“Rumours are circulating,” the Saturday Nov 23 epilogue to Dallas 1963 begins, “that in some Dallas schools, the children broke into cheers and applause when they first heard of Kennedy’s shooting.”
For those who have grown up with the widely known images of the US nation united in mourning after the sober TV announcements of John F Kennedy’s death, the above remark is eye-catching, even stomach churning.
However, as the previous 318 pages of Bill Minutaglio and Steven L Davis’s epic tome Dallas 1963: The Road to the Kennedy Assassination expertly explain, the scene — whether real or imagined — fits all too well into the atmosphere of hate in the years leading up to the tragedy. Casting a clinical eye over the events leading to the death that shook the world in November 1963, the acclaimed Texas journalists superbly put the shocking scenes at Dealey Plaza into context.
And context is always king. The book begins in January 1960, with the chapters providing a month-by-month slow-burning build-up to what is to come just under four years later.
As Kennedy and Richard Nixon are in the final sprint for the White House, Dallas has become the election kingmaker, with many believing the conservative pro-segregation majority in the city will sway the race Nixon’s way.
However, when Kennedy’s vice-presidential candidate Lyndon B Johnson and his wife are assaulted by a “mink coat mob” of housewives who have been racked up into a fury over the Democrats liberal agenda by ultra-conservative congressman Bruce Alger, the PR battle slips Kennedy’s way.
The sight of well-dressed women spitting on, jostling and trapping an election candidate and his wife in a hotel foyer hints at the near civil war of opposing views crashing together in the US at the time.
As the years progress the stand-offs become more intense. Brown v Board of Education — the policy change which de-segregated America’s schools — is passed, but Texas and other southern states are refusing to accept the law change. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People is facing threats to be outlawed in the city because of its “communist” views. The White House is desperately trying to ignore army pressure to “wipe out” Russia in a preemptive nuclear war, despite an admission that millions of American citizens — and countless innocent Russians — will likely die.
And an anti-Catholic attitude in some parts of the US means that, despite his well-polished charm, Kennedy is viewed with deep suspicion.
In 1960s America, Dallas is the epicentre of these societal battles, and in such a sea of hate the inevitable tidal wave is bearing down on an unsuspecting nation.
Using the readers’ general understanding of what happened at Dealey Plaza on Nov 22, 1963, as a story-telling tool, the final pages of the book dovetail perfectly, before playing out like an inevitable end to a thriller where the warning signs of exactly what is to come are clear to everyone — except those involved.
A month before the shooting, the US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, was assaulted by anti-Kennedy protestors in Dallas and privately warned the White House he “was very concerned about Kennedy’s safety in the city”.
Days later, a Texas Democrat raised similar fears, saying the atmosphere in Dallas was ugly and could encourage an “unstable person” to take action into his own hands.
A pamphlet titled Wanted For Treason and emblazoned with the president’s image was also being widely circulated throughout the southern city.
However, focused on winning a vital state in the race to re-win the presidency and keen to face down his extremist detractors on their own patch, Kennedy failed to heed the warnings. Tragically, a comment he made to reporters at Arlington National Cemetery in the days before arriving in Dallas seems in hindsight to be the clearest prediction of all: “This is one of the really beautiful places on Earth,” he said. “I could stay here forever.”
While the authors are keen to stress from the outset that the book is not meant to address the many conspiracy theories surrounding the murder, pointing the finger of suspicion towards certain key players in the affair is inevitable, and needed.
In the “post credits” section of Dallas 1963, Minutaglio and Davis detail what happened to those who stoked the flames of hatred that led to Kennedy’s shooting — and why legitimate questions still hang over them.
While Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald and other well-known names receive attention, the links to disgraced general Edward A Walker, ultra-conservative Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey, pro-segregationist preacher WA Criswell, womanising congressman Bruce Alger and the secretive John Birch Society are notable.
However, even in this section the authors stay true to their focus on uncovering the facts and atmosphere which led to the Dallas shooting rather than being distracted by the more popularised conspiracy theories.
Nothing — you can almost hear the book stress again and again — ever happens because of one, single event. Life is always in the drip-drip detail or, as the American essayist Flannery O’Connor put it, “everything that rises must converge”.
Travelling to that convergence through this book, rather than conspiracy-obsessed alternatives that have littered shelves in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the incident, is a riveting read for those keen to find out what ‘really’ happened in Dallas.
Kennedy — a divisive yet liberal leader who was far from the clean-cut persona he tried to portray — was killed by a bullet. But, ultimately, it was shot from the barrel of racial inequality, religious extremism, Cold War paranoia and Deep South isolation-soaked independence passed off as patriotism, rows which engulfed an entire generation and stole more than one man’s life.
Countless attempts have been made to explain the Kennedy assassination, but few have ever tried to explain the city where it happened. For any politics or history buff, this slow-burning non-fiction thriller is a must.
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