Review of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters, by James Douglass, Orbis Books, 2008.

Plus: Excellent coverage of the numerous witnesses and the large body of evidence that confirm beyond doubt the existence of a conspiracy to carry out a coup d’état.

Minus: Hagiographic assessment of JFK, uncritical acceptance of the notion of JFK as on a spiritual “quest for peace.” The focus on the “quest for peace” obscures the underlying causes of JFK’s conflict with the US government, and the US government’s conflict with the USSR, China and nations emerging from colonial rule.    

JFK-Unspeakable

In 2008, the Catholic theologian James Douglass published JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters.[1] It has come to be respected as one of the most thorough studies of the assassination of John. F Kennedy. Douglass goes into great depth and detail on the assassination, JFK’s political career, and the powers that were lined up against him—the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, organized crime, Cuban exiles, as well as the oil, steel and defense industries. One of the book’s great merits is its timing. Because it was written in the 21st century, the author was able to gather research and witness testimony that was not available earlier. Douglass brought together all the lesser-known witnesses of the assassination and cover-up, some of whom became its victims, and some of whom were willing to talk only later in life when threats had passed.

Douglass defines The Unspeakable in terms established by another theologian, Thomas Merton, who saw in the Vietnam war, the nuclear arms race, and the political assassinations of the 1960s “an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.” The Unspeakable is “ultimately a void, an emptiness of any meaning, an abyss of lies and deception.” Douglass adds that the unspeakable also refers to the deep denial within the American population, the reluctance to face the presence of this evil in their society. The average Joe, just like the government, has adopted a policy of plausible deniability in order to live in doubt and deflect disturbing questions about the possibility of nuclear war or about the dubious notion of wars fought for national security.[2]

The book reminds us that the assassination of JFK did not take only a president’s life. It damaged the careers and lives of many who tried to speak out, and it traumatized some in ways they never recovered from. Some died in suspicious circumstances. Douglass tells the stories of the witnesses who called out the lies of the official autopsy, and those who saw the numerous Oswald imposters in the weeks before the assassination and on the day of the assassination. He describes Oswald’s obvious career as a double agent first sent to the Soviet Union under cover as a dissident, then extracted to live unpunished back in the nation he had apparently renounced.

Douglass also tells the story of the little-known Chicago assassination plot that was aborted three weeks before November 22, 1963, explaining how it was set up to unfold in the same way as what happened in Dallas. It was timed curiously to coincide with the CIA-directed murder of South Vietnam’s president in a coup d’état, suggesting that there had been a plan to cause maximum chaos in US foreign policy with two concurrent assassinations. In Chicago too there was a “lone nut” patsy set to be arrested after the murder while there was a team of snipers moving into its positions along the parade route.[3] Douglass’ thorough coverage of the assassination adds up to a solid case that puts to rest any argument that Oswald acted alone or that there was no conspiracy to overthrow the elected head of state.

Another episode worthy of note is the description of how Jacky Ruby, Oswald’s assassin, had a history of running weapons into Cuba, at first not to help Cuban exiles but to help Castro! This information reveals a common agent provocateur strategy employed by the CIA throughout its existence. The least desirable thing was always stability, whether it was Cuba and Indonesia in the 1950s or Syria and Ukraine in the 2010s. Thus before Castro was seen as a viable threat, he was seen as useful in giving the pro-American Batista regime an excuse to increase repression of civil society and democratic processes. However, the rebels weren’t supposed to actually win. The CIA wanted to help the rebels in a measured way because if the political process had been left to its own, there would have always been the danger that a peaceful and legitimate democratic election would result in a stable government that was not aligned with American interests.

These are a few of the many strengths of JFK and the Unspeakable, but the weak point of the book is that Douglass goes too far in his praise for JFK and avoids many critical questions about JFK’s true intentions as well as his private and political scandals which severely compromised his ability to achieve his loftier goals. The lies told and dirty tricks pulled to get elected are barely mentioned. Douglass acknowledges JFK’s adulterous behavior but only in the chapter notes where he interprets that in the last months of his life JFK was repenting and changing his ways as he drew closer to his wife after the loss of their infant son. This theory fits nicely with the view of the author that JFK was spiritually transformed in the last year of his life after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is speculation about the man’s private thoughts and how those thoughts affected his actual behavior, or would have affected it if he had lived longer.

On the issue of JFK’s private scandals, the common wisdom says that things were different then and private failings could not ruin a political career, but this is an absolutely unfounded belief. In fact, it was a much more socially conservative time, so one can argue that the public might have actually been more scandalized then if JFK’s adultery had become known. Since the CIA was so powerful, it certainly could have chosen to kill his reputation through running stories in the media. It is also significant that the alleged exploits were often not even affairs with women he cared about but merely unseemly arrangements with strangers—the sort that has brought heaps of scorn upon powerful men in recent years.

Proof that these affairs were potentially damaging, even in the early 1960s, lies in the fact that JFK went out of his way to conceal them. Some conspiracy analysts, such as Roger Stone, allege that he was blackmailed into putting Lyndon Johnson on the vice presidential ticket. Later, whenever he faced difficult decisions about purging officials scheming against him, he must have hesitated because of what he feared his enemies could leak to the press. None of these unsavory issues seem to be speakable in Unspeakable. Furthermore, Douglass devotes many pages to the loss of loyalty among the Secret Service agents who protected JFK, but he fails to mention that the young women brought into the White House might have been a factor that demoralized these agents. Considering the socially conservative decorum set by recent presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, JFK’s private behavior—let alone his alleged leftist sympathies—would have been enough to make many of his political enemies consider him as a national security risk and mentally and morally unfit for office. By failing to cover these matters, Unspeakable avoids the discussion of how JFK hemmed himself in by his own actions. He was left fatally compromised by his behavior, and perhaps by a shame that sapped his confidence. Douglass points out that JFK was surrounded by opponents and isolated, but this was often a matter of JFK’s choices, so his isolation remains inexplicable. For example, if Henry Cabot Lodge was so opposed to JFK’s policy of withdrawal from Vietnam, why did JFK appoint him as ambassador to Vietnam? Either JFK had an irrational drive toward failure, or he didn’t really have much of a policy disagreement with his ambassador.

Other critics of the hagiographic view of JFK take issue with the famous National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263 which allegedly proves JKF intended to end American involvement in Vietnam. Douglass interprets NSAM 263 in the most optimistic way possible, believing like many other conspiracy analysts that if JFK had lived, the nightmare of American involvement in Vietnam would have been avoided. In the hundreds of sources listed by Douglass there is no mention of Noam Chomsky’s withering critique of this theory written in 1993 (Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture), nor of historians such as Frederik Logevall who wrote:

NSAM 263 hardly represented the kind of far-reaching policy initiative that the incipient-withdrawal proponents suggest. It was one part of a larger ‘selective pressures’ policy designed to push the Diem regime into greater effectiveness… The great preponderance of the evidence…would appear to refute any notion that John Kennedy had decided to withdraw from Vietnam. [4]

One could speculate that Kennedy, because of his spiritual turning in 1963, might have later withdrawn all US forces from Vietnam, but Kennedy’s optimism in this regard was based on his advisors’ reports that stated there was a possibility of the South Vietnamese government prevailing against both domestic insurgents and the North Vietnamese by 1965. Historical events in Vietnam proved that popular support for American occupation or neocolonial ties did not exist. The South Vietnamese government never had a chance of prevailing without massive American assistance. However, no one in the American administration ever considered just leaving and letting the Vietnamese people decide their own destiny because the unspeakable truth was that the communists would prevail.

In general, Unspeakable overstates the case that JFK was on a quest for peace. It may be true that we have to be grateful that JFK and Khrushchev stepped back from launching a nuclear holocaust. It was fortunate that they were in charge when so many of the highest ranking US officials wanted to begin a pre-emptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union during the supposedly limited time it could be “won” with only a minimal loss of about 30 million American lives and untold millions more in other nations. Nonetheless, it is speculative to say that only JFK would have stopped this insane plan. Lyndon Johnson also dismissed the notion in his habitual colorful language, and it’s likely that almost any human being in his position would have declined to “push the button”—even those generals who urged it only when it was an abstraction, when it would be someone else who had to take responsibility. At one point during Johnson’s presidency, a general pressured Johnson to dramatically escalate the war in Vietnam with overwhelming naval and air power. He was not recommending he initiate a nuclear first strike, but even still Johnson erupted in an incredulous rage that such drastic aggression could provoke a nuclear war:

You goddamn fucking assholes. You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit—your “military wisdom.” … You dumb shit. Do you expect me to believe that kind of crap? I’ve got the weight of the Free World on my shoulders and you want me to start World War III? … Imagine that you’re me—that you’re the president of the United States—and five incompetents come into your office and try to talk you into starting World War III. … What would you do? The risk is just too high. How can you fucking assholes ignore what China might do? You have just contaminated my office, you filthy shitheads. Get the hell out of here right now.[5]

Johnson actually did go on to increase aggression to the shocking levels advised by his generals, but he chose to do it gradually. He explained the strategy in equally vulgar terms by comparing North Vietnam to a woman whose leg he was “crawling up” one inch at a time. His confrontational style is striking for its contrast with JFK’s. Perhaps JFK would have been more successful if he had not been so passive-aggressive and instead employed this direct communication style. He is described in similar exchanges with military leaders as staring back blankly or leaving abruptly to express his anger outside the room.

As a Catholic theologian, Douglass was inclined to view the Catholic Kennedy as profoundly spiritual, almost saintly in his turn toward peace after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The word “peace” is so overwrought in this book that the author avoids looking, perhaps ask JFK did himself, at the ideological, class, economic and political struggles that would need to be resolved in order to achieve lasting peace. Douglass refers often to Gandhi as a peacemaker, apparently unaware of how Gandhi is viewed by many in India as far less than saintly because of he was never interested in destroying caste or ruling class structure.[6] In the same way, Douglass fails to see similar shortcomings in JFK. He makes much of the back-channel secret correspondence that occurred between Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1962-63. In these letters they saw themselves as two opponents sailing on the same ark, each willing to put aside differences and leave unresolved which of them was darkness and which was light, because they both had an interest in staying alive during their journey to a distant shore. This was a positive thing, but the underlying issues of contention could not be ignored indefinitely. New leaders would come after them, and the root problems would remain. This is more obvious now when we can look back at the American and Soviet leaders who followed them, at the supposed end of the Cold War, and at the re-emergence of “Cold War” animosities even after Russia became capitalist itself. The conflict was never really about “communism” but rather about hegemony over the world’s human and natural resources.

Douglass never reveals his views about communism, whether he is sympathetic to it as a revolutionary force in history, just as Christ’s message was, or whether he assumes that communism is an atheistic, mistaken ideology that still had to be opposed somehow through pacifism. This leads to the question of whether the author left the subject unspoken in order to avoid breaking America’s greatest taboo—questioning the state religion of anti-communism. Douglass condemns the extreme anti-communism of the people who killed JFK, but never explores the implications of this criticism, and seems to suggest that JFK was right to remain moderately anti-communist while he cautiously negotiated the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty and looked for ways to cool off tensions with the Soviet Union. However, the contradictions involved in being moderately anti-communist are never explored. There is no discussion of the underlying causes of the antagonisms between the US and Soviet spheres of influence. These were rooted in economic systems, class struggle, and fights for national sovereignty in the developing world. They would continue to lead to violent conflict even if JFK and Khrushchev managed to avoid nuclear war for a while.

At one point Douglass seems close to facing the contradiction when he covers JFK’s conflict with the steel industry. JFK realized that the federal government, through its defense contracts, was the principal buyer of steel, and thus had the power to set the price for it. (The same argument is made today about the government’s unused power to set prices for pharmaceuticals and medical services.) In negotiations with the major steel companies and their unions, JFK took on the role of a central planner and got all parties involved to settle on a fair price. After the unions had agreed to the terms, the major steel companies reneged and demanded higher prices. JFK fought back by shifting contracts to the few smaller companies that had stuck to the original deal. The big firms fought back, accusing the president of acting like a Soviet commissar. This was the moment when JFK should have responded that indeed he was a commissar, that the American economy required central planning, and that the democratically elected leadership should have the power to do this planning. Of course, it was anathema for JFK to say such a thing, but a deeper discussion of economic justice seems essential in any discussion of the tensions that arose within the United States at this point in the Cold War.

Marshall McLuhan made famous the phrase “the medium is the message,” and in a similar way it was becoming clear “the technology is the economic and social structure.” In mid-century, some economists and sociologists talked of a convergence theory, arguing that technocratic society required hegemony over large territories, and nuclear arsenals required a security state that would restrict freedoms. They stated that capitalism would become more centrally planned and bureaucratized while socialist powers would need to maintain a “state capitalism” which hindered progress toward true communism. Thus the US and the Soviet Union would come to resemble each other as time went on. This is indeed what happened in extreme form in such places as Hanford (USA) and Mayak (USSR), two technocratic centers where nuclear weapons were built.[7] Though life was harsher the Soviet Union, it did not mean, as critics reflexively like to state, that “socialism doesn’t work.” Harsh conditions could be explained by the fact that the Soviet Union and China were constantly opposed by the more developed capitalist world. They were also going through a later and faster industrialization than the US had experienced, and they were doing it after suffering much heavier losses in wartime than the US had experienced.

According to convergence theory, not to mention the predictions of Marx, eventually private interests in the US would have to be regulated to enhance national security and to invest in programs that maintain a healthy and educated citizenry. JKF faced this crossroads in the steel crisis, but he was unable to admit, or perhaps even recognize, the deeper implications. To do so, he would have had to betray his own class interest and renounce the American religion of anti-communism. The religious focus of the American peace movement has always alluded to the biblical reference of turning weapons into plowshares, but how many people these days even know what a plowshare is? What is needed for the modern dilemma is a focus on economics rather than on obscure discussions of “peace.” We need to look beyond the actual meaning of plowshare (the blade of a plow) and imagine something a little different. We have to rethink how we share what is produced with the plow so that, for example, a hospital could be thought of as a share or dividend of what is produced with the plow. The benefit of living in an energy-intensive, technological society is that fewer people than ever earn their living producing food, while the bounty of the land is used to feed soldiers, nuclear scientists and weapons manufacturers. When will technologically advanced societies find something better to with their surplus besides organizing for war?

In the steel crisis there was the implicit acknowledgment by JFK that life within technology required a transformation of capitalism into socialism, just as Marx would have argued. Otherwise, there would be increasing inequality and failure to address urgent social needs. The problem was never resolved, and now, fifty years later, it has become belatedly obvious to many Americans that their corporations rushed into China over the last thirty years, trading away technologies in order to gain access to cheap labor, with no regard for long-term national interests of the United States or for American workers. Douglass never addresses JFK’s failure to deal with this contradiction, nor does he examine it himself. He keeps the focus on the quest for “peace” without going into the complex questions about the economic interests that threaten peace.

Douglass also passes over several important points on which JFK should be criticized for getting facts wrong and overstating threats from adversaries. For example, Douglass lauds JFK’s famous American University speech (June 1963), but misses a crucial fact that JFK got wrong. He claimed that the USA and Russia never fought each other in war, when in fact the US invaded Russia immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution in order to assist the bourgeoisie in the Red-White civil war.

In another instance in the speech, he acknowledged the virtue of Soviet people but stated that Americans “find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity.” It was a backhanded compliment that insulted both the people and the government of the Soviet Union, but ironically this historic speech was ignored by the “free” American media but published prominently in the “unfree” Soviet Union, in spite of the mix of insults and compliments it paid to the Soviet Union and its people. An objective critique of the speech would have to dispute JFK on this point. Many Americans did not find communism repugnant, and there had recently been a thriving workers’ movement and communist party in the United States until it was repressed in a fashion very much at odds with a nation that respected freedom and dignity.

In another segment, Douglass describes JFK’s meeting with a group of pacifist Quakers:

As JFK spoke of having already taken steps for peace that he admitted were small, the Quakers broke in to suggest a bolder initiative—food for China. The United States should offer its surplus food to the People’s Republic of China, then considered an enemy nation but one whose people were in a famine. Kennedy said, “Do you mean you would feed your enemy when he has his hands on your throat?” The Quakers said they meant exactly that. Sam Levering said pointedly, “As Quaker Christians, we know that Jesus said, ‘If your enemy hungers, feed him.’ As a Catholic, you know that.” Kennedy said, “I do know that. I’d propose making food available immediately if it were politically possible. But the China lobby is strong.”[8]

It is noteworthy that even the pacifist Quakers had internalized the notion that the Chinese were enemies of the United States and that they had their hands on the American throat. Douglass leaves the point unexamined as well. In truth, however, Chinese military forces remained on their side of the Pacific Ocean, 9,000 kilometers from American shores. China had become a military opponent only because the United States had decided to interfere in the internal affairs of Vietnam. To speak of China as a nation that posed a mortal threat (hands on throat) to the United States was a gross distortion of the actual situation. This is not a trivial point because it goes back to what was stated above about the anti-communist wars being fundamentally an insistence on hegemony for American economic interests. Anyone who resists “has his hands on America’s throat.”

Everything written above may be too harsh a critique of Unspeakable and of JFK. As Douglass stressed, it is the citizens of the United States, and citizens of its allies, who have refused to face The Unspeakable, refused to renounce nuclear weapons and the pursuit of military supremacy. JFK may have wanted to say much more than he did about the futility of waging war on communism, but he knew the limits of public opinion and the opinion of other power holders. After all the books, interviews, films and speeches that have been made on this topic over the last fifty-five years, the best summation of all may be the one made in a rock song lyric recorded during the week Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote Sympathy for the Devil as The Unspeakable one’s first-person narrative of world history:

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

When after all it was you and me.

Notes

[1] James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (Orbis Books, 2010). See also Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action founded by James Douglass and others.

[2] James Douglass, Introduction.

[3] Edwin Black, “The Plot to Kill JFK in Chicago,” Chicago Independent, November 1975.

[4] Frederick Logevall, “Vietnam and the Question of What Might Have Been,” in Mark J. White, ed. Kennedy: The New Frontier Revisited (New York University Press, 1998), 25, 27, 34-53.

[5] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Publishing, 2012), 334-335.

[6] Samreen Mushtaq, “Arundhati Roy Questions Gandhi’s Status as the ‘Mahatma’ in a Lecture at Jamia,” Jamia Journal, March 4, 2014.  This article summarizes a lecture given by Roy in which Mushtaq writes, “[Roy asserts Gandhi] wasn’t trying to destroy the ruling structure, rather [he was] looking forward to being friends with it. She castigated Gandhi for how he looked at women not as individuals but as a category and also for his silence on the accumulation of capital and the unequal distribution of wealth, in addition to his statements of wanting to live like the poorest of the poor. “Can poverty be simulated? Poverty is not just a question of having no money or no possessions, but about having no power. As a politician, it was Gandhi’s business to accumulate power, which he did effectively,” Arundhati Roy explained.

[7] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013). This book details how the requirements of producing nuclear weapons imposed remarkably similar social structures on both the American and Soviet citizens who made them.

[8] James Douglass, Chapter 6.

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