Fifty years ago today, I saw this live on television:
I think about it today and realize this was the first time I saw what today would be immediately identified as a terrorist being led to jail by police. And it was the first time I witnessed a murder.
Years pass, and you read things that say that when the Dallas police charged Lee Harvey Oswald with the murder of the president, they said it was because of a communist plot to overthrow the government. That was noted on a PBS “Frontline” report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:
NARRATOR: Less than one hour after the President was pronounced dead, police had arrested a suspect. Lee Harvey Oswald was a 24-year-old former Marine who had once defected to the Soviet Union. Only weeks earlier he had visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies.
JAMES P. HOSTY, FBI: The original complaint that the police department filed on Lee Oswald, around midnight on the 22nd of November, said that Lee Oswald did, “in furtherance of an international communist conspiracy, assassinate President John F. Kennedy.”
NARRATOR: That night, as Air Force One brought John Kennedy’s body home to Washington, the new president was afraid that Oswald’s apparent communist connections could spark an international crisis. President Johnson ordered the district attorney to drop any reference to a communist conspiracy.
Pres. LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: This is a sad time for all people.
Mr. HOSTY: Johnson was fearful that if this had gotten out, it would inflame public opinion and could possibly lead to World War III. This is exactly how World War I began, with an assassination.
This fear of World War III does make sense. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just a year earlier. In October 1962, people were convinced there was going to be a nuclear war. America’s right wing, led by members of the the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to invade Cuba.
The other thing that strikes me about the day is how totally incompetent the Dallas police were. Here’s a longer TV feed of the Oswald shooting.
No one checks ID. No one keeps people away from the transfer of the most hated man in America. And when he’s shot, the police just let reporters walk into the crime scene. It looks like anyone could walk in. Strike that. Jack Ruby, a strip club owner with mob connections and a gun did walk in and killed Oswald.
There was a “Prairie Home Companion” on recently broadcast from Dallas. One of the jokes was something along the lines of: “Here in Dallas, gun control is when you hold a gun real steady before you fire.”
In Dallas in 2013, that got a huge laugh. But all I could think when I heard the line was that in Dallas in 1963, a president was murdered. And in Dallas in 1963, the murderer of a president was murdered on national television.
Dallas was out of control.