Daniel Pipes: Lee Harvey Oswald's Malign Legacy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org. Click here for his blog.]

What's wrong with American liberalism? What happened to the self-assured, optimistic, and practical Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy? Why has Joe Lieberman, their closest contemporary incarnation, been run out of the party? How did anti-Americanism infect schools, the media, and Hollywood? And whence comes the liberal rage that conservatives like Ann Coulter, Jeff Jacoby, Michelle Malkin, and the Media Research Center have extensively documented?

In a tour de force, James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute offers an historical explanation both novel and convincing. His book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter), traces liberalism's slide into anti-Americanism back to the seemingly minor fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was neither a segregationist nor a cold warrior but a communist.

Here's what Piereson argues:

During the roughly forty years preceding the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963, progressivism/liberalism was the reigning and nearly only public philosophy; Kennedy, a realistic centrist, came out of an effective tradition that aimed, and succeeded, in expanding democracy and the welfare state.

In contrast, Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower lacked an intellectual alternative to liberalism and so merely slowed it down. The conservative"remnant" led by William F. Buckley, Jr. had virtually no impact on policy. The radical right, embodied by the John Birch Society, spewed illogical and ineffectual fanaticism.

Kennedy's assassination profoundly affected liberalism, Piereson explains, because Oswald, a New Left-style communist, murdered Kennedy to protect Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba from the president who, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, brandished America's military card. Kennedy, in brief, died because he was so tough in the cold war. Liberals resisted this fact because it contradicted their belief system and, instead, presented Kennedy as a victim of the radical right and a martyr for liberal causes.

This political phantasm required two audacious steps. The first applied to Oswald:

  • Ignoring his communist outlook by characterizing him as an extreme rightist. Thus, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison asserted that"Oswald would have been more at home with Mein Kampf than Das Kapital."
  • Reducing his role to insignificance by (1) theorizing about some sixteen other assassins or (2) spinning a giant conspiracy in which Oswald was a dupe of the mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Castro Cubans, White Russians, Texas oil millionaires, international bankers, the CIA, the FBI, the military-industrial complex, the generals, or Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson.

With Oswald nearly deleted from the narrative, or even turned into a scapegoat, the ruling establishment – Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and many others – proceeded to take a second, astonishing step. They blamed the assassination not on Oswald the communist but on the American people, and the radical right in particular, accusing them of killing Kennedy for his being too soft in the cold war or too accommodating to civil rights for American blacks. Here are just four of the examples Piereson cites documenting that wild distortion:

  • Chief Justice Earl Warren decried the supposed"hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots."
  • Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield raged against"the bigotry, the hatred, prejudice and the arrogance which converged in that moment of horror to strike him down."
  • Congressman Adam Clayton Powell advised,"Weep not for Jack Kennedy, but weep for America."
  • A New York Times editorial lamented"The shame all America must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down President John F. Kennedy."

In this"denial or disregard" of Oswald's motives and guilt, Piereson locates the rank origins of American liberalism's turn toward anti-American pessimism."The reformist emphasis of American liberalism, which had been pragmatic and forward-looking, was overtaken by a spirit of national self-condemnation."

Viewing the United States as crass, violent, racist, and militarist shifted liberalism's focus from economics to cultural issues (racism, feminism, sexual freedom, gay rights). This change helped spawn the countercultural movement of the late 1960s; more lastingly, it fed a"residue of ambivalence" about the worth of traditional American institutions and the validity of deploying U.S. military power that 44 years later remains liberalism's general outlook.

Thus does Oswald's malign legacy live on in 2007, yet harming and perverting liberalism, still polluting the national debate.

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/27/2007

<The impunity with which Arabs are permitted to kill Americans without suffering any adverse results is nothing less than astounding without Pierson's theory.>
The author of this must be high... very very high.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 11/27/2007

The same reasoning followed the murder of Robert Kennedy on the anniversary of the Six Day War by Sirhan Sirhan. In his pocket they found an article describing RFK as a Vietnam dove but Middle East hawk. The fact that he was captured on the spot with the gun in his hand has done little to dissuade fabricators. The impunity with which Arabs are permitted to kill Americans without suffering any adverse results is nothing less than astounding without Pierson's theory. Just listen to the Belafonte song about how "they" killed JFK, MLK and RFK.
Liberals just refuses to see. Those who open their eyes, reject the New Left ideology which today passes as liberalism. Since that ideology is such an important component of the base of the Democratic party, the argument is nothing but practical. For politics is ultimately about the division of power. Bill Clinton tried to save the Democratic party but his single real follower, Liberman, is hardly welcome in it anymore.

Lisa X. Pease - 11/27/2007

Anyone who believes the Marines would hire a communist to track our U-2 flights, offer the guy language training at an intelligence institute, and provide him a "military hop" back from the USSR after he supposedly defected, must have lived in some Cold War other than the one that transpired on this planet in the 50's and 60's.

David P Dillenbeck - 11/26/2007

What’s wrong with American liberalism? Nothing, for its inherent progressivism will eventually triumph again. But to mention liberal pessimism as an after-effect to the Kennedy assassination without at least acknowledging serious researcher’s thwarted efforts to obtain government compliance and transparency in releasing pertinent assassination documents seems disingenuous at best. Lee Oswald’s intelligence gathering activities in the former Soviet Union on behalf of the U.S. government make him a unique defector, not necessarily an ideological communist. The irony of even suggesting that liberalism is now largely “anti-American” is falsely propagandistic, and Piereson’s argument cannot be proven without release of the CIA records of, say for one, George Joannides, the paymaster for the Cuban DRE that debated Oswald on radio concerning his FPCC activities. Pointing fingers at the left for their supposed “denial and disregard” of Oswald’s “motives and guilt” is only a neat way to avoid answering the real questions of who has power and influence in this country and why. A more pertinent historical question to ask would be this: Why is liberalism such a threat to the corporate structure of this country?

omar ibrahim baker - 11/25/2007

D.Pipes is not only a distortionist but , more importantly, a master at deliberate disinformation through insinuation of not a very subtle form; in this case at least.

In a post dealing with Oswald he notes, "en passant", what he presumes to be an unassailable fact.
He does that,seemingly innocently , under the form of an inquiry:
" Why has Joe Lieberman, their closest contemporary incarnation, been run out of the party? "
A question which presumes two things as unassailably given:
1-That Joe Lieberman was, is the "incarnation" of whatever that party, the Democrat party of the USA,
ever stood or stands for
2-That Joe's absence therefrom, or his diminished stature and influence therein, denotes the end of that old party!

However whether Lieberman's
"absence" could have been, or would be, the result of political estrangement or of the inevitable eventual natural causes, human mortality, would lead to the same result, the demise of the Democrat party, is a question Pipes cares not to address .
The important point is that Pipes fellow Zionist IS the DEMOCRATIC party of the USA!

Why Joe Lieberman of all the many liberal democrats is another question Pipes cares NOT to address?
Was he, is he, the only Zionist of stature in that party?
Dare we expect, and hope for, an explanation of that "one man party incarnation " syndrom from Pipes??

Arnold Shcherban - 11/24/2007

'Cause here Pipes eclipses himself... in distortions and wishful thinking.