Blaming Dallas For Kennedy’s Assassination

Don't blame Dallas, or 60s era Texas conservatism, for what happened in Dallas 50 years ago,

Kennedy Dallas

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy approaching on Friday, the media has been awash in all of the expected  retrospectives, documentaries, and discussions of the legacy of both the assassination and the Kennedy Presidency itself. Not surprisingly, the coverage is full of the same kind of mixture of pathos and hagiography that coverage of America’s 35th President that we’ve seen for years, in no small part because a large part of the coverage is coming from journalists and political commentators who were part of the generation that grew up with the Kennedy Administration and the myth of Camelot that came to be created after President Kennedy’s life with tragic cut short. There’s also been plenty of “what if” speculation about how the world might have been different had Kennedy not died that day in November 1963, indeed that topic has been the subject of two recent books by Stephen King and Jeff Greenfield. And, of course, there has once again been a rehashing of all the old conspiracy theories about the assassination, theories which clearly will remain part of the historical record. I wasn’t alive in 1963, but I do have some interest in it as a an historical matter, so I have paid attention to some of this coverage, although I must say with perhaps not the same sense of emotion that those who were alive feel for the day.

There’s much that can be said about the accuracy of much of the Kennedy hagiography, but perhaps the oddest piece I’ve seen today appears in today’s New York Times where a University of Oxford Graduate Student named James McAuley seeks to blame the City of Dallas for Kennedy’s death:

FOR 50 years, Dallas has done its best to avoid coming to terms with the one event that made it famous: the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. That’s because, for the self-styled “Big D,” grappling with the assassination means reckoning with its own legacy as the “city of hate,” the city that willed the death of the president.

It will miss yet another opportunity this year. On Nov. 22 the city, anticipating an international spotlight, will host an official commemoration ceremony. Dallas being Dallas, it will be quite the show: a jet flyover, a performance from the Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club and remarks from the historian David McCullough on Kennedy’s legacy.

But once again, spectacle is likely to trump substance: not one word will be said at this event about what exactly the city was in 1963, when the president arrived in what he called, just moments before his death, “nut country.”

Dallas — with no river, port or natural resources of its own — has always fashioned itself as a city with no reason for being, a city that triumphed against all odds, a city that validates the sheer power of individual will and the particular ideology that champions it above all else. “Dallas,” the journalist Holland McCombs observed in Fortune in 1949, “doesn’t owe a damn thing to accident, nature or inevitability. It is what it is … because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way.”

Those “men of Dallas” — men like my grandfather, oil men and corporate executives, self-made but self-segregated in a white-collar enclave in a decidedly blue-collar state — often loathed the federal government at least as much as, if not more than, they did the Soviet Union or Communist China. The country musician Jimmy Dale Gilmore said it best in his song about the city: “Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye … a rich man who tends to believe in his own lies.”

For those men, Kennedy was a veritable enemy of the state, which is why a group of them would commission and circulate “Wanted for Treason” pamphlets before the president’s arrival and fund the presciently black-rimmed “Welcome Mr. Kennedy” advertisement that ran in The Dallas Morning News on the morning of Nov. 22. It’s no surprise that four separate confidants warned the president not to come to Dallas: an incident was well within the realm of imaDallgination.

(…)

This year Dallas has a chance to grapple with the painful legacy of 1963 in public and out loud. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen, although the city did quietly host a symposium on whether it really deserved to be labeled “the city of hate” earlier this month.

But when the national cameras start rolling on Nov. 22, Dealey Plaza, the abandoned, almost spectral site of the assassination and now of the commemoration, will have been retouched in a fresh coat of literal and figurative white paint. Cosmetics seem to be all we can expect.

“This is not a group psychology lesson,” Mike Rawlings, the mayor, told me over lunch recently. “We can do what we can do. I guess I could bring up all the relatives of the people that said bad things. But why would you do that?”

To which, of course, there is nothing to say.

Rod Dreher responds:

The city that “willed the death of the president”? What the hell does that mean? That the city of Dallas used its eerie mental powers to direct a radical weirdo to shoot JFK, like Uri Geller bending a spoon? It is a disgusting calumny. Yes, Dallas was home to more than a few far-right wingers who said and believed and did reprehensible things back then. But one thing they did not do was murder President Kennedy. That was accomplished by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was a communist and a crackpot. I agree with James McAuley that many of the things the 1960s-era right-wing radicals of Dallas stood for were terrible, but to object to it by pinning the assassination on those people and that city is false and low-down.rev

This graduate student expects the city to blame itself for something it didn’t do. I lived in Dallas from 2003 to 2010, and was shocked to learn of the kinds of things that were common in the Dallas of the 1950s and 1960s, in large part because the city today is so very, very different — and for the most part, very much better. A Texas-born liberal and Harvard graduate is embarrassed that his socially prominent Dallas grandparents were reactionaries. Wow. Dog bites man. I can’t imagine what McAuley reasonably wants from the people of Dallas in 2013. If Kennedy’s murderer had been a far-right radical, McAuley would have a point. But — again! — Oswald was a communist. It’s wrong to blame Dallas for what Dallas did not do.

Dreher, of course, is absolutely correct here. Dallas an its political climate are no more responsible for John F. Kennedy’s death than Buffalo is responsible for William McKinley’s, Memphis for Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Los Angeles for Robert F. Kennedy’s, or Union Station in D.C. for James A. Garfield’s. In each case, they just happened to be the place where an important historical figure was murdered by people for motives that had next to nothing to do with the location itself. Why does Dallas deserve any more blame for President Kennedy’s death. Yes, it’s true that Kennedy was in Dallas that day because of the sense that he was in political trouble in a state that would be very important to the re-election effort in 1964. However, that’s no more relevant to the facts of the Kennedy assassination than the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis in connection with a strike by African-American sanitation workers and was followed there by his assassin James Earl Ray, who happened to be staying in Atlanta in the weeks before he killed King. As Dreher notes, perhaps the political climate in Dallas in 1963 would be relevant to the history of the JFK Assassination had the assassin come from these right wing circles that McAuley writes about. That wasn’t Lee Harvey Oswald, though. Oswald was an avowed Communist who had previously defected to the Soviet Union and then spent time handing out leaflets for the “Fair Play For Cuba” committee. Add into all of that the fact that Oswald obviously had some mental health issues and the idea that his actions had anything to do with the political climate in Dallas just look more and more absurd.

McAuley acknowledges that Dallas in 2013 is a far different place than it was in 1963, but he still wants to make the city shoulder at least some of the blame for what happened that day in November. I suspect that there are many who might agree with him, especially given the fact that Dallas is now part of the largest Republican dominated state in the country. A state that has given us everyone from George W. Bush to Rick Perry to Ted Cruz. So, I suspect there may be more than a little of Texas bashing going on here. Otherwise, I look forward to his piece next June explaining why Los Angeles still hasn’t lived down the legacy of the assassination of JFK’s brother. Something tells me he won’t be writing that one that, though.

Note: The photograph above comes from several taken on November 22,  1963 by Dallas jewelry wholesaler H. Warner King and revealed to the public for the first time in Time Magazine just this past week. This particular photo was taken just moments before Kennedy was shot.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I was a senior in highschool when Kennedy was assassinated. To this day I still remember the announcement over the school’s PA system. That said blaming the city of Dallas for the assassination is very wrong. I’ll admit that I still am not sure who is responsible but I don’t believe it was Dallas.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    When you consider who the assassin was – Lee Harvey Oswald – it is indeed a far-reach to blame Dallas for the murder of John Kennedy. If we are to believe that Dallas is to blame for that murder, why then do we not blame Los Angeles for the murder of Robert Kennedy, or Memphis for the murder of Martin Luther King?

    Finally, I haven’t heard much of the “Dallas is responsible” version of what happened in a long long time.

  3. Peter says:

    There’s also been plenty of “what if” speculation about how the world might have been different had Kennedy not died that day in November 1963

    Duke University would have a mediocre basketball team today.

    No joke. It’s been fairly well-documented that JFK’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson was deteriorating. Some insiders claimed that he was seriously considering replacing Johnson as his running mate when he ran for re-election in 1964. Among the leaders on the short list of replacement candidates was North Carolina governor Terry Sanford.

    Had Sanford become the new vice president, whether or not he ran for president in 1968 (he made a brief attempt in 1976) he probably would have become enough of a Washington insider that he would not have become president of Duke in 1969. While at Duke, he hired Mike Krzyzewski as basketball coach. And the rest, as they say, is history.

  4. Peter says:

    When you consider who the assassin was – Lee Harvey Oswald – it is indeed a far-reach to blame Dallas for the murder of John Kennedy.

    He wasn’t even a Dallas native, having been born in New Orleans and having lived in Dallas for only a short time. Oswald trivia: when he entered the Marines at age 17 he had lived at 21 different locations.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    It’s actually a very thoughtful piece. Dreher leads Doug down the garden path again where both fail reading comprehension

    Dallas is not, of course, “the city that killed Kennedy.”

    I wonder where I copypasted that from?

  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Peter:

    He wasn’t even a Dallas native, having been born in New Orleans and having lived in Dallas for only a short time. Oswald trivia: when he entered the Marines at age 17 he had lived at 21 different locations.

    Exactly.
    The story is rich and interesting enough without the “Dallas did it” thrown into the mix.

  7. Stonetools says:

    The problem really is that the right wing radicals who were in Dallas back then are the ancestors of the Republican Party mainstream now.

  8. @rudderpedals:

    McAuley says that while still arguing that Dallas has something to atone for

  9. JKB says:

    It has to be Dallas’ fault, otherwise someone might wonder why the Democratic party moved apace after Kennedy’s death to adopt the pro-socialist, communist-friendly. anti-capitalist, anti-American beliefs of Kennedy’s murderer and abandoning Kennedy’s policies.

  10. Tillman says:

    When was the last time a president went to Dallas, anyway?

    I get the Dreher reaction, but I don’t think the grad student is saying Dallas should go penitent and atone for the sin of, uhh, conjuring a mental miasma of death that, err, affected Oswald to shoot Kennedy. He’s just pointing out that the ’60s were batshit insane.

    @Doug Mataconis: He says that and then says Dallas has never grappled with itself over what it used to be. This is a far cry from “atoning.”

  11. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Stonetools: The problem really is that the right wing radicals who were in Dallas back then are the ancestors of the Republican Party mainstream now.

    And yet Oswald was a hard-core leftist, a one-time defector to the Soviet Union and a major Castro backer.

    So… what was your point, exactly?

  12. JohnMcC says:

    SMU has an informative website marking the 50th anniversity of the assassination:

    http://smu.edu/smunews/jfk/dallas.asp

    It includes the speech he was scheduled to deliver which is certainly worth reading. It was a lengthy recitation of America’s strengths in the context of the Cold War. We had modernized our nuclear forces, developed tactical nukes, tripled the number of Polaris Submarines, etc.

    The first few paragraphs noted the political climate in Dallas. “There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, preceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. These voices are inevitable….voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality….doctrines which apparently assume that voices wll suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of it’s burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those ‘hordes’ of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.”

    SMU notes that the emeritus professor of history Darwin Payne was a young reporter covering the Dallas trip and, of course, the assassination. He is quoted: “In 1963 Dallas was a city led by right wing extremists and Kennedy haters…. This climate of hatred caused many to blame the entire city…. However out of tragedy rose a more moderate city leadership, including the voice of retail magnate Stanley Marcus… “(who became Mayor in ’64).

    For anyone interested in the events and their meaning, a wonderful place for links.

  13. Tyrell says:

    One thing is sure: there needs to be a new investigation. Interview all the witnesses, especially those on the grass hill. Release classified documents involving the CIA and Oswald (it will never happen). What about Oswald’s time in Russia? What was he doing in New Orleans? Why did Jack Ruby apparently have open access to the police department? What about the untimely and mysterious death of Ruby? Expert marksmen need to try and duplicate Oswald’s shots. Were there irregularities and problems concerning the Warren Commission? Gerald Ford was on that committee and was later the object of two assassination attempts. Coincidence, or did he know something?
    The president needs to appoint a special panel composed of detectives, forensic experts, and military marksmen to finally get some answers.

  14. JohnMcC says:

    @Tyrell: Oh my gosh! Do you really think there is a single “lead” that hasn’t spawned hundreds of articles and dozens of books? Do you think if some elusive “truth” about the assassination could be found by some super-panel such as you suggest that suddenly there would be universal acceptance of it?

    C’mon! Try to use that organ that sits uselessly between your ears, my dear innocent friend.

  15. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    I find myself wondering how hard the young man had to look to find the song lyric he used. I spent a disproportional amount of my youth listening to Country Western music and have never even heard of Jimmy Dale Gilmore. Anybody know the song?

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB:

    why the Democratic party moved apace after Kennedy’s death to adopt the pro-socialist, communist-friendly. anti-capitalist, anti-American beliefs of Kennedy’s murderer and abandoning Kennedy’s policies.

    Please… Pray tell… Just exactly when did the Democratic Party do that? The only thing you have told me with that rant is that you don’t have a clue as to what a “pro-socialist, communist-friendly. anti-capitalist, anti-American belief” is.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker:

    I spent a disproportional amount of my youth listening to Country Western music and have never even heard of Jimmy Dale Gilmore.

    Really? Don’t know the particular song but, feast your ears.

  18. Peter says:

    One thing is sure: there needs to be a new investigation. Interview all the witnesses, especially those on the grass hill.
    After 50 years many of them are dead. Not to mention that half-century-old memories are less than reliable.

    Release classified documents involving the CIA and Oswald (it will never happen).
    No idea if any exist.

    What about Oswald’s time in Russia?
    It’s been pretty well documented.

    What was he doing in New Orleans?
    It was the closest thing he had to a hometown.

    Why did Jack Ruby apparently have open access to the police department?
    Many of the Dallas cops knew Ruby from his nightclubs, and in any event security was far more lax in those days.

    What about the untimely and mysterious death of Ruby?
    It’s long since been established that he had cancer. Hardly a mysterious cause of death.

    Expert marksmen need to try and duplicate Oswald’s shots.
    Been done, many times. Someone with his known marksmanship ability would have no trouble getting off three shots in the allotted time. If anything, it’s mildly surprising that he had to fire twice before he was able to hit the presumed target (JFK’s head).

    Were there irregularities and problems concerning the Warren Commission?
    Nothing that hasn’t been hashed over ten thousand times already.

    Gerald Ford was on that committee and was later the object of two assassination attempts. Coincidence, or did he know something?
    More likely, the fact that he was president himself.

  19. al-Ameda says:

    @Tyrell:

    The president needs to appoint a special panel composed of detectives, forensic experts, and military marksmen to finally get some answers.

    Yes, none of this has been looked into before!

  20. Liberty60 says:

    @JKB:

    pro-socialist, communist-friendly. anti-capitalist, anti-American beliefs

    What makes this hilarious is that those are exactly the words used by the John Birch Society to describe Kennedy.

    The very same John Birch Society that now hosts a booth at CPAC.

    I was only a toddler, but my older brother told me that our uncle, a Bircher, had a dart board in his garage, with Kennedy’s face. He at least had the good sense to take it down after the assassination.
    Although it isn’t true, historically, to finger the American right wing for the assassination, it is completely true that they hated Kennedy with a passion.

  21. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: This guy was famous for Country Muzak? in the 50s? Truly, I’m underwhelmed.

  22. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: Wikipedia to the rescue again. The citation of Gilmore is non-contemporaneous–Gilmore started his band 9 years after Kennedy’s death (1972). Now, I no longer struggle with the reference–it’s to the TV show, not the Kennedy era.

  23. Ron Beasley says:

    We all owe Kennedy a debt of gratitude. For those of us alive then we are still alive; for those of you who had not been born you were. During the Cuban missile crisis JFK did not listen to the generals and nuclear war with the Soviet Union was averted. I was old enough to remember that – not knowing if you were going to be incinerated in a nuclear blast. The US military wanted to attack and the Russian commanders had tactical nuclear weapons at their disposal without any authorization from Moscow required. Now I have no way of knowing what LBJ would have done but I really don’t have warm fuzzies about it. Many may have thought that JFK was a “pro-socialist, communist-friendly. anti-capitalist, anti-American beliefs” but the fact remains we can thank him for the fact that we still have our civilization and probably even our planet.

  24. JohnMcC says:

    @Ron Beasley: As always, I find your remark accurate and well worth reading, Mr B. (And I too recall hearing the announcement of President Kennedy’s death at my High School — as you mentioned earlier had been your experience; I’d graduated in the class of ’63 but having received my ‘greetings from Uncle Sam’ was just hanging around the Band Room because the school was near the various recruiters’ offices that I was visiting while making that iconic ‘Silent Generation’ choice of whether to be drafted or to join a Service other than the Army.)

    I think it’s worth remembering that JFK worked out a compromise with the Kremlin that defused the Cuban Crisis; basically, he pledged that we would not invade Cuba after the Soviets removed their missles and that we would reciprocate by withdrawing our missles from Turkey.

    It’s not hard to imagine the reaction of the so-called-conservatives today if a similar quid-pro-quo were made by a Dem administration.

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley: I remember that week and Kennedy’s speech like it was yesterday. I knew some people who felt that we would not survive the week.
    Release of classified documents and statements from some Russian military people show that we were closer to nuclear war than we thought.

  26. ernieyeball says:

    @JohnMcC: Try to use that organ that sits uselessly between your ears, my dear innocent friend.

    Or as Jimmy Dugan would say:
    “Start using your head. That’s the lump that’s three feet above your ass.”

  27. Dk says:

    Kennedy finally got it through his head Dallas didn’t want him around

  28. Meade says:

    Kennedy was shot by a radical liberal, not a conservative. Why do people fail to understand that? Kennedy was not a commie, and the guy that shot him was one. His motive was all about the Cuban missile crisis.