Sigh, Mark's post below is so exhausting. FWIW, from my book:
They set about creating the fable that Kennedy died battling “hate”—established
code, then and now, for the political right. The story became legend because liberals were desperate to imbue Kennedy’s assassination with a more exalted and politically useful meaning. Over and over again, the entire liberal establishment, led by the New York Times—and even the pope!—denounced the “hate” that claimed Kennedy’s life. The Supreme Court justice Earl Warren summed up the conventional wisdom—as he could always be counted upon to do—when he theorized that the “climate of hatred” in Dallas—code for heavy right-wing and Republican activity—moved Lee Harvey Oswald to kill the president.
The fact that Oswald was a communist quickly changed from an inconvenience to proof of something even more sinister. How, liberals asked, could a card-carrying Marxist murder a liberal titan on the side of social progress? The fact that Kennedy was a raging anticommunist seemed not to register, perhaps because liberals had convinced themselves, in the wake of the McCarthy era, that the real threat to liberty must always come from the right. Oswald’s Marxism sent liberals into even deeper denial, their only choice other than to abandon anti-anti-communism. And so, over the course of the 1960s, the conspiracy theories metastasized, and the Marxist gunman became a patsy. “Cui bono?” asked the Oliver Stones then and ever since. Answer: the military-industrial complex, allied with the dark forces of reaction and intolerance, of course. Never mind that Oswald had already tried to murder the former army major general and prominent right-wing spokesman Edwin Walker or that, as the Warren Commission would later report, Oswald “had an extreme dislike of the rightwing.”
Amid the fog of denial, remorse, and confusion over the Kennedy assassination, an informal strategic response developed that would serve the purposes of the burgeoning New Left as well as assuage the consciences of liberals generally: transform Kennedy into an allpurpose martyr for causes he didn’t take up and for a politics he didn’t subscribe to.
Indeed, over the course of the 1960s and beyond, a legend grew up around the idea that if only Kennedy had lived, we would never have gotten bogged down in Vietnam. It is a central conceit of Arthur Schlesinger’s Robert Kennedy and His Times. Theodore Sorensen, Tip O’Neill, and countless other liberals subscribed to this view. A popular play on Broadway, MacBird, suggested that Johnson had murdered JFK in order to seize power. But even Robert F. Kennedy conceded in an oral history interview that his brother never seriously considered withdrawal and was committed to total victory in
Vietnam. Kennedy was an aggressive anti-communist and Cold War hawk. He campaigned on a fictitious “missile gap” with the Soviets in a largely successful effort to move to Richard Nixon’s right on foreign policy, tried to topple Castro at the Bay of Pigs, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, and got us deep into Vietnam. A mere three and a half hours before Kennedy died, he was boasting to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce that he had increased defense spending on a massive scale, including a 600 percent increase on counterinsurgency special forces in South Vietnam. The previous March, Kennedy had asked Congress to spend fifty cents of every federal dollar on defense.
The Kennedy myth also veers sharply from reality when it comes to the issue of race. The flattering legend is that Kennedy was an unalloyed champion of civil rights. Supposedly, if he had lived, the racial turmoil of the 1960s could have been avoided. The truth is far more prosaic. Yes, Kennedy pushed for civil rights legislation, and he deserves credit for it. But he was hardly breaking with the past. In the supposedly reactionary 1950s, Republicans had carried most of the burden of fulfilling the American promise of equality to blacks. Eisenhower had pushed through two civil rights measures over strong opposition from southern Democrats, and in particular Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who fought hard to dilute the legislation.
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