Wrong, Frank Rich: NYC Radicalized Oswald, Not Dallas

Nearly a half century after John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, many liberals now grudgingly accept that it was a left winger who killed him. But it was the harsh right-wing rhetoric of early '60s Texas that compelled the assassin to pull the trigger,  liberals also insist.

The latest iteration of this transparent exercise in ideological face-saving comes from Frank Rich in a New York magazine piece dishonestly titled, "What Killed JFK -- The Hate That Ended His Presidency is Eerily Familiar."

"What defines the Kennedy legacy today," Rich writes, "is less the fallen president's short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down." As opposed to that strain of hatred that actually brought Kennedy down -- militant communism at the hand of a committed foot soldier.

An example of the "hatred" cited by Rich? The number one non-fiction best seller as of Nov. 24, 1963, two days after Kennedy's death, was "JFK: The Man and the Myth" by Victor Lasky, "which even questioned the World War II heroism of the skipper of PT 109," Rich complains, "a precursor of the Swift Boat hatchet job on John Kerry." 

Do you know who else questioned Kennedy's actions in the sinking of PT 109? Kennedy himself, who worried that he might face court martial for letting a Japanese destroyer slice his patrol boat in two.

Focusing on "the role played in Oswald's psyche by the torrid atmosphere of political rage in Dallas," Rich quotes from the late William Manchester in his book "Death of a President."  Rich describes Manchester's criticisms of the city, initially referring here to the Warren Commission --

He writes that "individual commissioners had strong reservations" about exonerating Dallas but decided to hedge rather than stir up any controversy that might detract from the report's "widest possible acceptance." While Manchester adds that "obviously, it is impossible to define the exact relationship between an individual and his environment," he strongly rejected the universal description of Oswald as "a loner." No man, he writes, is quarantined from his time and place. Dallas was toxic. The atmosphere was "something unrelated to conventional politics -- a stridency, a disease of the spirit, a shrill, hysterical note suggestive of a deeply troubled society." ...

He detected "a chiaroscuro that existed outside both parties, a virulence which had infected members of both." Dallas had become the gaudy big top for a growing national movement -- "the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Movement, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry Societies."

But if no man can be quarantined from his time and place, it is worth considering if an earlier setting in Oswald's life was much more consequential in steering him on his path to Dealey Plaza. While in his early teens, Oswald lived in New York City for 18 months with his mother and other members of his family. In his 2007 book, "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism," James Piereson writes --

At about the same time, in May of 1953, Oswald in the course of his wanderings about Manhattan was handed a leaflet demanding clemency for the Rosenbergs, who at that time were awaiting execution for espionage committed in service to the Soviet Union. The leaflet, which was passed out throughout New York City by volunteers canvassing for subscriptions for a Communist Party newspaper, claimed that the Rosenbergs had been unjustly framed for crimes they did not commit and were in fact "martyrs" for democracy and workers' rights. This leaflet made an immediate and lasting impression on the boy, who later referred to it when he defected to the Soviet Union as the greatest cause of his conversion to communism. Jean Davison suggests that this was so, not because he empathized with the Rosenbergs, but because he saw himself as occupying a similar position as a victim of "the system" -- in his case, the juvenile court system.

From this time forward, Oswald saw himself as a communist, an unusual one perhaps because of the tender age at which he was converted, but a dedicated and hardworking partisan nevertheless. Thus, as things developed, Oswald did not pick up radicalism in (his native) New Orleans or Dallas after all, but rather in New York City, the intellectual capital of American leftism.

If anyone's bellicose rhetoric can be alleged to have set off Oswald, a far more likely candidate was his hero -- Fidel Castro. Piereson describes how this could have happened --

On September 7, 1963, Fidel Castro attended a reception at the Brazilian embassy in Havana and submitted to an impromptu interview by an Associated Press reporter. In the course of that interview, Castro made some startling remarks. Referring to hit-and-run raids by exile forces against Cuban territory, he announced, "We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. United States leaders should be mindful that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe."

The article describing the interview was carried over the Associated Press wire, appearing in numerous papers around the country, including the local paper in New Orleans, where Oswald was then living. Oswald probably saw the article, along with Castro's threatening statement, since he searched out news about Cuba and Castro. A surprising number of people on the East Coast, however, were unaware of Castro's threat against U.S. leaders because this particular quotation was not contained in the articles on the interview that appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. ...

It can never be known if Oswald heard Castro's threatening statement and then "read between the lines" to draw the conclusion that Castro was calling for the assassination of American leaders, including perhaps President Kennedy himself. This line of reasoning was strongly suggested by Jean Davison and Edward Jay Epstein in their biographical studies of Oswald, by Gus Russo in his 1998 study of the assassination, and by the report on the Kennedy assassination approved by a Senate Select Committee in 1976. This hypothesis is entirely plausible and is perhaps the explanation for Oswald's motives that is most consistent with the facts as we know them. That is to say, it is consistent with Oswald's strong political views regarding Cuba; consistent with his earlier attack on General (Edwin) Walker, which was presumably made because of Walker's anti-Castro views; and consistent with all of Oswald's work in New Orleans during the summer of 1963 on behalf of Castro's government.

If Oswald heard Castro's remarks, he would not have been required to think for very long before concluding what steps he was being asked to take. As a member of the Senate Select Committee later said, Castro's statement might have been heard by Oswald much as the words of King Henry II were heard by his deputies when he said of Thomas Becket," who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" The Warren Commission, however, did not reference Castro's speech in its final report, and thus did not connect it to the Kennedy assassination.

Whether Oswald read the AP story with Castro's pointed threat is not known. But only weeks after the story was published, Oswald took a bus to Mexico City where he tried defect to Cuba, much as he had done four years earlier in defecting to the Soviet Union. The Cuban government approved Oswald's request after his return to Dallas, contingent upon him traveling again to Russia to receive Soviet approval.

Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Kennedy would visit Dallas and his motorcade would proceed directly past the book warehouse where Oswald was just hired for yet another menial job. Oswald, a man who kept a self-described "historic diary" to chronicle his mundane life in Russia, knew his long-delayed moment had finally arrived.

Where Oswald lived at that moment is irrelevant compared to the seething ideologue he had become, a metamorphosis set in motion a decade earlier. John F. Kennedy was as much a victim of the Cold War as Lincoln was of the Civil War, regardless of how liberals like Frank Rich keep trying to deflect the blame.

Jack Coleman
Liberated ex-liberal from the People's Republic of Massachusetts