Dallas 1963, by Bill Minuteaglio and Steven Davis (Twelve, 2013), 384 pages.
Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, by Edward H. Miller (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 256 pages.
History doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it seems to rhyme and with the sudden and surprising rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries this year that may seem to be truer than ever before to students of American conservatism. Every dozen years or so, a group of books are written that study the radical fringes of the conservative movement to diagnose it and label it as a danger to freedom.
Although some commentators on the Internet and the press have been doing that with Donald Trump and his supporters, such books have not been written yet about this election cycle. Although I expect they will be, you do not have to look too far back in time to see books with titles such as The Party of Fear with the subtitle “The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement,” written during the Clinton administration. Among academic historians, influential works such as The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, The Origins of the New Conservatism, and The Transformation of American Politics traced the rise of what they called a “Southern strategy” to win elections by the Republican Party that appealed to the racial views of white voters. Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama infused opposition to the black civil-rights movement with states’ rights to win elections in the 1960s, while Barry Goldwater was the first Republican presidential candidate to sweep the deep South states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the 1964 election with his opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.
Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election, but Richard Nixon in 1968 won by campaigning on “law and order.” Republican Party operatives Harry Dent, Pat Buchanan, and Kevin Phillips helped Nixon alter the “Southern strategy” to make the election indirectly about race. Phillips even laid out the entire game plan in a book titled The Emerging Republican Majority, which said that Republicans would have to make appeals to Southern white voters to win presidential campaigns from then on.
It has been common over the years to see commentators that support the Democratic Party label the entire conservative movement as based simply on racial fears or even see it as potentially dangerous. And now that Donald Trump has done better than anyone expected in the Republican presidential race, even establishment Republicans are portraying the Trump campaign as one that plays on people’s irrational fears. And libertarian thinkers such as Jeffrey Tucker see Trumpism as a form of the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s.
We can better understand the present by looking at the past. In the 1960s there was a brand of radical conservativism that has disappeared down the memory hole. It was a conservatism that was in opposition to the civil-rights movement, because it saw it as a communist-controlled movement bent on destroying the nation. It also saw communist agents at work inside the federal government who were bent on bringing a Cold War defeat to the country. It focused on traitors inside the country and sought to expose them and root them out. Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society remain the most famous representatives of that type of thinking. Even though McCarthy faded away in the 1950s, the movement continued into the administration of John F. Kennedy during the tensest hours of the Cold War. Books were written during the Goldwater campaign with titles such as Danger on the Right, by Arnold Foster, that sought to expose the movement and label Goldwater a danger to democracy, because members of this movement supported him.
And it did seem dangerous at the time. On the day that Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, leaflets were distributed in the streets of that city proclaiming him to be “Wanted for Treason” for selling out the country to communism. Just weeks before, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Aldai Stevenson visited Dallas and was accosted by right-wing protestors who hit him with a sign. He warned Kennedy not to visit the city and so did Dallas retail businessman Stanley Marcus.
The book Dallas 1963 tells the story of right-wing radicalism in Dallas during those years. Written by two journalists living in Texas today, this lively and very readable book shows how Dallas was indeed the capital of the American far Right during the early 1960s and gives you a window into the thinking prevalent among leaders and activists of the right wing there. And it was indeed a real movement that included a few billionaires, a couple dozen politicians, and several thousand housewives holding regular meetings in their homes across the country.
Dallas oil billionaire H.L. Hunt gave millions of dollars to right-wing causes and operated his own radio network called “Life-Line.” He hired a preacher to host the show who proclaimed that “constructives” were devout conservatives, while the “mistaken” were those guiding the United States to communism. One program called the United Nations “a total victory for the international mistaken conspiracy against free men.” Ten million people listened to the show every day. They were told that when Kennedy signed a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union, he was a communist appeaser. Hunt also sold 20,000 books and had 60,000 newsletter subscribers to his Facts-Forum News.
Dallas 1963 uses a month-by-month timeline approach that ends with the assassination of Kennedy to let the reader experience the spirit of this city as it moves towards that date. It is a portrait of right-wing thinking that borders on crazy. The Dallas Morning News called the test-ban treaty the “Moscow Treaty” that was a result of “the much exaggerated fear of atomic fallout.” At a White House press dinner with the president, the owner of that newspaper told Kennedy to his face “that we can annihilate Russia and should make that clear to the Soviet government. This means undoubtedly that they can simultaneously destroy us. But it is better to die than submit to communism and slavery.”
Gen. Edwin Walker also became a Dallas leader of the far Right. He was serving as head of the 24th Infantry Division in Europe until he got in trouble there for forcing his soldiers to consume a “Pro-Blue” propaganda program based on John Birch Society literature. The information claimed that officials in the White House and the State Department were traitors working for communism. Walker wrote a “Commander’s Column” in the division paper telling people whom to vote for and banned the army tabloid Overseas Weekly from his base for criticizing him.
Walker, under fire for those activities, resigned from the Army and moved to Dallas. He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Texas and went on a far-right speaking tour with Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade, which taught that the civil- rights movement and rock-and-roll were communist plots. Hargis had a radio show carried by 500 stations and a newsletter that had 55,000 subscribers.
The far Right of the 1960s was a mass movement and this book attempts to show “how fear and unease can take root, how suspicions can emerge in a seemingly orderly universe. How, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, everything that rises must converge.” It shows “how no one — including a doomed president — could have understood the full measure of the swirling forces at work in a place called Dallas.” By ending the book with the assassination of Kennedy, it places the blame for his murder on the environment of political unrest.
Nut Country, by Robert Miller, takes a more academic than journalistic approach to understanding this right-wing movement Dallas. It also claims that it created the “Southern strategy” later adopted by the Republican Party and Richard Nixon. Miller gives a detailed view of the Republican Party in Dallas, explaining that more-moderate people in the party did not like the far-right position that was taking it over at the time. He also accurately shows how the far Right of Dallas were organized around opposition to the black civil-rights movement, anti-communism, and religious fundamentalism. But they infused all of those issues with an end-of-the-world apocalyptic-style rhetoric that really made anti-communism the true glue that linked everything together for them.
But who were those people really? Where did they really come from? It’s easy to demonize people who use crazed rhetoric. But in reality apocalyptic language was something that was a part of American culture at the time. Those were the years at the height of the Cold War and a “crisis” presidency, with confrontations with the Soviet Union over Berlin and Cuba that involved dangerous nuclear bluffs on both sides. It was a time in which Americans were told that advisors needed to be sent to Vietnam to stop communist dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Even popular science fiction shows of the 1960s such as The Twilight Zone aired multiple episodes about the end of the world and nuclear war.
The nuclear confrontation of the Cold War meant constant fear in the air. So it should not be a shock that there was a real mass movement of political passion in the United States during those years. The city of Dallas was itself a product of the Cold War. In 1940 there were 26,700 manufacturing jobs in Dallas. By 1953 there were 75,750 jobs, thanks to a boom in the defense industry. The city grew to 275,000 people by the 1950s, three times faster than the national average. Almost all of that growth came as a result of defense work or contracts with the federal government. Many of the defense jobs were in aircraft plants. In 1942 the Dallas Chamber of Commerce called the city the “War Capital of the Southwest.” I would not doubt that the employees fully shared in the values of the Cold War and believed that they were playing a key role in a life-or-death struggle for the world. The far-right rhetoric was linked to a worship of the state, while at the same time it was suspicious of it.
Thirty percent of the city’s employees had upper-middle-class incomes as managers in the oil industry and associated banking institutions. They were in the top tax bracket, paying up to 90 percent of their income to taxes. So they became receptive to Republicans promising to lower taxes. In fact, the far-right movement in Dallas can also be seen as a prototype of the neoconservative movement that operates as today’s Republican Party establishment, because it called for lower taxes and limited government at home while supporting aggressive militarism abroad.
Miller makes note that many of the people who moved to Dallas actually came from the Midwest. Most of the people who came to Dallas moved there in the 1940s and 1950s from Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. What is interesting to me is that this area of the country was a stronghold of Republican opposition to both the New Deal and foreign interventionism during the Roosevelt years. It is where Republican Sens. Robert Taft and John Bricker were from. They were a totally different brand of Republican from what appeared years later in Dallas with Goldwater and Nixon. The earlier Republican Party leaders were not apostles of Cold War militarism, but of limited government. In fact they were against American intervention in World War II until Pearl Harbor and were against the Marshall Plan and the Cold War arms race started by Harry Truman. They were viewed as isolationists and their strongest geographic area of support was in the Midwest.
Robert Taft wrote a book warning against the dangers of imperial Cold War overreach and was defeated for the Republican nomination for president by Dwight Eisenhower. With his defeat and sudden death a year later from cancer, his strand of Republicanism and conservatism virtually disappeared from electoral politics. During Eisenhower’s presidential nomination, activists who supported Robert Taft were purged from the Republican Party. With nowhere to go, some of them went into libertarian think tanks while others gravitated into far-right groups in opposition to Eisenhower and the moderate Republicans.
I think Edward Miller’s book is a good one, but this is not a story he tells in his book. I believe, though, that by looking at events a few years earlier, you can see that the conservative movement in the United States has been a fluid movement and is not simply a result of excess or “Southern strategy.” In fact, Nixon’s talk of “law and order” and a “silent majority” were just as much about attacking war protestors and making appeals to militarism as they were about making indirect appeals to Southern whites, if not more so. Conservatism has had its twists and turns and changes and I think more can be learned about it by going a little further back in time than by drawing a straight line from today to one of its most radical iterations in 1963 in Dallas.
And that holds a lesson for us today. The Republican Party and conservatism are in flux right now and it is not clear where they are going. As for Donald Trump, unlike the right-wing movement of the 1960s in Dallas, whatever Trumpism is, it is not an organized mass movement. Donald Trump is a master at television, but has no real mass political organization of his own. In Dallas in 1963 there were dozens of groups working together and at times at odds with one another. I personally do not think their beliefs provide much for inspiration, but they had their own media outlets and publications with tens of thousands of subscribers, and that is how they made a real impact. It is something for everyone to learn from, no matter what political views he may have, because in the end the future political direction of both the Republican party and the Democratic party will be decided by a diverse civil society of activists and many groups with different views seeking to influence things when the parties themselves are displaying signs of serious weakness.
These two books are well worth reading. As for the right-wing movement of Dallas it was never the same once the entire city got a bad reputation after the assassination of Kennedy and the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in the city jail. The FBI even told H.L. Hunt to flee the city in the weeks after for his own safety. Local business people came to see the city’s reputation as bad for its economy. Gen. Edwin Walker and Billy James Hargis discredited themselves in sex scandals. Hunt’s sons became big financial supporters of the Republican Party and the neoconservative movement after his death. In fact, his son Ray Hunt even served on George W. Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Today there are similarities between the apocalyptic rhetoric and militarism of the 1960s far Right of Dallas and the neoconservative movement today. Indeed with the “war on terror” it became mainstream, pounded into people every night on FOX News and other media outlets. It is their true legacy for today.
This article was originally published in the July 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.