The thesis of James Piereson’s provocative and well-researched book, “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” is that the assassination of John F. Kennedy “opened up a break with the American past and a rupture in the evolving world of liberal ideals and idealism.”
Mr. Piereson debunks all conspiracy theories of the tragic event in Dallas and says repeatedly that JFK was shot by a frustrated communist, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone. Everyone agrees that Dallas was a profound shock to the American people, and to millions abroad who underestimated the strength of American democracy or the resilience of its people. Some feared a drastic change in U.S. foreign policy or even a coup d’etat.
Mr. Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, calls his book “an extended essay of the effects of the Kennedy assassination on the foundational assumptions of American liberalism… that governed liberal thought in the postwar period.” Quite a task. He acknowledges that it is impossible to “tease out the effects of the assassination from overlapping events that also shaped the history of that time,” but insists that Dallas was “a decisive factor.” Like all analysts and historians he faces the ever-present problem of multiple causation.
The author frequently ties JFK’s assassination to that of Lincoln, whom Walt Whitman rightly called the “redeemer president,” an appellation hardly appropriate to the young Kennedy. He says the great difference between the two presidents is that Lincoln “died at his moment of victory” while JFK was killed before he was able to achieve any great success. Lincoln was assassinated at the end of a civil war, Kennedy at the beginning of a long-running culture war.” He says that Dallas “probably reinforced conservative assumptions every bit as it undermined liberal assumptions.”
Despite his strenuous effort, Mr. Piereson never defines clearly the parameters of the complex war that pitted conservative and mainstream Americans against what Daniel Boorstin once called the “new barbarians.” The complexity of this ideological war is illuminated by Gertrude Himmelfarb’s brilliant book “One Nation, Two Cultures” (1999).
Mr. Piereson insists that Kennedy loyalists, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen, sought to use Dallas to advance a more moderate liberal agenda. At the same time, the 1960s radicals, buttressed by disillusionment over Vietnam, “black power” demands and the “free speech” movement, sought to buttress their extremist agenda.
Mr. Piereson provides many rich insights into this ideological struggle. From the end of World War II until the assassination in Dallas, “political violence in the United States generally emanated from the far right” and thereafter “it came largely from the left.”
After Kennedy’s death, “liberals recast their understanding of reform from an instrument of progress to an instrument for punishment.” Jimmy Carter’s “Punitive Liberalism” was at odds with “the forward-looking optimism” of JFK. Finally, in 1980 the conservatives led by Ronald Reagan seized “the mantle of optimism and progress that had been abandoned by the liberals.”
Quoting Mr. Schlesinger’s appraisal of the Camelot legacy, especially JFK’s willingness to “fight for reason against extremism and mythology,” Mr. Piereson concludes that those JFK admirers who transmute his assassination into “an indictment of the nation” are dead wrong.
This well-written and well-documented book challenges many prevailing assumptions about Camelot and its aftermath and will stir controversy among historians, journalists and scribblers who like me lived in Washington during the seductive Kennedy years. I recommend it.
The book makes brief reference to U.S. foreign policy, mainly the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis and JFK’s efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Surprisingly perhaps, he makes no reference to Kennedy’s capitulation in June 1961 to Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to string a barbed wire fence through the middle of Berlin to prevent the flood of East Germans to the West and thus isolate West Berlin. Writing in 1983, Paul Johnson, the British historian, bluntly called JFK a failed president, especially in foreign affairs. He cited JFK’s decision not to bulldoze the coils of barbed wire strung between East and West Berlin in what eventually became the Berlin Wall. This barrier authorized by Khrushchev, he writes, was illegal, “and Truman and Eisenhower would have certainly knocked it down.”
Ernest W. Lefever is founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.