Chronicle of a death foretold

October 30, 2013

Joe Allen reviews a new book that provides a history of the right-wing organizing in Dallas that set the stage for the Kennedy assassination in November 1963.

FOR MANY Americans of a certain generation, Lee Harvey Oswald may have pulled the trigger, but it was Dallas that killed President John F. Kennedy.

Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis make this abundantly clear in their new book Dallas 1963. It's a fresh take on the Kennedy assassination--something that I didn't think was possible after all these years, and the countless books, movies, documentaries and four government investigations that examined every aspect of the case.

This is not a book for assassination buffs or conspiracy theorists. It is primarily a political history of the far right in Dallas during Kennedy's short-lived presidency, and how many of those very same people created an atmosphere ripe for his assassination. Dallas 1963 is a chronicle of a death foretold.

What was the source of the animosity between Kennedy and the far-right Dallas crowd? Kennedy's brutal murder on November 22, 1963, and the universal mourning that followed has diminished, if not washed away, how controversial his election was, and how many on the U.S. far right viewed his short-lived administration as illegitimate, and even treasonous.

The Kennedys arriving in Dallas
The Kennedys arriving in Dallas (Cecil W. Stoughton)

For a country that has been shaped by its Anglo Protestant origins, the prospect of a Catholic president was greeted with horror by a significant minority of the population. All previous U.S. presidents were, to a person: first, Protestants (or, at least, nominally Protestant); and second, descended from English, Scot-Irish or Dutch ancestry.

John F. Kennedy was the first U.S. president from an ethnic minority. The Kennedy family was famously rich, politically ambitious and, above all else, Irish Catholics. This may seem very 19th century from the perspective of the Obama era, but it's a prime example of how dark currents of bigotry exist not just in the power structure, but in a significant part of the population.

During the 1960 presidential election, for example, Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking, publicly opposed Kennedy's election to the presidency. "Faced with the election of a Catholic," Peale declared, "our culture is at stake."

Kennedy tried to alleviate the fears of many Protestant voters with his famous speech on religious freedom before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. Kennedy scored many points with his speech, but the Dallas crowd was determined to wreck his campaign. H.L. Hunt, the secretive Dallas oil billionaire and the richest man in the U.S. at the time, funded anti-Catholic propaganda directed at Kennedy all over the U.S.


Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, Dallas 1963. Twelve Books, 2013, 384 pages, $19.59.

Hunt's bigotries didn't stop there. He believed the bottom 40 percent of the population that didn't pay taxes shouldn't have the right to vote; insisted that the United States was a republic not a democracy; and wrote and paid for the publication of his novel Alpaca, a fantasy about an authoritarian utopia where, among other things, there are no public schools.

Other books that Hunt endorsed on his national radio programs Facts Forum and later Life Line included We Must Abolish the United Nations and Hitler was a Liberal.

LOOMING BEHIND the fear of Kennedy's Catholicism was the Dallas crowd's old hostility to liberalism and civil rights. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign coincided with the burgeoning civil rights movement, and he was going to need the Black vote to win. The Dallas crowd was afraid that the liberalism that had been on hiatus during the conservative 1950s was going to edge its way back in under a future Kennedy administration.

Lyndon Johnson, majority leader of the U.S. Senate and the very symbol of corrupt Texas politics, was put on the ticket as vice president to appease the Southerners. But conservative Republicans and many Southern Dixiecrats unleashed a wave of red-baiting about the Kennedy-Johnson ticket anyway.

Bruce Alger, one of the first Republican congressman elected in modern times from Texas, led a "mink coat mob" of well-heeled young women that assaulted Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird during the presidential campaign in Dallas. Alger held aloft a large picket sign that read: "LBJ sold out to Yankee Socialists."

The "mink coat" riot backfired. Richard Nixon, Kennedy's Republican rival for the presidency, blamed Alger for losing Texas to Kennedy by a mere 46,000 votes, calling him "that asshole congressman."

But this action and others that followed certified Dallas as the crackpot capital of the U.S. Hundreds, if not many more, of far-right-wing activists began making their way to the city to seek fame, fortune and political power.

The most prominent figure on the far right to emerge during the Kennedy years was Gen. Edwin A. Walker.

Walker had been a hero during the Second World War and rose to the rank of general by the mid-1950s. He was tapped by President Dwight Eisenhower to lead federal troops in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 to enforce federal court-ordered desegregation of the public schools. He followed his orders, but had a political awakening--he concluded that Eisenhower must be a "communist" because of his actions in Little Rock.

Walker came under the influence of the right-wing crackpots of the John Birch Society, which was founded in 1958 by retired manufacturer Robert Welch. The group claimed to have 100,000 members in 1961. Walker was stationed in Europe and used his position as commander of the 24th Infantry Division to propagandize among his troops with John Birch Society materials. Kennedy had him demoted, and Walker resigned from the army in protest.

Walker arrived in Dallas--he was originally from Texas--as a martyred hero of the far right. He was the squared-jawed, man-on-a-white-horse figure that could topple Kennedy from power--or so his admirers hoped.

Walker and a coterie of the Dallas establishment, led by Ted Dealey of the Dallas Morning News, Rev. W.A. Criswell of Dallas First Baptist Church, Rep. Bruce Alger and billionaire H.L. Hunt helped turn Dallas into a madhouse. Far-right activist Frank McGehee originated the National Indignation Convention--ongoing mass rallies that Walker and others used to mobilize against the Kennedy administration's treasonous "appeasement of Russia."

Walker gained national attention once again by leading mobs that rampaged across the University of Mississippi campus to prevent James Meredith from registering for class in September 1962. In his public televised statement, he declared, "This is Edwin A. Walker. I am in Mississippi beside Gov. Ross Barnett." He continued, "This is the conspiracy of the crucifixion by the Anti-Christ conspirators of the Supreme Court in their denial of prayer and their betrayal of a nation."

Walker returned to Dallas a hero after he was temporarily held in a psychiatric hospital on orders of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

INTO THIS viper's nest stepped Lee Harvey Oswald, the self-proclaimed "Marxist" and ex-Marine, who had defected to Russia in 1959, and lived, worked and married there. In 1962, he returned to the U.S. with his Russian wife Marina. He was certainly the odd man out in right-wing Dallas.

Oswald had an interest in left-wing politics from a young age, when he contacted the Socialist Party before joining the Marines, and he pursued the interest again after returning from Russia. He got a subscription to the Communist Party's newspaper The Worker, and the Socialist Workers Party's The Militant. One of the most famous pictures of Oswald is of him holding a copy of The Worker and The Militant in his right hand, and the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that he killed Kennedy with in his left hand.

We will probably never know why Oswald murdered Kennedy. Finding a motivation for Oswald is the weakest part of Minutaglio and Davis's book because they hint that the answer may be found in his reading of the socialist press. I found this a bit of a stretch, if not an outright slander--not only because there is no evidence for this, but because both the CP and the SWP would have never endorsed political assassination or defended Oswald's actions in any way.

The mountain of violent anti-Kennedy propaganda circulating in Dallas dwarfed whatever Oswald's tortured mind thought it saw in the socialist press. But this is also just speculation. This is the enigma of Oswald.

We do know, however, that on April 10, 1963, Oswald attempted to assassinate Edwin Walker. He barely missed killing Walker, but easily escaped the scene--by bus, no less. If Oswald was out for fame, his missed out with Walker, and thus turned his attention to Kennedy, whose upcoming visit was well known throughout the autumn, and with it massive media coverage.

If there was one big warning for Kennedy to not go to Dallas, it was the assault on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson.

Stevenson went to Dallas in October 1963 as the guest of Stanley Marcus, the head of the upscale Neiman-Marcus department store chain. Marcus had been trying for years to bring a little liberalism to Dallas. He invited Stevenson to speak on United Nations Day on October 24.

The UN was a particular obsession for the Dallas crowd, and Walker mobilized his forces the day before for a rowdy, anti-Kennedy, anti-Stevenson rally in the very auditorium that Stevenson was to speak the next day.

Walker's forces filled the audience for the Stevenson speech, shouting and trying to break up the meeting. One of Stevenson's supporters turned to another and said, "This must be what it was like in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch."

Marcus was horrified to realize that he was presiding over a disaster. After Stevenson finished speaking, a crowd led by Cora Lacy Frederickson, shouting "communist" and "traitor," surged toward Stevenson as he was being escorted out of the building. Frederickson, the wife of an insurance executive and a staunch Walker supporter, smashed her picket sign into Stevenson's skull. No one was arrested at the request of Stevenson.

THE WARNINGS kept coming, but were ignored. Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright, a future critic of the Vietnam War, told Kennedy, "Dallas is a very dangerous place. I wouldn't go there. Don't you go." A Dallas woman wrote to the White House, "Don't let the president come down here. I'm worried about him. I think something will happen to him."

Assassination was never very far from Kennedy's mind. A few weeks before his death, he'd met with Jim Bishop, author of The Day Lincoln Was Shot, who said Kennedy confided that "his feelings about assassinations were similar to Lincoln's: 'Any man who is willing to exchange his life for mine can do so.'"

When Kennedy woke up on the morning of November 22, he was greeted by a hostile "Welcome, Mr. Kennedy" full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News that charged him with, among other things: "Ordered or permitted your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists in America, while permitting him to prosecute loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration, and your leadership?" This was a clear reference to Gen. Edwin Walker.

Whether Kennedy knew it or not, thousands of "Wanted for Treason" posters with his profile were circulating throughout Dallas as he read the Dallas Morning News. Treason, of course, is punishable by death.

According to Dallas 1963,

Kennedy's mind wandered back to thoughts of assassination, the cold reality that some wanted him dead. He looked out the window and eerily mused: "It would not be very difficult job to shoot the president of the U.S. All you'd have to do is get up in a high building with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight and there's nothing anybody could do."

Casual talk of killing Kennedy seemed to be everywhere in Dallas. According to Minutaglio and Davis:

In a fashionable part of North Dallas, a family is gathered at the kitchen table. The mother and the father have been discussing Kennedy's impending visit. As the husband and the daughter leave, the mother, a member of the local PTA, kisses them good-bye. As they walk out the door, the mother calls after them: "I'm going to take a gun and go to that parade and shoot him--bingo--right in the head."

Kennedy planned to give a "hard-hitting speech" attacking political extremism in Dallas, but it was never given. Walker made himself scarce during Kennedy's visit to Dallas to avoid being blamed for anything that might happen. He went to Louisiana and met with one of the state's political bosses, Leander Perez, who once declared that the civil rights movement was the work of "all those Jews who were suppose to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau, but weren't."

We all know what happened on November 22, 1963, in Daley Plaza--and Oswald's subsequent murder by Jack Ruby live on national television. Ruby's murder of Oswald convinced a large percentage of two generations of Americans that there was a larger conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

In a sense, there was, but not in the way that most people think of a criminal conspiracy. Minutaglio and Davis make it very clear that Walker, Dealey, Hunt, Alger and others share the blame for Kennedy's murder.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, and a slew of new films, documentaries and books are appearing to commemorate the many different aspects of Kennedy's life, his presidency and his murder in Dallas. If you want to learn something new about John F. Kennedy's assassination--with many eerie parallels to today's politics--Dallas 1963 is the book to read.

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