On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.
About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.
Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.
But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.
How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?
According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:
The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.
“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”
The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.
So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.
And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”
If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”
All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:
I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.
For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.
Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”
Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.
This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”
If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”