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Lincoln and Kennedy: A Tale of Two Assassinations

By James Piereson

Immediately after John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy, along with other members of the Kennedy family, decided that the slain president should be viewed, like Abraham Lincoln, as a martyr for civil rights and equal justice for all. The funeral rites for President Kennedy were organized on the model of Lincoln's, provoking continuous pronouncements by journalists and television commentators covering the funeral about the similarities between the two fallen leaders. Russell Baker, covering the mourning ceremonies for the New York Times, wrote that "the analogy to Lincoln's death must have been poignantly apparent to most of those who passed (Kennedy's) flag-draped coffin."

Few called attention to the disquieting fact that President Kennedy had been shot by a communist whose motives were probably linked more closely to the Cold War than to the civil rights struggle. Lee Harvey Oswald, the likely assassin, was no arm-chair or academic communist out to impress relatives or associates with his radical theories, but a dyed-in-the-wool communist who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and had spent nearly three years there before returning to the United States in 1962 with his Russian wife and infant child. During the months leading up to the assassination he had been active in a front group in New Orleans that defended Castro and attacked U.S. efforts to oust his communist regime in Cuba.

The attempt to portray President Kennedy as a modern-day Lincoln was inspired by the purest of motives but it turned out to have had the most unfortunate consequences for the nation and for the liberal movement that Kennedy represented. Kennedy's assassination, as it happened, was not at all like Lincoln's. The two shattering events had political consequences that were directly opposite of one another: Lincoln's assassination tended to unite the nation around the ideals of union, freedom, and emancipation; Kennedy's assassination divided the nation against itself, sowing endless division, confusion, and controversy that continued for a generation afterwards. Much of this was caused by the false portrayal of President Kennedy as a martyr for civil rights.

The historian Merrill Peterson remarked, in his fine book on Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 1994), that "the public remembrance of the past...is concerned less with establishing its truth than with appropriating it for the present." The man or woman on the street does not look back on history or on historical figures with the historian's concern with evidence and objective assessment. The memory of Lincoln was refracted through the lenses of his assassination and the final victory of the Union army. These events turned the politician who eight months earlier was certain that he would lose his bid for re-election into a martyr for the Union. Lincoln was the final casualty of the war and in that sense a symbol for everything it represented.

In a parallel way, Kennedy, after his sudden death and solemn funeral, was turned into something different in public memory from how he was understood in life. Like Lincoln, Kennedy too was viewed as a martyr, but in devotion to a most ambiguous cause. Here was a source of much bewilderment about the man and the event. What exactly did John F. Kennedy stand for? What was the link between the assassination and the ideals he stood for? The great difference between Lincoln and Kennedy is that the former died at his moment of victory while the latter was killed before he was able to achieve any great success. Lincoln was assassinated at the end of a Civil War, Kennedy at the beginning of a long-running cultural war. Lincoln was mourned but also celebrated for his magnificent achievement; Kennedy was mourned in a spirit of frustrated possibility and dashed hopes. This spirit, as things turned out, infected the liberal movement in America, and cast a pall over the nation in general in the tumultuous years that followed.

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Lincoln was assassinated by the itinerant actor and southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, Good Friday on the Christian calendar, while he and Mrs. Lincoln were watching a play from the presidential box at Ford's Theater. Booth was immediately recognized by veteran theater-goers as he leaped from the box down to the stage, shouting Sic Semper Tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants."), the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia and an exclamation attributed to Brutus after the assassination of Caesar. Booth did not view his deed as the killing of a republican leader but rather as an act of revenge against a tyrant, one of the great themes of classical drama in which he was well versed. In keeping with that theme, Booth had hoped to shoot Lincoln the day before, on April 13, the monthly day of reckoning (the "Ides") in the Roman calendar, but a change of schedule on Lincoln's part aborted those plans. Booth regained his opportunity the next day when he learned, quite by accident, that Lincoln planned to attend that evening's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. Thus, as Michael W. Kaufman wrote in his study of the assassin (American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, 2004), "Booth had hoped to kill Lincoln on the Ides and highlight his resemblance to Caesar; but instead he shot him on Good Friday and the world compared him to Christ."

Lincoln's assassination occurred just five days after the Civil War had ended with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. When news of Lincoln's death spread, victory celebrations across the North were replaced by rituals of grief and mourning. "The Songs of Victory Drowned in Sorrow," ran a headline in the New York Times.

One immediate reaction (also an enduring one) was to view Lincoln as a martyr for Union and freedom. The fact that he was killed on Good Friday magnified the image and brought forth obvious comparisons between the slain president and Jesus Christ. As one correspondent wrote, "The two events have been providentially associated and henceforth no human power can disassociate them." The Sunday following the assassination was known as "Black Easter" across the North. Ministers preached sermons in churches draped in black praising Lincoln and trying to find meaning in his death. "Lincoln as martyr" was the common theme. "Yes, it was meet that the martyrdom should occur on Good Friday," said a minister in Hartford. "It is no blasphemy against the Son of God and the Savior of men that we declare the fitness of the slaying of the Second Father of our Republic on the anniversary of the day on which He was slain. Jesus Christ died for the world. Abraham Lincoln died for his country." When Lincoln was not being compared to Jesus Christ, he was compared to Moses, who led his people through hardship to the Promised Land, but then could not enter.

A second response to the assassination was to blame the South and its sympathizers for the criminal deed. No one doubted that a rebel or a group of rebels was responsible for the crime. The assassination fit perfectly within the moral framework of the war according to which the slave owners were to blame for the violence and death that had torn apart the nation. The morning after the assassination, the New York Times ran a headline saying the murder was "The Act of a Desperate Southerner" even before the editors even knew that Booth had been identified as the assassin. Many were convinced that Booth was at the head of a broader conspiracy that had been hatched by the leaders of the Confederacy. Henry Ward Beecher, speaking from his pulpit in Brooklyn, said that Booth "was himself but the long sting with which slavery struck at liberty... Never while time lasts will it be forgotten that slavery, by its minions, slew him and in slaying him, made manifest is whole nature and tendency." Many called for vengeance and harsh measures against the rebels, thereby undermining Lincoln's hopes for reconciliation between the sections.

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, organized the funeral rites in order both to demonstrate what the nation had lost when Lincoln was killed but also what acts of perfidy the slave owners were capable of committing. Lincoln's flag-draped coffin was borne slowly westward from Washington to Springfield where he was finally buried on May 4, three weeks after he was shot in Ford's theater. Along the way Lincoln's open casket was made available for public viewing in eleven different cities, including Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Chicago, where it was viewed by more than one and a half million Americans. Lincoln's hearse or coffin had been looked upon by at lease seven million mourners, counting those gathered in parades and city streets or alongside railroad tracks, a number representing more than a third of the population of the entire North.

Lincoln had turned out to be the "redeemer president" that the poet Walt Whitman had written about years earlier - a rough-hewn leader out of the West who had the strength to purge national politics of its petty corruptions. Whitman saw that Lincoln, by his life and death, had given the Union a strength and solidity it had previously lacked:

"The final use of the greatest men of a Nation," he wrote in 1879, "is not in reference to their deeds in themselves, or their direct bearing on their times or lands. The final use of a heroic-eminent life - especially a heroic-eminent death - is its indirect filtering into the nation and the race, and to give, often at many removes, but unerringly age after age, color and fiber to the personalism of the youth and maturity of that age and of mankind.
Then there is a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying than anything written in the constitution, or courts or armies - namely the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, at its head, and for its sake. Strange (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense a nationality?"

There was little doubt that Booth had acted to avenge the South and as a last-ditch attempt to save the Confederacy from final defeat. In the end, Booth achieved far less than he intended. Few saw him as a hero; his deed was repudiated in the South; Lincoln's death united the North; no one (after the assassination) voiced agreement with his portrait of Lincoln as a tyrant; indeed, Lincoln was immediately held up as a symbol of liberty and savior of the Union.

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We can only imagine what cultural confusion would have been visited upon the supporters of Lincoln and the Union if, instead of being killed as we was by a conspiracy of Southern partisans, Lincoln had been assassinated by an abolitionist. Such an act would have been nearly impossible for northerners to assimilate within the moral framework of the Civil War era. For one thing, it would have rendered somewhat illogical the assertions of martyrdom on behalf of the slain president. The Christian ministers who portrayed Lincoln as a martyr would have had to wrestle with the discordant reality of his death. On the other hand, the rebels who had brought about the war by trying to break up the Union would have to be held blameless in Lincoln's death. In such a case, the outpouring of grief following Lincoln's assassination would have been mixed with confusion as to the moral meaning of the event. The anger across the North that was in fact directed against the South would in this case have had no rational outlet in relation to the great conflict that had just been waged.

Something bizarrely similar to this happened with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which is one reason why the aftermath of that event was so confusing to Americans - and especially to liberal Americans, who were convinced in the aftermath of McCarthy period that the gravest threats to the Republic came, not from communists, but from the radical right at home in the form of racial bigots, anti-communists, and fundamentalist preachers. That a beloved president had been killed by a communist proved a most difficult reality to absorb and assimilate for those shaped by the assumptions of post-war liberalism. It made far more sense to believe that he was a victim of bigotry and intolerance; indeed, the thought that JFK was a martyr for civil rights seemed to require that his assassin was linked to the far right or was motivated by hostility to civil rights. It was but a short step from here to the conviction that, notwithstanding the plain facts, Kennedy's assassination was really engineered by some kind of right wing conspiracy.

The idea that Kennedy was in some way a victim of the radical right surfaced on the day after the assassination in an influential article by James Reston that appeared in the New York Times under the title, "Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of a Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation." Reston wrote that, "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, among the nation's most distinguished political reporters, was searching for an explanation that went beyond the identity of the actual assassin. "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. When historians get around to assessing his three years in office, it is very likely that they will be impressed with just this: his efforts to restrain those who wanted to be more violent in the cold war overseas and those who wanted to be more violent in the racial war at home." Reston went on to observe that "from the beginning to the end of his administration, he was trying to tamp down the violence of the extremists from the right." The fact that the assassin was actually a communist did not influence Reston's judgments as to who was ultimately responsible for the crime, even though an extensive report on Oswald and his communist activities appeared that very day in Reston's own newspaper adjacent to his article.

The New York Times was not alone in setting forth this interpretation of Kennedy's interpretation; or, perhaps as in other situations, it was influential in establishing a framework within which others began to interpret the event. Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court, observed in a statement on the afternoon of the assassination that, "A great and good president has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." In a eulogy for President Kennedy delivered at the Capitol two days later (on invitation from Mrs. Kennedy), Warren said that "such acts are commonly stimulated by forces of hatred and violence as today are eating their way into the bloodstream of American life." Warren went on to denounce "the hatred that consumes people, the false accusations that divide us, and the bitterness that begets violence." He made no mention of communism or of left wing doctrines that might have motivated the assassin.

Senator Mike Mansfield, Democrat from Montana and majority leader of the Senate, delivered another eulogy the same day making a nearly identical point: "He (President Kennedy) gave us his love that we, too, in turn, might give. He gave that we might give of ourselves, that we might give to one another until there would be no room for the bigotry, the hatred, prejudice and the arrogance which converged in that moment of horror to strike him down." One might have wondered what connection Mansfield's words had to the facts of the assassination. Oswald, so far as anyone knew, was not a bigot at all but something quite the opposite. Like many communists, Oswald saw the unjust treatment of Negroes in the United States as a further indictment of the nation and its institutions. Mansfield, however, like Reston and Chief Justice Warren, was interested in crafting a comfortable interpretation of the event, not in wrestling with the discordant facts of Kennedy's death.

President Lyndon Johnson, in a message to Congress tow days after Kennedy's funeral, announced 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." The next day, in a Thanksgiving Day message to the nation, Johnson advanced this theme further and perhaps finally established it as the official interpretation of the assassination. He reflected on the tragedy wile praying that profound lessons might be drawn from it: "Let us pray," he said, "for His divine wisdom in banishing from our land any injustice or intolerance or oppression to any of our fellow Americans, whatever their opinion, whatever the color of their skins, for God made all of us in His image." He continued: "It is this work that I most want to do -to banish rancor from our words and malice from our hearts, to close down the poison springs of hatred and intolerance and fanaticism.' Like other national leaders, Johnson suggested that Kennedy's death was a consequence of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance that had seeped into the nation's culture.

The cultural and political understanding of the assassination had become detached from the details of the event itself. It appeared that the liberal leadership of the country -the New York Times, James Reston, Earl Warren, Mike Mansfield, President Johnson, religious leaders, even Mrs. Kennedy - had come together to blame the assassination of the president on hatred and intolerance which (they said) had engulfed the country. It was but a short step from here to the conclusion that the nation itself had to bear the guilt for Kennedy's death.

Taylor Branch, in his history of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, described Kennedy's surprising legacy as it was crafted from the public ceremonies surrounding his death:

"In death the late president gained credit for much of the purpose that King's movement had forced upon him in life. No death had ever been like his - 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 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."

Branch seemed to understand that the anomalous facts surrounding Kennedy's death had been redirected by the culture along more familiar and established paths. There was an irony in this for Kennedy had come slowly to the support of the movement King led. It was not even the case that the slain president "had bled against the thorn of race." Yet this is what was believed, and this surprising response to the assassination had profound consequences. Branch went on to observe that "The reaction to Kennedy's assassination pushed deep enough and wide enough in the high ground of political emotion to allow the civil rights movement to institutionalize its major gains before receding." Kennedy had indeed come to be seen as a martyr for civil rights and the heir to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

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A week after President Kennedy was assassinated, Reston wrote in the New York Times (in an article titled, "A Time to Heal") that, "The death of President Kennedy and the shock of brutality that caused his death have changed the direction of American politics from extreme conflict toward moderation." It would be hard to find a well-intentioned political prediction that turned out to be more profoundly mistaken. Kennedy's death led almost immediately to a period intensifying political conflict that originated in attacks from the far left against liberals and moderates. Some of these attacks originated in differences in policy, as in protests against the war in Vietnam; others were cultural in character, as in attacks on American capitalism, on greed and selfishness, on the boredom of suburban life, on racism and sexism, and so on. In the wake of Kennedy's assassination, liberal leaders pointed the finger of blame against the far right. Within a few short years, they were themselves under attack from the far left with a level of vitriol and violence that far overshadowed anything the far right had ever been able to muster.

Lincoln had said that the Civil War was divine punishment for the sin of slavery; now, in the late 1960s, liberals and leftists began to say that violence and civil disorder were deserved punishments for the sins of racism, militarism, imperialism, and anti-communism. The idea of national guilt, which first surfaced in more innocent form following Kennedy's assassination, quickly spread through the institutions of politics, academe, and journalism that shaped liberal culture. The reformist emphasis of American liberalism which up to that time had been pragmatic, optimistic, and forward looking was overtaken by a spirit of national self-condemnation. Thus, in a few years from 1963 to 1968, the liberal movement in the United States absorbed a disposition that was increasingly pessimistic about the future and skeptical about American institutions and the nation's role in the world.

There is little doubt that the animus that pushed many Americans on the left onto this path had its origins in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Once having accepted the claim that Kennedy was a victim of the national culture, many found it all to easy to extend the metaphor into other areas of life, from race and poverty to the treatment of women to the struggle against communism. These were no longer seen as challenges to be overcome but as indictments of the nation. Unlike Lincoln's assassination, which united the nation, Kennedy's assassination turned the nation against itself.

The intense radicalism of the 1960s, mixed as it was with anti-American ism and romantic conceptions of socialism and third-world dictators like Castro, might never have developed as it did if blame for Kennedy's assassination had been properly assigned to a communist acting out of ideological motives. The conspiracy theories about Kennedy's death that developed later arose out of precisely this kind of confusion about the meaning of Kennedy's death. It was as plain then as it is now that Oswald shot President Kennedy and that in doing so he probably acted alone. He acted on the basis of motives that were linked closely to the Cold War: he shot President Kennedy in order to disrupt his administration's efforts to assassinate Castro and to oust his communist government in Cuba. He was prepared to be captured or killed in this venture - as indeed he was. It was wrong for national leaders at the time to blame the far right or the nation at large for Kennedy's death. In twisting the truth, they laid the groundwork for decades of mistrust and division that followed from Kennedy's untimely and unfortunate death.

James Piereson is an occasional contributor to The New Criterion.

This is an excerpt from a new book by James Piereson, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Kennedy Assassination Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books, June, 2007).


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