JOHN J. MILLER: You write of JFK’s assassination that “no other event in the postwar era, not even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has cast such a long shadow over our national life.” How did JFK’s murder change American politics and culture?
JAMES PIERESON: Kennedy’s assassination, happening the way it did, compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism that had been the governing philosophy of the nation since the time of the New Deal. It did this in two decisive ways: first, by compromising the faith of liberals in the future; second, by undermining their confidence in the nation. Kennedy’s assassination suggested that history is not in fact a benign process of progress and advancement, but perhaps something quite different. The thought that the nation itself was responsible for Kennedy’s death suggested that the United States, far from being a “city on a hill” and an example for mankind, as Kennedy had described it (quoting John Winthrop), was in fact something darker and more sinister in its deepest nature.
MILLER: How did this play out politically in the 1960s and beyond?
PIERESON: The conspiracy theories that developed afterwards reflected this thought. The Camelot legend further suggested that that the Kennedy years represented something unique that was now forever lost. Liberalism was thereafter overtaken by a sense of pessimism about the future, cynicism about the United States, and nostalgia for the Kennedy years. This was something entirely new in the United States. It was evident in the culture during the 1960s. George Wallace tried to confront it in the electoral arena in 1968, as did Richard Nixon — though it was somewhat difficult to do so because neither Lyndon Johnson nor Hubert Humphrey represented this new orientation. It was not until this mood of pessimism was brought into the government during the Carter administration that it could be directly confronted in the political arena, which is what Ronald Reagan in fact did.
MILLER: Isn’t it a little early to say that 11/22/63 mattered more than 9/11/01?
PIERESON: No. We know from looking back over the decades that Kennedy’s sudden death cast a long shadow over American life, which I have tried to describe. Many of us thought that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would also have great consequences for the way Americans looked at politics, the parties, and national security. In particular, some felt that the attacks might drive out of our politics the tone of anti-Americanism that had been a key feature of the American Left from the 1960s forward. That did not really happen. The liberal movement today remains far more the product of the 1960s than of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Indeed, the terrorist attacks now seem to have had very little effect on the thinking of American liberals who view the war on terror and the war in Iraq through the lenses of the Vietnam War. That is not true of conservatives. In that sense, the terrorist attacks have simply deepened the divide between liberals and conservatives. What is surprising, then, is what little enduring effect the terrorist attacks have had, particularly for liberals.
MILLER: Would liberalism have unraveled even if JFK had lived?
PIERESON: It is hard to say what would have happened if Kennedy had lived. He may have lost his popularity in a second term. He may have avoided the dead end in Vietnam. It’s hard to say. Kennedy was in the process of renewing liberalism when he was killed, expanding it into cultural areas beyond issues of economic security and national security. I am certain that liberalism would not have unraveled when it did and in the way that it did if Kennedy had lived. The assassination shattered its core assumptions.
MILLER: Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist. Have liberals been reluctant to accept this fact? And is their reluctance at the heart of all the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination?
PIERESON: Liberals who were rational and realistic accepted the fact that Oswald killed JFK but at the same time they were unable to ascribe a motive for his actions. They tended to look for sociological explanations for the event and found one in the idea that JFK was brought down by a “climate of hate” that had overtaken the nation. Thus they placed Kennedy’s assassination within a context of violence against civil rights activists. They had great difficulty accepting the fact that Kennedy’s death was linked to the Cold War, not to civil rights. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1,000-page history of the Kennedy administration, published in 1965, could not bring himself to mention Oswald’s name in connection with Kennedy’s death, though he spent several paragraphs describing the hate-filled atmosphere of Dallas at the time — suggesting thereby that Kennedy was a victim of the far right. The inability to come to grips with the facts of Kennedy’s death pointed to a deeper fault in American liberalism which was connected to its decline.
MILLER: It’s like that line from “Sympathy for the Devil,” by the Rolling Stones: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’/When after all, it was you and me.”
PIERESON: Yes, that song reflected a deep belief in liberal culture, that somehow “we” had killed the Kennedy’s — when in fact an anti-American Communist killed President Kennedy and a Palestinian nationalist killed Robert Kennedy, both in retaliation for American policies abroad. Oswald killed President Kennedy to interrupt his efforts to eliminate Castro; Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy because of Kennedy’s support for Israel. The irrationality of this belief was connected to the unraveling of liberalism, demonstrating that liberalism was not the rational doctrine that it claimed to be.
MILLER: Was JFK’s assassination more consequential than Abraham Lincoln’s?