Review of ‘Camelot and the Cultural Revolution’ by James Piereson


Book 1 James Piereson, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, 2nd ed. (New York: Encounter Books, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

Had Lee Harvey Oswald been a member of the John Birch Society or Ku Klux Klan—or even just a disaffected Southern cracker—the historiography of John F. Kennedy’s assassination would not have been what it has been for the last 50 years, namely, the endless search for a conspiracy. Moreover, the politics of the last 50 years would have been different from what they have been, what with the “vital center” of liberalism steadily losing ground to the New Left.

That these two would-not-have-beens are related is the thesis of James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. Piereson is the president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Camelot originally appeared in 2007 but has been reissued with a new Foreword in time for the assassination’s 50th anniversary. Its argument is, to my mind, convincing.

Take the first counterfactual. In the aftermath of the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy, liberal politicians, and their media courtiers made the argument that a right-wing “climate of hate” was to blame for Kennedy’s death. More generally, America’s predilection for violence had caused the gruesome event. An individual was not ultimately responsible for Kennedy’s death; “they” (the right wing) were. “We” (violence-prone Americans) were. It goes without saying, of course, that there was a particularly noxious climate of hate in Dallas. And Southern states especially had a penchant for unleashing violence against African Americans and other proponents of civil rights.

But here’s the thing: Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-winger. Indeed, several months prior to assassinating Kennedy, he tried to assassinate that notorious John Bircher and advocate of segregation, Gen. Edwin Walker. Moreover, Oswald held the correct opinions on civil rights—that is, he supported them. Rather, far from being a right-winger, Oswald was a man of the Left. He was a Marxist, a communist, an erstwhile defector to the Soviet Union, and a fulsome supporter of Fidel Castro. Oswald assassinated Kennedy, most likely, because of the latter’s prosecution of the Cold War against Castro.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy and bien-pensant liberals felt that Cold War martyrdom was an undesirable legacy for JFK. So, she recast his assassination as a martyrdom for civil rights. JFK was a new Arthur, his White House a new Camelot, and his support for civil rights “a candle in the wind” reminding others of what could have been had he lived.

But the myth of Camelot introduced a high level of cognitive dissonance into the era’s politics. The facts of the assassination did not match the dominant liberal interpretation of them. So, conspiracy theories began to rise to square that circle. Additionally, had JFK been seen as a Cold War martyr, blame for his death would’ve fallen outside the country. Its source would’ve been external. But because liberalism portrayed him as a civil rights martyr, blame for his death came to be seen as internal—to the right-wing’s “climate of hate,” first and foremost, and to the nation’s predilection for violence secondarily. This inward critique poisoned relationships along the political spectrum by blaming the Right for an act it had not committed, and it set the tone for the blame-America-first rhetoric and actions of the emerging New Left.

Placing blame for JFK’s assassination squarely on Lee Harvey Oswald does not, of course, exonerate the South of its “climate of hate” or predilection for violence against civil rights advocates. Those were very real things. But it does put the blame where it belongs—on an individual rather than a conspiracy, on a communist rather than an opponent of civil rights. Placing the blame rightly probably—undoubtedly?—would’ve changed the subsequent politics of the era. Less anti-Americanism, less infatuation with Marxist liberation movements, less anti-anti-communism.

Unfortunately, history cannot be undone. So we are left with an endless—and fruitless—search for conspiracies behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination, not to mention a poisoned politics in which the Left blames the Right for the crime of one of its own. Camelot and the Cultural Revolution is a valuable revisionist aid against the misremembering of the past, and is therefore highly recommended.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Camelot and the Cultural Revolution’ by James Piereson

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  1. I can understand some of Piereson’s argument as plausible, except that conspiracy theories in our nation tend to have a much more independent life politically. Unless he has demonstrated empirical evidence to the end that the conspiracies have originated on the left, then he has merely added to the conspiratorial theories and not solved them. One could argue, as he does, that there was some left blaming the right for the assassination back then, but the life of this conspiracy is as much embedded in the penchant for conspiracy in our culture and that is not so easily relegated to a political left-right analysis. Conspiracy theories arise in part out of fear, especially fear of change or uncertainty, and are not necessarily based on cold rationalization. That, I believe, accounts for the assassination conspiratorial theories having as much life on the right as on the left, if not more.

    1. Howard:

      In my review, I did not state that the conspiracy theories are coming from the Left. Nor does Piereson, as far as I can tell, say that the conspiracy theories come exclusively from the left. He does note, however, that conspiracy theorizing, which liberals such as Richard Hofstadter claimed was the province of the Right, increasingly came to be done on the left as well after JFK’s assassination.

      The point of my review, and the point of Piereson’s book, is that conspiracy theorizing would not have become necessary had the White House and the media placed the blame for JFK’s assassination exclusively on Lee Harvey Oswald, rather than on “the climate of hate” on the Right. Both Jacqueline Kennedy and her media courtiers cultivated the Camelot image, that is, JFK as Arthur in the civil rights movement, because she felt it was a more appropriate image for her dead husband than that of a cold warrior. Pres. Johnson downplayed Oswald’s attachment to communism for political reasons. The FBI downplayed his attachment to communism for institutional reasons, namely, it had seriously flubbed up in its efforts to monitor him. But once you get the major organs of government and the media creating a false story about the president’s assassination, conspiracy theorizing is the natural result.

      For the record, JFK was not a civil rights pioneer. He was however a pretty strong cold warrior.

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