On JFK and Mythology

“Cause what we’re after is just this
It’s a myth
Cause what we’re after is just this

And I’m sick of all these pictures books that try
To steal some old reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times
And that’s why
We need a myth

We’re cut adrift
We need a mass uplift
The world is trembling and weeping 
Just at the point of believing”

– Okkervil River, “We Need a Myth”


I am quite certain that Okkervil River are not singing about the fifty year JFK myth that was spontaneously established immediately following the president’s assassination on November 22, 1963. But their lyrics sure capture the impetus behind all mythology: the human desire to sustain or control narratives. What is a myth if not a compelling story which reconfigures an historical event in a way palatable to the source and the whims of the myth-maker? 

The fifty year myth about JFK can be distilled thus: the beloved Kennedy’s assassination meant he would be an indelible martyr for a lasting period, the only question was to which cause. The choice before the myth-makers wasn’t really a choice at all, and the cause they chose a fallacious, slanderous lie. Where all facts and evidence of Oswald’s murder and motive suggest that JFK should have been remembered as a martyr to the Cold War (and to its extralegal, brutal tactics of espionage), he is instead (TO THIS DAY!) remembered as a martyr to civil rights. You see, so the myth goes, a Cuban intelligence-connected, true-believer Marxist who viewed himself as an explicit enemy of America and capitalism wasn’t in fact responsible for assassinating the most ruthless Cold Warrior president in our history. No, it was right wing extremism, fostered by a “culture of hate” that festered and marinated in the heart of the real culprit, “Dallas.” 

It is thoroughly astounding that after fifty years, people still propagate this myth while denying or ignoring the reality. There were scores of books released and stories in the media in the build-up to the 50th anniversary last week, and most traffic in the same fiction that it was the right’s culture of intolerance that killed Kennedy. There are a million things offensive and wrong about the fact that an entire city can be forced to suffer humiliation and ignominy for half a century for a crime they are utterly innocent of, but let’s start with the notion that JFK was a champion a of civil rights and was therefore killed by racists who resented him for it. That’s just absurd, as Kennedy was far more interested in things like combating Communism, selling pro-growth, supply-side tax reform and our burgeoning space program. I won’t go full Ira Stoll on you and insist that Kennedy was really a conservative in liberal clothing – he wasn’t; despite some great ideas on taxes and liberty and the superiority of capitalism over socialism (a remarkable list considering how few, if any, of today’s Democrats would embrace these), Kennedy is still responsible for allowing collective bargaining within the public sector and unabashedly espousing Wilsonian dogma about expert administration and the imperative of having a robust, altruistic central government. Still, even while allowing that Kennedy was in favor of ultimately fighting on behalf of civil rights, it is by no means certain that he would have ever gotten around to doing so. It just wasn’t high on his agenda, despite the efforts his court stenographers and anguished elite liberals went to (successfully) convince the country otherwise.  

But it just wouldn’t advance the cause of liberalism to admit that a Communist killed Kennedy. Yes, there were geopolitical concerns about what the fallout between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would be, were it made public that an American defector to the USSR and attempted Cuba defector had acted in possible cahoots with Castro and Cuban intelligence. But excuse me if a bit of further saber-rattling doesn’t strike me as reason to embark on a world-historic lie so that your domestic agenda can be more easily sold and implemented. Further, there were enough people on the American left who held outright adoration for Communism, Cuba and the Soviet Union, that it doesn’t require more than a small leap to conclude that the myth was developed less as a vehicle for passing civil rights legislation, and more as a a cover-up of the ills and evils of Communist regimes. The enduring success of the JFK legend today shows how easy it is for committed ideologues to orchestrate and maintain a national deception.

The left needed a myth because, after all, as Jackie O said the morning after her husband was shot, “He can’t have been killed by some silly little Communist.” 

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