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‘The Climate of Hate’

In response to:

Who Was JFK? from the February 20, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In his essay on John F. Kennedy [NYR, February 20], Frank Rich takes me to task for an article on the JFK assassination that I recently published in The Wall Street Journal. In the course of doing so he makes two illogical claims. First: a Communist shot President Kennedy; nevertheless, the radical right and a culture of hate in Dallas were responsible for the crime. Second: in holding “right-wingers” blameless in the assassination, I thereby exonerate them for everything else they may have said or done. Neither claim is valid either as a matter of logic or fact.

As I maintained in that article, the Kennedy assassination was an event in the cold war. All of the evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the probable assassin. His likely motive in committing the crime was to thwart the Kennedy administration’s efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro or to overthrow his regime. The radical right had nothing to do with President Kennedy’s murder, nor was there any connection between the assassination and a “climate of hate” in Dallas or in the nation at large. In making these claims, Mr. Rich contributes to a national misunderstanding that has gone on for far too long.

James Piereson
New York City

Frank Rich replies:

I am impressed that James Piereson can peer into Lee Harvey Oswald’s mind posthumously and identify his “likely motive” in assassinating John F. Kennedy. I don’t have such miraculous powers and nowhere in my essay did I write that the culture of hate in Dallas was responsible for Oswald’s crime. What I did write was this: “The right’s current polemicists prefer a selective reading of history: we should remember that Oswald was a Marxist who had defected to the Soviet Union but we should forget that Adlai Stevenson, the pre-Kennedy Democratic standard bearer, was spat upon and slapped with a picket sign during his own visit to Dallas, as United Nations ambassador, in 1963.” The reason the right is promoting this selective reading, I added, is “to try to shield the current American right from any ties to the radical right of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Mr. Piereson’s letter is another attempt to do the same. The climate of hate in Dallas was real, and it had real consequences. It was, after all, the defrocked general Edwin A. Walker, an ardent segregationist and John Birch Society devotee, who stirred up the assault on Stevenson. (Oswald tried to assassinate Walker too.) Walker had run unsuccessfully for governor of Texas in 1962, and anyone who doubts the continuity of this strain in the American right need only look as far as the current Texas gubernatorial race. The Republican candidate, the state attorney general Greg Abbott, continued to campaign with the rock singer Ted Nugent even after Nugent called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel.” Let’s hope that this enduring culture of hate is as benign in 2014 as Piereson seems to believe it was in 1963.

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