Friday, November 22, 2013

Umbrella Man

Edward H. Miller

At 12:30 PM on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas—just as Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots into the presidential limousine—Louis Steven Witt stood on the sidewalk of Elm Street as the presidential motorcade passed. Witt was doing something that many of us would consider peculiar. He carried a large black umbrella opened widely as the sun shined brightly in the Texas sky. In Abraham
Umbrella Man at far left of photo.
Zapruder’s famous twenty-six second film that captured the assassination, Witt’s umbrella can be seen just as the limousine, having briefly been obstructed by a freeway sign, reappears and President Kennedy suddenly grasps for his throat. In the years following the tragedy, assassination theorists produced several outlandish accounts of what Witt—the Umbrella Man, as they named him—was actually doing. Some posited that Witt was a signalman for the supposedly numerous gunmen in Dealey Plaza that day. Another equally preposterous explanation was that the umbrella itself fired a dart, rendering the president frozen for the kill shot. Witt’s umbrella actually exemplified a common form of protest by the far Right, which was strong in Dallas in the 1950s and 1960s. The umbrella was meant to disparage any policy that involved compromise by invoking the memory of England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (who always carried an umbrella) and the failed policy of appeasement that he championed against Hitler at the Munich Conference in 1938.[1]

Umbrella protests first began in England after Chamberlain arrived home from the conference carrying his trademark accessory. Wherever Chamberlain traveled, the opposition party in Britain protested his appeasement at Munich by displaying umbrellas. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Americans on the
Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella.
far Right employed umbrellas to criticize leaders supposedly appeasing the enemies of the United States. Some politicians even refused to use them for that reason. Vice President Richard Nixon banned his own aides from carrying umbrellas when picking him up at the airport for fear of being photographed and charged as an appeaser.[2] Returning from the Geneva Conference in 1955, President Eisenhower had to give a speech in the pouring rain because Nixon had prohibited presidential assistants from carrying umbrellas.[3] Campaigning against Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in 1952 and 1956, Nixon declared, “If the umbrella is the symbol of appeasement, then Adlai Stevenson must go down in history as the Umbrella Man of all time.”[4] When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 and President Kennedy did not send American troops to tear it down, German students, as well as many Americans, sent him umbrellas.[5] Upon returning home after having established new cultural and commercial ties with China in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon was met with umbrella-wielding students, who shared William F. Buckley’s assertion that Nixon had “sold out” by meeting with the leaders of the Communist dictatorship.

While it is clear that many have been tagged as umbrella men over the years, Dallas’s Louis Steven Witt said that his real target of his protest was Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the ambassador to England at the time of the Munich agreement and whose support of Chamberlain was well known. Appearing before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, Witt explained that being a “conservative-type fellow” and, having heard from a work colleague that the umbrella was a “sore spot” for President Kennedy (because his father had been criticized intensely), he had wanted “to heckle the President’s motorcade” and thought the umbrella would do the job.[6]
Louis Steven Witt testifying in 1978.

Witt’s explanation is plausible, but what really matters is how others understood his actions that morning. If we consider the historical context—Dallas’s status as a redoubt of the far Right and the flurry of newspaper articles in Ted Dealey’s Dallas Morning News comparing Kennedy to Chamberlain and the 1963 Test Ban Treaty to the Munich agreement—it is likely that Witt’s umbrella was at least perceived by the crowd around him as a protest of President Kennedy’s nuclear disarmament policy. “Kennedy acts like Neville Chamberlain,” observed one letter to the editor in March 1963.[7] Another reader wrote in August 1963 that the “dissolution of the British Empire started at Munich with Neville Chamberlain, that of the United States in January, 1961, with the Kennedy regime.”[8] Another Dallasite, W.E. Parks, wrote in 1963: “the nuclear-test-ban treaty . . . is the Chamberlain-Hitler ‘peace in our time’ pact with a new cast and new lines.”[9] In an editorial on September 9, 1963, the Dallas Morning News drew what it called “parallels between the Munich agreement and the current U.S.-British-Soviet test-ban treaty.” Suggesting that President Kennedy was another Neville Chamberlain, the News observed, there “is no more encouragement today for believing that the Soviets have changed their aggressive intentions than there was to believe the Nazis had changed their goals in 1938.”[10]

The incident illustrates the potency and ubiquity of far Right ideas in Dallas in 1963. Elements of this worldview extended into different aspects of everyday behavior, sometimes even when ordinary moments turned into extraordinary events.

Edward H. Miller received his Ph.D. in History from Boston College. His manuscript, Into Nut Country: Dallas Republicans, the Southern Strategy, and the American Right, 1952-1964, is currently under review by the University of Chicago Press. Miller currently is an adjunct professor at Northeastern University. 

[1] Attesting to the umbrella’s popularity as a sign on the Right in the 1960s, Todd Gitlin writes, “In one corner, right-wingers from Young Americans for Freedom hoisted black umbrellas, intimating that we were Munich-minded equivalents of Neville Chamberlain, and hissed sporadically throughout the evening.” The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam Books, 1987), 99.

[2] Richard Reeves, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (Simon & Schuster, 2001), 468;  Geoffrey M. Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012), 100; and Neil A. Hamilton, The 1970s (Facts On File, 2006), 87.

[3] Ira Chernus, Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace (Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 90.

[4] Kevin Mattson, Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952 (Bloomsbury, 2012), 168.

[5] Thomas G. Paterson, Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963 (Oxford University Press, 1989), 42.

[6] Dallas Morning News, September 24, 1978; September 26, 1978.

[7] Ibid., March 24, 1963.

[8] Ibid., August 12, 1963.

[9] Ibid., August 5, 1963.

[10] Ibid., September 13, 1963.


hcr said...

Wow. I had NO idea off all this stuff about the umbrellas. And it explains so much.... Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Impressive information. Well done! More proof that the real stories in history are to be found in the small details. Now I need to do some digging to find out if Sabato covered the umbrella man in his new book.

Howard Bean said...

A historical researcher at work. Well done Ted.

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