Dallas then: ‘nut country’

JFK defied warnings and premonitions from those close to him to visit a very hostile territory

Cars traveling on the road past The Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas in Dealey Plaza on November 22nd, 1963. Photograph: Reuters

Cars traveling on the road past The Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas in Dealey Plaza on November 22nd, 1963. Photograph: Reuters


Dallas, the city that virtually invited the poor insignificant soul who blotted out the life of President Kennedy to do it in Dallas.” A Letter received by Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell on November 22nd, 1963.

When US President John F Kennedy arrived in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, he and his wife Jackie were mourning the death of their infant, Patrick.

Marilyn Monroe, with whom JFK had reputedly had an affair, had been dead for 18 months. The first lady, Jackie, dressed in pink, was, unusually, accompanying her husband, and they were said to be growing closer.

Addison’s Disease had made Kennedy’s complexion abnormally tanned and his lips defined as if by line. His wasted body was hidden by his well-cut suit, while intravenous drugs masked his chronic pain and gave him vigour.

JFK had been unusually downbeat. Eleven days before, on Veterans’ Day, the couple had brought their son, John, to Arlington Cemetery. “This is one of the really beautiful places on earth, I could stay here forever,” the president said.

When Air Force One touched down at Love Field, Dallas, 50 years ago today, he ignored protestors waving a giant Confederate flag to work the crowd. “Kennedy is showing he is not afraid,” a reporter wrote in his notebook.

In their Dallas hotel room, the president was handed a copy of the ultra-conservative Dallas Morning News, which had a full-page ad denouncing the president for being pro-Communist. The ad’s ominous black border made it look like an obituary. Jackie said, “Can you imagine a paper doing a thing like that?”

Kennedy turned to his wife: “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country today.”

The ad accused Kennedy of pro-Communist sympathies and was signed, “The American Fact-Finding Committee”, a name made up on the spur of the moment by Bernard Weissman, acting for a shady group of powerful white racists who secretly ran the city. Weissman was called before the Warren Commission, though Larrie Schmidt, who paid for the ad, was not. Both men are alive today.

This incident is but one of many sinister events, described in a meticulously researched book, Dallas 1963: The Road to the Kennedy Assassination.

The authors, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L Davis, portray a city with a collective consciousness so poisonously divided, corrupt and violent that it becomes clear that the assassin was Dallas. Oswald just happened to fire the rifle.

After seeing the ad, Kennedy paced the hotel room and recalled the chaotic, packed crowd at his and Jackie’s engagement the night before in Fort Worth: “You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a president.”

Kennedy knew he was in hostile territory, but he needed Texas to win a second term in 1964, hence the charm offensive on Dallas.

It is eerie in hindsight to read the multiple warnings against visiting Dallas the president, or his people, ignored in their ambition.

Stanley Marcus, a liberal Jew and owner of the city’s swishest department store, Niemann Marcus, sold oil barons “his and hers” private jets but wasn’t allowed in the door of their country clubs. He warned the vice-president, Lyndon B Johnson, that the visit was a “grave mistake” because the city wasn’t “safe for it”. (An informant would save Marcus himself from assassination in 1966).

Another Kennedy supporter with a premonition was Byron Skelton, Texas’s National Democratic Committeeman, who wrote to Robert F Kennedy, the attorney general: “I am worried about President Kennedy’s proposed trip to Dallas. You will note that General Walker says that ‘Kennedy is a liability to the free world’. A man who would make this kind of statement is capable of doing harm to the president . . . I would feel better if the President’s itinerary did not include Dallas.”

Major Edwin A Walker, a paranoid Kennedy-hater and charismatic right-wing speaker and radio host, had narrowly missed being shot in the head by Lee Harvey Oswald, an incident that would be revealed later and investigated by the Warren Commission.

Anti-Kennedy feeling was also being stirred up by Robert Surrey, a member of the American Nazi Party who had been papering the city with “Wanted for Treason” leaflets depicting the president. All it lacked were the words “dead or alive”.

The night before the motorcade passed Dealy Plaza, Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, warned in a speech: “The act of an emotionally unstable person or irresponsible citizen can strike down a great leader.”

This shared anxiety was so open, that vice-president Lyndon B Johnson himself succumbed to the prevailing black humour. Before the assassination he had already written a post-Dallas speech, which was to have been delivered in Austin, Texas. The final lines: “And thank God, Mr President, that you made it out of Dallas alive.”

As we know, he didn’t.

Dallas 1963: The Road to the Kennedy Assassination is published by John Murray, UK, 2013

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