It has now been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was cut down on the streets of Dallas by rifle shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, a self-described Marxist, recent defector to the Soviet Union, and ardent admirer of Fidel Castro. The evidence condemning Oswald was overwhelming: the bullets that killed President Kennedy were fired from his rifle, the rifle was found on the sixth floor of the warehouse where he worked and where he was seen moments before the shooting, witnesses on the street saw a man firing shots from a sixth floor window in that building and immediately summoned police to provide a description of the assassin. Forty-five minutes later a policeman stopped Oswald on foot in another section of the city to question him about the shooting. As the policeman stepped from his squad car, Oswald pulled out a pistol and pumped four shots into him before fleeing to a nearby movie theater where he was captured (still carrying the pistol with which he had killed the policeman). Two days later Oswald was himself assassinated while in police custody by a nightclub owner distraught over Kennedy's death.
Despite the evidence, few Americans today believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy or that, if he did, he acted alone. A recent poll found that 75% of American adults believe that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy of some kind, usually of a right-wing variety. This is not surprising because most of the popular books published on the assassination since the mid-1960s have elaborated one or another conspiracy theory. Right-wing businessmen, disgruntled generals, CIA operatives, and Mafia bosses are the typical villains in these scenarios. Before long the Kennedy assassination came to be encrusted in layers of myth, illusion, and disinformation strong enough to deflect every attempt to understand it from a rational point of view. And this enduring national illusion and confusion has had unfortunate consequences.
Creating the Myth
In the days and weeks following the assassination the idea took hold that a climate of hate in Dallas and across the nation established the conditions for President Kennedy's murder. Racial bigots, the Ku Klux Klan, followers of the John Birch Society, fundamentalist ministers, anti-Communist zealots, and conservatives of all kinds had sowed hatred and division in national life. These battalions of the American Right had been responsible for manifold acts of violence across the South against Negroes and civil rights workers in the years leading up to the assassination, and they must have been behind the attack on President Kennedy. It followed that President Kennedy was a martyr, like Abraham Lincoln, to the great causes of civil rights and racial justice. Liberal writers had warned throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s about the undercurrent of bigotry and intolerance that ran through American culture and the political dangers arising from the "radical Right." Now it appeared that their warnings had come to fruition in the murder of a president.
This explanation for the assassination did not drop out of thin air but was circulated immediately after the event by influential leaders, journalists, and journalistic outlets, including Mrs. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Democratic leaders in Congress, James Reston and the editorial page of the New York Times, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., columnist Drew Pearson, and any number of other liberal spokesmen. The New York Times through its editorial page and columnists insisted that a climate of hate brought down President Kennedy, even as the paper's news reporters documented the evidence against Oswald and his Communist connections. Reston, the paper's chief political correspondent, published a front-page column on November 23 under the title, "Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation." In the course of the column he observed that, "from the beginning to the end of his Administration, he [JFK] was trying to damp down the violence of the extremists on the Right." Reston returned to this theme in subsequent columns, pointing the finger at hatred and a spirit of lawlessness in the land as the ultimate causes of the presidential assassination.
Following this line of thought, Chief Justice Warren, soon to head the official commission that investigated the assassination, declared: "A great and good President has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." Pat Brown, governor of California, and Charles Taft, mayor of Cincinnati, organized a series of candlelight vigils across the nation "to pledge the end of intolerance and to affirm that such a tragedy shall not happen in America again." The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell (also a congressman) issued a statement shortly after the assassination: "President Kennedy is a martyr of freedom and human rights and a victim of injustice as promulgated by Barnett and Wallace," here referring to the segregationist governors of Mississippi and Alabama. Less than a week after the assassination, Pearson published one of his syndicated columns under the title, "Kennedy Victim of Hate Drive." Many took this a step further to declare that all Americans were complicit in Kennedy's death because they had tolerated hatred and bigotry in their midst. As a popular song, "Sympathy for the Devil," by the Rolling Stones put it a few years later: "I shouted out: who killed the Kennedys? When after all it was you and me." This became the near universal response to the assassination: a strain of bigotry and hatred in American culture was responsible for Kennedy's murder.
For his part, President Johnson saw that his job as national leader in that time of crisis was to supply some meaning to his predecessor's sudden death. "John Kennedy had died," he said later, "[b]ut his cause was not really clear.... I had to take the dead man's program and turn it into a martyr's cause." In his first speech before the Congress on November 27, Johnson proclaimed that "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." The civil rights bill, which Kennedy belatedly proposed in mid-1963, was approved in 1964 with bipartisan majorities in the Congress. On the international front, Johnson feared a dangerous escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union and another McCarthy-style "witch-hunt" against radicals should the American public conclude that a Communist was responsible for the assassination. From his point of view, it was better to circumvent that danger by deflecting blame for the assassination from Communism to some other unpopular target.
In doing so, the U.S. government adopted a line similar to that being pushed by the Soviet Union and Communist governments around the world. Within hours of the assassination, the Soviet press put out reports declaring that "rightists" were responsible for the assassination and that plots were being hatched to blame the crime on a Communist. A Soviet spokesman said that, "Senator Barry Goldwater and other extremists on the right could not escape moral responsibility for the president's death." Leftists around the world were quick to disown Oswald out of fear that his deed might contaminate their cause.
Mrs. Kennedy took the lead in insisting that her husband was a martyr to the causes of civil rights, racial justice, and international peace, despite the fact that she was told hours after the assassination that Oswald had been arrested for the crime. She soon gave instructions to aides to make her husband's funeral rites "as Lincolnesque as possible" in order to cement the connection between the two fallen leaders.
Mrs. Kennedy also took the case well beyond associations with Lincoln, civil rights, or the domestic controversies of the 1950s and '60s. Within days of the assassination in interviews with prominent journalists, she elaborated the symbolism of Camelot and King Arthur's court to frame the Kennedy presidency as a special and near-magical enterprise guided by the highest ideals of international peace and domestic justice. The eternal flame she placed on her husband's grave invoked King Arthur's candle in the wind, an image taken from T.H. White's modern Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King (1958). In White's four-part fantasy, King Arthur, who was traditionally portrayed as a valiant warrior, is depicted as a soldier of peace; the candle in the wind is the symbol through which he hopes to pass his ideals through the generations after he is gone. White's novel in turn was the basis for Camelot, the Broadway musical (and later a Hollywood film) that was popular during the Kennedy years and was one of Mrs. Kennedy's favorite shows.
These were the myths in which the Kennedy assassination came to be embalmed. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they are still widely believed, and not only by members of a credulous public. The claim that JFK was a victim of hatred and bigotry or a martyr in the crusade for civil rights is now a basic element in the liberal interpretation of the post-war era. From a liberal point of view, the Kennedy assassination was the moment in which the battle between the "good" America and the "bad" America was expressed in its most dramatic and memorable fashion. Taylor Branch, in his award winning biography of Martin Luther King, summed up the liberal consensus that has grown up around the JFK assassination:
In death, the late President gained credit for much of the purpose that [Martin Luther] King's movement had forced upon him in life. No death had ever been like his—[Reinhold] Niebuhr called him "an elected monarch." In a mass purgative of hatred, bigotry, and violence, the martyred President became a symbol of the healing opposites.... President Johnson told the nation that the most fitting eulogy would be swift passage of his civil rights bill. By this and other effects of mourning, Kennedy acquired the Lincolnesque mantle of a unifying crusader who had bled against the thorn of race.
A Communist Kills Kennedy
To the extent he can be called a martyr at all, JFK was a martyr in the Cold War struggle against Communism. Lee Harvey Oswald was not a product of a "climate of hate" found in Dallas or anywhere else in the United States. Oswald defected from the United States to the Soviet Union in 1959, vowing when he did so that he could no longer live under a capitalist system. He returned to the United States with his Russian wife in 1962 in disappointment with life under Soviet Communism but without giving up his Marxist beliefs. By 1963 he had transferred his political allegiance from the Soviet Union to Castro's Communist regime in Cuba. Nor was Oswald a bigot; he supported the civil rights movement and the ideal of racial equality. In his eyes, racial bigotry was an evil inseparable from American capitalism. He hated the United States, the capitalist system, and everything associated with the radical Right. He was a creature of the far Left, not of the far Right. In contrast to academic or armchair radicals, he was on the lookout for opportunities to act out his ideological convictions.
In April 1963, seven months before he killed President Kennedy, Oswald took a shot at (and missed) retired General Edwin Walker as he sat at his dining table working on his income tax return. Walker was the head of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society and a figure then in the news because of his public opposition to school integration and his demand for the overthrow of the Castro regime. Only weeks before, Oswald had purchased a scoped rifle (later used to shoot President Kennedy) by mail order for the purpose of assassinating General Walker. A month or so later, fearful that he might be identified as the assailant in the Walker shooting, Oswald left Dallas to take up residence in New Orleans where in June and July 1963 he established a local chapter of Fair Play for Cuba, a national organization dedicated to gaining diplomatic recognition for Castro's regime. While in New Orleans Oswald was arrested and detained for a brief period following an altercation on the street with several anti-Castro Cubans who were upset about the pro-Castro leaflets he was distributing. He even participated in a local radio debate with a conservative and an anti-Castro Cuban where he was humiliated when his adversaries revealed to the audience that he had once defected to the Soviet Union and had lived for three years in that country. This information supported accusations that Fair Play for Cuba was a Communist front and that Castro's regime was a "puppet" government of the Soviet Union.
His enterprise in New Orleans in ruins, Oswald travelled to Mexico City in late September to visit the Soviet and Cuban embassies in desperate pursuit of a visa that would allow him to travel to Cuba. Before taking this step, Oswald discussed with his wife the possibility of hijacking an airliner to take them to Cuba (she rejected that idea). He took along a dossier of news clippings on his pro-Castro activities in New Orleans for the purpose of establishing his revolutionary bona fides with embassy personnel. He returned to Dallas empty-handed after being told by embassy officials that his application would take weeks or even months to process. He was still waiting to hear about his application six weeks later when he read that President Kennedy's forthcoming visit to Texas would include a motorcade through the downtown streets of Dallas and past the building where he worked. FBI agents, having been informed by the CIA of Oswald's visits to the embassies in Mexico City, were still trying to track him down on the day President Kennedy arrived in Dallas.
Oswald's motives in shooting President Kennedy were undoubtedly linked to a wish to protect Castro against efforts by the Kennedy Administration to overturn his government. From 1961 to 1963, the Kennedy Administration was preoccupied with two large issues: the civil rights crusade at home and the Cold War abroad, with Cuba as its central flashpoint. Oswald was obsessed with Cuba and the Cold War, while JFK's domestic supporters focused on civil rights and the injustice of the racial caste system in the South.
Kennedy failed to oust Castro in 1961 in a U.S.-sponsored invasion of the island carried out by Cuban exiles opposed to the regime. In response, and on Castro's invitation, the Soviet Union placed offensive missiles in Cuba, thereby provoking a crisis in 1962 that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet Union withdrew its missiles and Kennedy pledged to abandon efforts to overthrow Castro's government by force. But the war of words between the two governments continued, and so did clandestine plots (unknown to the public at that time but revealed in the 1970s) by the Kennedy Administration to assassinate Castro. In late April 1963, Castro asserted that the United States may have given up plans to invade Cuba but had continued to sponsor plots to assassinate Cuban leaders. His remarks were made in response to Kennedy's observation the previous day that Castro would no longer be in power in five years. Returning to that theme in early September, Castro stated in an interview that "United States leaders should be mindful that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe." A transcript of the interview was circulated by the Associated Press and published in many American newspapers, including the local paper in New Orleans where Oswald was then living. It was probably this statement that sent Oswald off on his urgent trip to Mexico City in search of a visa to travel to Cuba.
U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed at this escalation in Castro's rhetoric and the implied threat conveyed through these comments. Was Castro aware of U.S. plots to assassinate him? If so, how did he know? Did he intend to retaliate by organizing reciprocal plots against American leaders? They concluded that among various things Castro might do, he was unlikely to risk an assassination attempt on a major U.S. leader. In any case, Castro's threats had little effect on Kennedy's determination to get rid of him. On November 18, four days before he was killed, Kennedy delivered a speech in Miami in which he described the Castro government as "a small band of conspirators [that] has stripped the Cuban people of their freedom." He pledged to restore U.S. assistance and friendship "once Cuban sovereignty has been restored." An admirer of Castro and other third-world revolutionaries, Oswald was acutely attentive to the smoldering war between the U.S. and Cuban governments and to the personal and ideological war of words between Castro and Kennedy.
The JFK assassination was thus an event in the Cold War, but it was interpreted by the liberal leadership of the nation as an event in the civil rights crusade. This interpretation sowed endless confusion as to the motives of the assassin and the meaning of the event. It made little logical sense to claim that Kennedy was a martyr to the cause of civil rights while acknowledging that the assassin was a Communist and a supporter of Fidel Castro. In deciding which of the two should go—the facts or the interpretation—many decided to jettison the facts, or at least to ignore them. Even the Warren Report, though setting forth conclusive evidence that Oswald acted on his own (without any Cuban or Soviet assistance) in killing President Kennedy, contributed to the confusion by suggesting that he did so for a mix of personal reasons unrelated to his Communist ideology or his admiration for Castro. In this sense, the Report carried forward the "official" view that required the suppression of ideological motives in the assassination. Before long the vacuum of meaning surrounding the assassination was filled in by a host of conspiracy theories claiming that JFK was a victim of an elaborate plot orchestrated by right-wing elements in American life. The fruitless 50-year debate over "who killed Kennedy?" developed as a direct consequence of the tendentious interpretation assigned to the assassination in 1963. There would never have been any such debate nor any speculation about conspiracies had President Kennedy been killed by a right-winger whose guilt was confirmed by the same evidence as condemned Lee Harvey Oswald.
Untruth and Consequences
Robert Caro, in the latest installment of his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, writes that the period immediately following the Kennedy assassination was Johnson's finest hour. Caro, who is decidedly negative about Johnson's career as a whole, gives him high marks for holding the country together in a time of crisis. In his view, Johnson tamped down Cold War tensions that might have gotten out of control in response to Kennedy's death, skillfully used the symbolism of "Kennedy as martyr" to generate the political momentum needed to pass his civil rights bill, and put the Democratic Party in a position to claim a sweeping victory in the 1964 elections. The civil rights interpretation of the assassination may have been a lie, but if so it was a "noble lie" because it brought about a great deal of good while causing little in the way of offsetting damage.
This argument might make sense if one quarantined the effects of the assassination to the next 12- or 18-month period, when President Johnson and a Democratic Congress pushed through the Civil Rights Act, a Keynesian tax cut, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid programs, and countless other pieces of reformist legislation. Kennedy's death and Johnson's skillful handling of the transition provided the necessary momentum for these liberal victories. But these legislative breakthroughs in 1964 and 1965 turned out to be the high-water mark for post-war liberalism. Before long, the deeper implications of Kennedy's death set in, with lasting consequences for the liberal movement and the nation at large.
Because of the prevailing interpretation, Kennedy's reputation as a liberal became magnified and Oswald's motives as a Communist diminished—an interpretive coupling with disorienting consequences. The first heightened the sense of loss felt as a result of Kennedy's sudden death; the second rendered that loss absurd or impossible to understand. The liberal myth that the national culture contributed to Kennedy's assassination encouraged an attitude of anti-Americanism that permeated the radical and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, and in fact never entirely disappeared from the worldview of the American Left.
Within a few years, radical ideas and revolutionary leaders—Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro among them—enjoyed a greater vogue in the United States than at any previous time in our history, converting college students by the thousands to an anti-American and anti-capitalist creed. Before long those students were taking over campuses and joining protest movements in support of a host of radical causes. Socialism and revolution—goals that Kennedy resolutely fought against—were the watchwords of the New Left that emerged within a few years of his death.
By the time of Martin Luther King's assassination in early 1968 the country was far along in a process of unraveling. The violence and disorder that Americans witnessed on college campuses and in major urban centers made the earlier antics of the far Right look like child's play. No one could any longer say that the main threat to public order and democratic civility came from the far Right. A few days after President Kennedy was killed James Reston wrote in the New York Times, "The death of President Kennedy and the shock of the brutality that caused his death have changed the direction of American politics from extreme conflict toward moderation." It would be hard to find a political prediction that turned out to be more profoundly mistaken. In the 1960s, following Kennedy's death and partly as a consequence of it, radicals began to compete with liberals as spokesmen for the American Left.
The assumption of national guilt, which surfaced in innocent form in the wake of Kennedy's death, spread quickly through the institutions of politics, academe, and journalism that shaped liberal culture. The United States—"Amerika" in the lexicon of the New Left—was now an out of control colossus, a world superpower that suppressed third-world peoples abroad and minorities at home. The attributes that Americans thought were most valuable about their nation—its prosperity, market economy, and representative political institutions—the radicals denounced as wicked or hypocritical. The reformist spirit in American liberalism had been pragmatic and forward-looking (and well represented by John F. Kennedy), but it now appeared tired and complacent when set alongside these radical critiques of American life. The friction between the older liberalism and the new radicalism created a rupture within the Democratic Party that was fully on display in the general mayhem that attended the party's national convention in Chicago in 1968.
In just a few years, from 1963 to 1968, the liberal movement, under pressure from the new radicalism, absorbed a skeptical disposition toward the American past and the major institutions of American society. It would not be an exaggeration to label this disposition "anti-American." Both the radicals and the liberals, despite disagreements over style and strategy, agreed that real change must come about not through programmatic reforms but through cultural criticism that leads to a revolution in thought and conduct.
The new mood was at odds with the genuine convictions of John F. Kennedy even though many who upheld this indictment of the United States continued to look back on JFK as the ideal liberal statesman. In a bizarre paradox, Kennedy's archenemy, Fidel Castro, was elevated to a status of revolutionary hero by many of those young people who mourned JFK's death in 1963. Even more bizarrely, Kennedy's assassination came to be cited by the radical Left as a principal exhibit in their indictment of the national culture.
Distrust and Division
The passage of five decades does not appear to have dimmed the public's fascination with President Kennedy and the Kennedy family. According to Bowker's Books in Print, some 1,400 volumes about JFK and his assassination have been published since 1963, with many more bound to appear this year to mark the anniversary of his death. In a Gallup Poll taken in 2003, American adults ranked JFK second among all former presidents behind only Abraham Lincoln; there have been other polls in which Kennedy was ranked as the greatest of all American presidents. Democratic candidates for president since the 1960s—including especially George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry—have persistently tried to outdo one another in associating themselves with JFK's legacy. Barack Obama's candidacy received an early boost when the Kennedy family endorsed him as the candidate most likely to carry forward the mantle. The salacious revelations over the years about scandals in the Kennedy White House have done little to dim the luster of the man's name.
All of these associations are tainted and distorted by the myths surrounding the Kennedy assassination, which is coming into view as one of the signal events in the post-war era that divided the nation and introduced an abiding element of confusion, bitterness, and distrust into national life. The assignment of guilt for Kennedy's death to the nation at large; the belief that there had to be something deeply wrong with the country in order for such an event to have occurred; the search for conspiracies to account for the assassination; the claims that a distinguished body of American leaders deliberately covered up the truth behind the event; the denial that Communism or the Cold War could have played any role in the tragedy; the emphasis on civil rights as the political context in which the event should be understood—all of these contributed to the poisoning of the political atmosphere in the United States for decades afterwards.
It was wrong for national leaders in 1963 to invent a story of President Kennedy's assassination that deflected responsibility from the real assassin to the nation's culture or to a group of Americans who played no role in the president's death. In formulating a story that fit comfortably with the assumptions of the time, even though it was at variance with the facts, they sowed the seeds for distrust and division in the body politic that are still with us today.