The Kennedy assassination and extremism: From fringe to mainstream
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago this November 22, marked a watershed moment in American history. That event gave fresh impetus to paranoia and fears fueling conspiracy theories that continue to reverberate to this day.
Well before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, conspiracy theories comprised a powerful theme in American history. Since the seventeenth-century Puritan endeavor to execute a special covenant with God and create a spectacular “city on a hill” to show the Church of England and other apostate religious groups the path to righteousness, many Americans have cast adversaries in Manichaean terms. What historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the paranoid style in American politics” comprised a meta-history, featuring the fervid reactions of groups whose dislocation during war and domestic crises found outlets in charges that hostile groups stood hell-bent on destroying the Republic. From the nineteenth century on, nativist Americans exhibited hostility to such un-American threats as Catholics, Masons, Jews, Mormons, socialists, Asian and Southern European immigrants, and, of course, communists. And this is the short list.
Still, political extremism seemed by the 1950s and early 1960s primarily a feature of the political fringes. Groups like the John Birch Society warned of the dangers of fluoridated water; The Reverend David Noebel excoriated the threat posed by the Beatles; The Reverend Billy James Hargis preached the beauty of God’s divine plan to segregate blacks and whites. Such arguments were easily dismissed, laughable, the work of kooks, troglodytes, and disturbed individuals.
A half-century later, few people are laughing. For the current Republican Party indicates the extent to which conspiratorial images—which, of course, allow no compromise with the enemy--now dominate their political arsenal. Fifty years ago, the noisome grass-roots Tea Party, the perfervid pronouncements of politicians like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, and congressional attempts to bring down the administration of Barack Obama would have been part of a political gong show—not to be taken seriously.
We need to connect dots here, revisiting the era of the assassination and its aftermath, noting their importance for the conspiratorial thinking that today dominates the conservative wing of the Republican Party
With Kennedy’s death in Dallas, the notion of conspiracy moved permanently into the political mainstream. The assassination and its aftermath became a benchmark conundrum for anyone with even a faint interest in public life. Explanations of, and disagreement about, that iconic event are legion. They range from the Warren Report’s official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone to myriad conspiracy theories questioning the magic bullet theory and suggesting that Oswald was connected somehow to the Mafia, CIA, or other shadowy operatives.
It did not take long for this epochal event and its fallout to cause citizens to lose faith in the Federal Government and its ability to lead. This infusion of political extremism from the fringes to the marrow of American culture introduced a new urgency into questions of state and politics; it made their definition and resolution more difficult by defining them in conspiratorial terms; it gave a distinctly anti-political cast to the political process at large. It atomized the Left and ultimately galvanized the right. Most important, it suggested that candidates might win election by running against government.
The upheavals of the '60s were bipartisan
Within a decade the powerful political consensus that guided the nation since the 1930s itself became a casualty. This consensus eschewed ideology of far left and right, and valued pragmatism and civility in getting the job of government done; it extolled democratic capitalism and a two-party political system, which embraced factions covering the political spectrum from liberal to conservative; it touted the nation’s exceptional history and the promised American dream. And above all, the consensus stressed the importance of elites and experts. The people must trust their government. “Father Knows Best,” a well-known radio and TV show, epitomized this assumption.
Historians note that conspiracy charges and countercharges became important at high government levels before and after World War II. Democrats alleged the existence of links non-interventionists to Adolf Hitler before the conflict. Republicans, led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, questioned whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies facilitated Pearl Harbour and, after the war, helped deliver Eastern Europe to Joe Stalin and China to Mao Zedung. Still, big government survived.
In the years following the Kennedy assassination, however, both Republicans and Democrats found it impossible to avoid sea changes that forever altered America’s political topography. The upheavals that came to be known as “the '60s” were bipartisan, and they came to feature wide disagreement on first principles, with Kennedy’s demise a lingering shadow over what journalist Richard H. Rovere termed “a slum of a decade”.
First came the aborted Republican revolution of 1964, in which Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater wrested the presidential nomination from the so-called eastern liberal establishment, represented by moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton. Conservatives achieved this triumph through an unprecedented grass-roots strategy, ignoring elites, establishing and working through local and state organizations, and setting a precedent for a more recent politics.
Goldwater’s victory proved Pyrrhic. He shot from his lip, proved a poor campaigner, and gave Democrats the chance to portray him as an irresponsible leader. Goldwater did not repudiate support from the Far Right—the Birchers and Ku Klux Klan, for example—giving the motto, “In your heart you know he’s right!” dubious meaning. As he told the convention, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Goldwater also advanced the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a first-strike capacity. In response, Democrats ran one of the first media attack ads showing a young girl plucking a daisy, a bucolic scene, interrupted by an atomic explosion. They also gleefully pointed out how he went into Michigan and campaigned against unions, and Florida, where he lambasted government aid programs.
Goldwater lost that election—one of the worst defeats ever for Republicans. But he did garner nineteen million popular votes. More important he was the first Republican to capture the South—indicating significant regional hostility to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Racial politics soon became a permanent force within Republican ranks.
Pundits suggested that the GOP would never recover from its debacle. But they missed the emergence of a number of bright young organization men on the right, as well as the retirement, or defeat of several leading liberal and moderate Republicans. The latter, so important to a smoothly functioning democracy, especially in loyal opposition, served as a buffer against untamed ideology of the sort seemingly espoused by Goldwater. Soon, purged, defeated, or retired, the moderates (who in Canada would be called Progressive Conservatives) would become an endangered specie. And the Republicans would become a haven for the right.
Party leaders failed to heed evolving trends
Some forty thousand books later, the Kennedy myth called Camelot lies in tatters. Yet there remains much that we do not know about the intersection of his personal and public lives. In 1963, however, we do know that his violent death cast his successor as the epitome of reason, moderation, and self-control. Johnson grasped the reins of government from the fallen hero; he could be counted upon to lead the Republic in prudent domestic and foreign policy directions.
This scenario did not play out as anticipated. What happened to the Republican Party in 1964 happened to the Democrats in 1968 and—in a different and no less significant way—in 1972. For most party leaders failed to heed evolving forces stemming, ironically, from the very idealism that JFK and the New Frontier let loose. Almost overnight, it seemed, progressive-minded citizens young and old, from Berkeley radical Mario Savio to folksinger Pete Seeger, challenged social mores and cultural practices that blocked change. This multi-pronged movement brought together diverse and often brawling groups—primarily interested in achieving civil rights and economic equality for minorities, student representation in increasingly alienating university environments, and a more ethical American presence in the world. However they critiqued the political establishment, especially the Democratic Party, they shared a commitment to activism, community organization, and a politics that would live up to its idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric.
By 1967-68, the United States was mired in an unwinnable war in Vietnam; racism had proved itself far more than a Southern issue; groups like the Students for a Democratic Society, Black Panthers, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee questioned and then rejected working within the system, and many citizens recoiled at what seemed an unstoppable cycle of violence. Riots in many cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK’s brother, Robert (which reopened old wounds and old questions), and the Democratic convention in Chicago that turned into a bloody confrontation between police and antiwar demonstrators left the impression that the United States was self-destructing.
Chicago symbolized a nation in crisis, and offered evidence that the Democrats would not heed their progressive wing. Republicans, apparently dead in the water four years earlier, resuscitated Republican warhorse Richard M. Nixon, whose campaign emphasized renewing respect for patriotism and the rule of law. In 1968, the nation swung rightward, a shift accelerated by third party candidate George Wallace of Alabama, whose anti-political rhetoric outdid Nixon’s, with its attacks on elite northern white liberals, “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and protesters generally. “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car,” Wallace advised, “it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.”
Nixon promised to bring Americans together, but his administration ended ignominiously, with the Watergate scandal, a catchall reference to numerous illegal activities designed to destabilize the Democratic Party. Indeed, his administration engaged in the most unlawful behavior in the Republic’s history. While touting law and order, Nixon grievously injured the presidency with his transgressions. He resigned office in 1974, but along the way became known for an obsessive concern with his adversaries that epitomized the paranoid style. His “enemies project,” for example, linked the Kennedys, whom he despised, with liberal journalists, Daniel Ellsberg (who released the Pentagon Papers), entertainers like Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand, Joe Namath, the professional football player, and Fidel Castro. And, of course, there was his Democratic opponent two years earlier, the progressive George McGovern, whom Nixon identified hypocritically, as the candidate of “ass, grass, and amnesty.”
Conspiracy theories became mainstream
As that well-known philosopher Yogi Berra once noted, in confronting the current political malaise, we sense “déjà vu all over again.” As in the decade after JFK’s demise, citizens and politicians alike increasingly defined complicated questions in overly simple ways, finding malicious patterns of meaning where none existed. Erstwhile liberals who had remained anti-communist and were repulsed by African American and student activism moved into the Republican fold. And liberals who remained came to defend their cause within a frame of “identity politics”—defined by race, sexual preference, lifestyle, and other specific categories that undercut the chance to form a united political front.
Nor did Right-wing grass-roots organizers and organizations disappear. Girded by the infusion of energy provided by evangelical Christians, they stepped up their work on local and state levels. God was on the Republic’s side. And God did not approve Big Government. The demise of the Soviet Union—the quintessential ”evil empire”—in 1989 proved the point. Five years later, a right-wing landslide brought to Congress a group of Republicans whose views would be considered worthy of lunatic-fringe extremism as late as the 1960s, but were now members of the elite.
This group spent most of its time trying to oust President Bill Clinton, accusing him and his wife Hillary of numerous nefarious dealings. They never proved their charges, save the president’s sexual dalliance with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky. After Hillary stood by her man, and impeachment proceedings failed, Republican hatred for Clinton remained white hot. Paradoxically, though, although the president remained popular, the office of the presidency—and the perfervid Republican Congress that sought to do it in—took a huge hit.
The death of consensus politics
But the United States had changed. The liberal consensus, so important from Depression through the 1960s, had disappeared, as had the idea of a loyal opposition. Moderation and compromise now signified weakness. Pragmatism became a dirty word. Now, Republicans exhibited an increasing rigidity—and they were organized in their support of God and country, the National Rifle Association, and the limiting of government and taxes. Right-wing solutions to economic issues could be found in privatization, deregulation, unrestricted globalization, and the obliteration of unions. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck dominated radio and television talk shows; FOX News excoriated anything that might be tarred with a liberal epithet. The Right proved selective in its choices, for it also couched as moral evils social issues like abortion and gay marriage, and called for state intervention to prevent them.
The national celebration of consumerism and glorification of free market capitalism and all its accouterments became etched in bold relief following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That event, of the same sort of magnitude as the Kennedy assassination, also generated a wild variety of conspiracy theories and helped create an environment where conspiracy theorizing permeated film, TV, and other cultural products. President George W. Bush, the born-again Christian whose Texas background embraced most extremist values, oversaw the huge expansion of the American security state, utilizing FBI, CIA, and NSA channels, along with the new Transportation Safety Administration to spy indiscriminately to protect the Republic. Dark-skinned people and those who criticized the ensuing American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and there were many—had new reason to worry. With Hispanics, Asians, and other nonwhite groups becoming increasingly prominent, immigration and minority rights became lightning rods for the Right, whose nostalgic yearning to restore a simpler past and extol the White story reached from high school history books to university classrooms and to the White House. Tea Party Americanism finds much of its raison d’etre in racial hostility to the black president.
The Kennedy years began with great hope, with the president’s challenge for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Fifty years later, we behold something quite different—a Republican intransigence that allows only gridlock and recrimination. Nothing gets done, despite all there is to do. In “The Second Coming,” written in the wake of the Great War of 1914-1918, the poet W.B. Yeats observed, aptly of today’s politics as well: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” So it would seem.
Prof. Emeritus (History) Geoff Smith, a native of San Francisco, earned his degrees at UC Santa Barbara and Berkeley. He arrived at Queen's in 1969 and taught in the History Department and school of Kinesiology for almost forty years.