, a polar opposite ideology. "When the word is now spread that Oswald has been captured, and that he has a communist past, and they start running film of him demonstrating for Castro in the previous summer, there is a tremendous disorientation at this."
The shock that Kennedy was in reality a victim of the Cold War simply did not compute on a national level.