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The Culture of Conspiracy
By James Piereson
This week is the anniversary of the tragic day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on the streets of Dallas. Looking back, we can see that Kennedy's death marked a turning point, when the political consensus of the time gave way to the confrontational politics that we associate with the 1960s. The upheavals that followedalong with the bitter partisanship that disfigured political life in the last third of the century, and whose echoes we still hear todaycan be traced back to that day in Dallas.
The terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, is the only other event in the modern era that compares with the Kennedy assassination in terms of its shattering impact on public opinion. And there are parallels: The 9/11 attacks, like the Kennedy case, stimulated conspiracy theories claiming that either the U.S. government knew what was coming, or that somehow America itself was responsible.
Both events were expected to have unifying political effectsbut both soon gave way to intensifying periods of political conflict. The extreme rhetoric of the 1960s, in which leaders were cast as "war criminals" and America was spelled with a "k," is echoed today in claims that President Bush or neoconservatives lied or manipulated the nation into war.
Opinion polls routinely show that more than two-thirds of Americans believe Kennedy was cut down by a conspiracy engineered by organized crime, the CIA or FBI, or right-wing groups upset by Kennedy's liberal policies. Most believe the Warren Commission covered up the truth by concluding Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Such suspicions encouraged the conviction that the national government is corrupt and untrustworthyand also that the nation itself was in some way responsible for Kennedy's death.
The reality is otherwise. As with the attacks of 9/11, events beyond the shores of the U.S. played a larger role in the Kennedy assassination than most Americans would like to believe; and President Kennedy, far from being a liberal idealist, was more of a practical reformer who never got too far out front of public opinion.
Consider the Cold War and civil rights, the two great issues of his presidency. Cuba was the flashpoint of Cold War politics during his term in office. The Cuban Missile crisis, during which Kennedy induced the Soviet Union to withdraw offensive missiles from Cuba, gave him a conspicuous diplomatic victory in a most dangerous nuclear confrontation. Violence against civil rights activists across the South was the most pressing domestic issue in the months leading up to the assassination.
In response to the escalating domestic tensions, Kennedy proposed a sweeping civil rights bill in June 1963. In response to the communist threat, he continued to look for ways to get rid of Castro in the wake of the missile crisis.
But the meaning of the assassination in light of these two critical issues was completely muddied in the immediate aftermath of the event. National leaders and journalists interpreted it in the context of the civil rights strugglerather than the Cold War. And this utter misinterpretation has had a damaging effect on Americans' image of themselves and their country.
Oswald was arrested by Dallas police within an hour of the assassination. The evidence against him was overwhelming. His rifle fired the shots that killed the president; spent shells from the rifle were found in the building where he worked; he was seen in that area before the shooting; witnesses on the street saw a man firing from a sixth floor window. Based on a description, a policeman stopped Oswald while he was walking in another section of the city. Oswald shot the policeman and then fled to a nearby movie theater, where he was captured. For those who weigh the actual evidence, there can be little doubt that Oswald was the assassin.
However: Oswald was a dedicated communist who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 out of disgust with American capitalism. After becoming disillusioned with Soviet life, he returned to the U.S. in 1962. In early 1963, he bought a scoped rifle through the mail and soon used it to fire a shot (which missed) at retired general Edwin Walker, the head of the John Birch Society in Dallas. In the summer of 1963, Oswald was active in street demonstrations in support of Castro. In September 1963, he visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City seeking a travel visa that would allow him to travel to Cuba.
Oswald was among the radicals of the time who saw Third World revolutionaries like Castro as the wave of the communist future. He was well aware of Kennedy's efforts to overthrow Castro's regime. As a Senate investigative committee suggested in 1975, Oswald shot Kennedy to interrupt his administration's plans to assassinate Castro or to overthrow his regime in Cuba.
Ignoring Oswald's communist links, journalists and political leaders quickly claimed the president was a martyr to civil rights. Earl Warren said that Kennedy had "suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." Martin Luther King said the assassination had to be viewed against the backdrop of violence against civil rights marchers in the South. James Reston wrote in the New York Times that "something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order."
The consensus opinion was that Kennedy was a victim of hate and bigotry, a casualty of his support for civil rights. The Cold War and Kennedy's ongoing feud with Castro were rarely mentioned as factors behind the assassination. The reasons? Mrs. Kennedy wanted her husband remembered as a modern-day Abraham Lincoln. Lyndon Johnson feared complicating relations with the Soviet Union. Liberals feared a replay of the McCarthy period, when the Wisconsin senator inflamed public opinion about fears of domestic communism.
Among the other reasons: Robert Kennedy did not wish to call attention to the administration's clandestine efforts to overthrow or assassinate Castro. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, feared that his agency might be blamed for incompetence if the public believed that a communist subversive had found a way to assassinate the president.
This obfuscationwhich attributed the assassination to "causes" other than the real oneshad far-reaching effects. The claim that Kennedy was a victim of the civil rights struggle gave rise to speculation about conspiracies that exonerated Oswald while pointing the finger of blame in other directions. The Soviet Union, along with the world-wide left, encouraged speculation that far right groups or the CIA were the true assassins.
The suggestion, no less than the fact, that the assassin was a communist was unwelcome in many circles. If Oswald had been a reactionary rather than a communist, there would not have been the kind of wild speculations about who or what was responsible for the president's murder.
Secretary of State Rice asked rhetorically a few years ago, "When will we stop blaming ourselves for 9/11?" A similar question might have been asked decades ago about the Kennedy assassination. In both cases the United States was attacked by avowed enemies, yet many were convinced that we had done it to ourselves.
James Piereson is a senior fellow at
the Manhattan Institute and author of "Camelot and the Cultural
Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American
Liberalism" (Encounter Books, 2007).
©2007 The Wall Street Journal
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