Lee Harvey Oswald's Malign Legacy
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
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?
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:
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:
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.
Nov. 22, 2007 addendum: It did not fit the article but this quote of Jacqueline Kennedy's, on learning the identity of her husband's assassin, sums up the problem: "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist." Silly little Communist?
Nov. 22, 2013 update: For all my work on this topic, see "Bibliography – My Writings on John F. Kennedy."
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