Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series of papers delivered at a symposium sponsored by The New Criterion on “The Kennedy Phenomenon” on November 19, 2013. Additional papers from the symposium will be published in future issues.
Americans paused a few months ago to mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination and to reflect upon the meaning of the event for the 1960s and the post-Vietnam era in general. Everyone agreed that it was a signal event that changed the trajectory of national politics. Yet there was little agreement as to how it did so and how, fifty years later, Kennedy’s death should be interpreted or understood. Judging by the anniversary ceremonies, the passage of five decades has not dimmed the public’s fascination with President Kennedy and the Kennedy family or allayed the confusion and controversy surrounding the assassination.
All of this makes JFK’s murder unique among other politically consequential assassinations that have occurred throughout history. The assassination of Caesar led to a long civil war and eventually to the defeat of the republican faction in Rome. The assassination of Lincoln complicated efforts to return the southern states to the Union on the basis of civil rights for all. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 ignited a series of events that led to a disastrous world war. No one doubts that these assassinations were consequential in the extreme: They produced powerful reactions against the assassins and the parties with which they were associated. There was no doubt in any of these cases as to who the assassins were and why they committed their crimes. The Kennedy assassination was different: Its consequences flowed from widespread public confusion about the meaning of the event, the individuals or groups responsible for it, and what John F. Kennedy really stood for.
Americans still debate whether President Kennedy was taken down by a lone assassin or by a conspiracy of ideologically motivated partisans, and whether he was an idealistic reformer concerned mainly with civil rights or a moderate politician of his time preoccupied with the challenges of the Cold War and economic growth. One might have expected that after fifty years a general consensus would have emerged about the man and the event. It has not happened. Why does the Kennedy assassination still provoke so much controversy? The answers can be found in events that took place in 1963 in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.
On the day after the assassination, The New York Times ran a banner headline across the front page: “KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER AS HE RIDES IN CAR IN DALLAS; JOHNSON SWORN IN ON PLANE.” In the middle column the editors ran a signed article by a reporter on the scene about Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect arrested for the crime. The headline read “Leftist Accused,” with the subtitle “Figure in Pro-Castro Group is Charged.” Oswald, according to the article, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and returned to the Dallas area in 1962. Since returning to the United States, he had been active in a pro-Castro organization called Fair Play for Cuba. Several fellow employees placed Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where police found the rifle used in the assassination, while witnesses on the street reported seeing a gunman firing from an upper-floor window in that building. Oswald fled before police could seal off the building, but he was arrested an hour after the assassination in another section of the city after a policeman was gunned down on the street. Witnesses to that crime directed police to a nearby movie theater where Oswald was arrested still carrying the pistol used to kill the policeman. Within hours local police identified the rifle used in the assassination as belonging to Oswald and ballistics tests confirmed that the bullets that killed President Kennedy were fired from his weapon. The hard evidence, as related by the reporter in Dallas, pointed strongly to Oswald as the assassin with his motives linked somehow to Castro, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War.
Adjacent to that article on the front page, readers found an opinion article penned by James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of the Times and at that time the dean of national political journalists. The article was titled, “Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation.” Reston wrote:
America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.
Reston seemed to be searching for an explanation for the assassination that reached beyond the assassin and his possible motives. “The irony of the President’s death,” he continued, “is that his short Administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character.” Reston went on to observe that “from the beginning to the end of his Administration he was trying to tamp down the violence of extremists on the Right.” Reston suggested that the nation itself, in combination with violent tendencies from the radical right, was somehow responsible for the death of the president.
Two narratives of the assassination were thus juxtaposed on the front page of The New York Times on the day after the event. One was based upon the facts, which pointed to Oswald as the assassin and to the Cold War as the general context in which the event should be understood. The other was a political narrative, entirely divorced from the facts, that pointed to “extremists on the Right” and a national culture of violence as the culprits in the assassination. According to Reston’s interpretation, the assassination arose from domestic issues, with the civil rights crusade front and center.
The attentive reader would have noticed that there was a conflict between the two narratives such that both could not be true. He may have wondered which one would prevail in the days ahead as investigators sorted out the facts. If so, then he did not have to wait very long for an answer.
Upon hearing that President Kennedy had died, Chief Justice Earl Warren, soon to head the official commission that investigated the assassination, issued a statement to the press: “A great and good President,” he declared, “has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots.” A few hours later, Chet Huntley, the chief newscaster for NBC, told millions of viewers that the assassination had been brought about by “a sickening and ominous popularity of hatred” across the United States and by influential “pockets of hatred” within the country. The President’s death, he said, is a “thundering testimonial of what hatred comes to and the revolting excesses it perpetrates.” Both Huntley and Warren pointed to domestic factors as causes of the assassination.
Within days, Pat Brown, the governor of California, and Charles Taft, the 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 influential columnist Drew Pearson published a syndicated column under the title “Kennedy Victim of Hate Drive.” The Rev. 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 [Gov.] Barnett and [Gov.] Wallace,” referencing the pro-segregation stances of the governors of Mississippi and Alabama. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the assassination had to be viewed against the background of violence against civil rights workers across the American south. The New York Times published an editorial three days after the assassination (and a day after Oswald was shot while in police custody) titled “The Spiral of Hate,” in which the editors declared that “The shame all Americans must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down President Kennedy is multiplied by the monstrous murder of his accused assassin.” Many followed the logic of this indictment to conclude that all Americans were complicit in President Kennedy’s death because they had tolerated hatred and bigotry in their midst. This was the near-universal response to the assassination: A strain of bigotry and hatred in American culture was responsible for President Kennedy’s murder.
For his part, President Johnson saw that his job as national leader in that time of crisis was to attach some enduring meaning to the national tragedy. “John Kennedy had died,” he said later, “but 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 five days after the assassination, 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.” On the international front, Johnson also feared an escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union and another McCarthy-style “witch-hunt” against leftists should the public conclude that a Communist was responsible for the assassination. Johnson was well aware that Oswald’s pro-Communist background might provoke a backlash among the American people against the Soviet Union and Cuba. From Washington’s point of view, it was better to deflect blame for the assassination from Communism to some other unpopular target.
In doing so, the U.S. government adopted a line parallel to that promoted by the Soviet Union and Communists around the world. Given Oswald’s background, Soviet and Cuban leaders were understandably concerned that they might be blamed for the assassination. That would have been a reasonable inference from Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union and his work on behalf of Castro. The Soviet press soon issued statements to the effect that “rightists” were responsible for the assassination and that the arrest of Oswald was a plot to pin the blame on Communists. A Soviet spokesman said, “Senator Goldwater and other extremists on the right could not escape moral responsibility for the president’s death.” Castro said much the same thing: The assassination was a “Machiavellian” plan to discredit the Cuban government. Leftists around the world were quick to disown Oswald for fear that his deed would contaminate their cause.
These were the myths and legends that grew up around the assassination: That JFK was a victim of hatred and bigotry, a martyr in the crusade for racial justice, and a casualty of extremist politics from the right. This interpretation flowed naturally from the narrative Reston set forth on the day of the assassination. Strangely enough, they are still widely believed. For example, Taylor Branch, in his award-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr., summed up the liberal consensus that grew 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 the 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.
From this point of view, the assassination was an event in the civil rights crusade and President Kennedy was a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who was killed for his commitment to equal rights for all. A new book, Dallas, 1963, published in 2013 and widely reviewed, traced the assassination to “a climate of hatred” created by right-wing businessmen, religious leaders, and media moguls. On that interpretation, the city of Dallas, and the extremists who lived there, were responsible for the crime.
But the facts pointed in a different direction and to an entirely different interpretation: President Kennedy was a martyr in the Cold War struggle against Communism. The assassin was a Communist, or a “Marxist” as he liked to call himself. 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 or his hatred of the United States. By 1963 Oswald had transferred his political allegiance to Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba. Oswald was like many radicals of that era who rejected the bureaucratic Communism of the Soviet Union but embraced third world revolutionaries like Castro, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh as the harbingers of the socialist future.
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. Oswald hated the United States, the capitalist system, and everything associated with the “radical right.” He was a creature of the far left, but in contrast to academic or armchair radicals, he was on the lookout for opportunities to act out his ideological convictions.
In April of 1963, Oswald took a shot at retired Gen. Edwin Walker as the general sat at his dining table working on his 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 opposition to school integration and his demand for the overthrow of the Castro regime. A few weeks earlier Oswald had purchased a scoped rifle (later used to shoot President Kennedy) for the purpose of assassinating Gen. Walker. Oswald carefully staked out his prey and planned an escape route. One of the policemen who investigated the crime told reporters that the gunman “meant business” and that Walker was fortunate to have survived. It was not until after President Kennedy was killed that Dallas police found documents in the possession of Oswald’s wife that identified Oswald as Walker’s would-be assassin.
The next month, fearful that he might be identified as the assailant in the Walker shooting, Oswald left Dallas for New Orleans where in June of 1963 he established a local chapter of Fair Play for Cuba, a pro-Castro front group ostensibly dedicated to gaining diplomatic recognition for Castro’s regime. Oswald was filmed in New Orleans circulating leaflets on behalf of the Castro government and was jailed briefly following a street altercation with anti-Castro Cubans. Soon thereafter he appeared on a local television program to debate American policy toward Cuba and was embarrassed when one of his adversaries pointed out that he had earlier defected to the Soviet Union—a revelation that implied that Oswald’s organization was a Communist front and the Castro regime a “puppet” of the Soviet Union.
His campaign in New Orleans in ruins, Oswald left the city in late September to travel to Mexico City in pursuit of a visa that would permit him to travel to Cuba and then to the Soviet Union. It was already illegal for American citizens to travel to Cuba but supporters of the Cuban revolution circumvented that ban by travelling back and forth via Mexico City. Oswald took along a dossier of news clippings on his pro-Castro activities to establish his revolutionary bona fides with personnel at the Cuban and Soviet embassies. It was never clear to investigators why Oswald wanted to travel to Cuba, though his wife told them that he wanted to confer with Castro about how he might assist the Cuban revolution. Nevertheless, he returned to Dallas empty-handed after being told that his application would take weeks or months to process. He was still waiting for his application six weeks later when he read that President Kennedy’s forthcoming visit to Texas would include a motorcade through downtown Dallas and past the building where he worked.
Oswald’s motives in shooting President Kennedy were undoubtedly linked to a wish to interfere with Kennedy’s campaign to assassinate Castro or to overthrow his government. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy pledged to abandon efforts to overthrow Castro’s regime by force. But the war of words between the two governments continued, and so did clandestine plots (unknown to the public at that time) by the Kennedy administration to eliminate Castro by assassination. In early September, Castro (aware of these plots) declared in an interview with an American reporter that U.S. officials would not be safe if they continued efforts to assassinate Cuban leaders. A transcript of the interview was circulated in the United States on the Associated Press wire and published in the local paper in New Orleans where Oswald was then living. It may have been Castro’s remarks that sent Oswald off on his trip to Mexico City a few weeks later in pursuit of a travel visa. Investigators later speculated that Oswald read Castro’s remarks as a call to assassinate President Kennedy.
U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed at this escalation in Castro’s rhetoric and the implied threat conveyed by 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 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.” Kennedy pledged to restore U.S. assistance and friendship “once Cuban sovereignty has been restored.” Oswald, an admirer of Castro and other third-world revolutionaries, was acutely attentive to the smoldering war between the American 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 no logical sense to claim that Kennedy was a martyr in 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 eliminate the facts, or at least to ignore them. Even the Warren Report, while setting forth conclusive evidence that Oswald acted on his own in killing President Kennedy, contributed to the confusion by suggesting that he did so for a mix of personal reasons (he could not hold a job, he was having marital problems, etc.) 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 fifty-year debate over “Who killed Kennedy?” developed as a direct consequence from the tendentious interpretation assigned to the assassination in 1963. Needless to say, there never would 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.
The civil-rights interpretation of the assassination went hand in hand with the aim of Kennedy loyalists and the Kennedy family to portray JFK posthumously as a liberal hero and a martyr for liberal causes. Kennedy loyalists Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. soon published histories of the New Frontier in which they highlighted JFK’s liberal accomplishments and lamented all that was left undone by his premature death. Others maintained that he should be remembered next to Abraham Lincoln as one of the nation’s champions of racial equality. Mrs. Kennedy took the case further by suggesting that the Kennedy White House was comparable to King Arthur’s Camelot as a near-magical place guided by the highest ideals. “Grief nourishes myth,” as Schlesinger wrote in his history of the Kennedy years, and nowhere does it apply more accurately than to the crafting of the Kennedy legend in the aftermath of the assassination.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 7, on page 4
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