James W. Douglass, Catholic author and pacifist, has written a compelling and deeply disturbing book about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In his introduction to JFK and the Unspeakable, Douglass traces his own spiritual journey and his growing understanding of the forces of violence and evil—the unspeakable—in our culture. He also describes his debt to his mentor Thomas Merton, who foresaw assassination for a president who might break with this unspeakable power.
I read this book with intense interest because I served in Washington as a lobbyist for the Quakers on peace and justice issues before, during, and 27 years after the Kennedy administration, and had contacts with Kennedy and his Senate and White House staff. Indeed, I was one of six Quakers in a delegation to talk with him in the White House on May 1, 1962, which is noted briefly in the book. During the intervening years, as controversy swirled around Kennedy’s assassination, I was in avoidance or denial, rationalizing that if the government was involved, someone would surely talk and Robert Kennedy, still attorney general with all the resources of the Department of Justice, would certainly find the truth.
I am sure critics of a conspiracy theory involving U.S. government officials will point out errors and shortcomings in Douglass’ text, but nearly 100 pages of footnotes to back up some 400 pages of text have tremendous cumulative impact.
Douglass has the advantage of the passage of 45 years, which has brought the release of official papers from U.S. and Soviet archives. The creative, relentless digging of researchers has disclosed the bias of the Warren Commission. The passage of time also persuaded some people who were involved in one way or another to set aside fears for their personal safety that had kept them quiet. Of special interest in Douglass’ book is the secret Kennedy-Khrushchev personal correspondence of 21 letters initiated by Khrushchev during the Berlin crisis of September 1961, finally declassified in 1993.
Kennedy emerges from Douglass’ portrait as much more than a shrewd, rich, witty, philandering politician. Kennedy’s well-known hawkish statements and policies are muted in the book, which attempts to create a balance to these widely known views. Kennedy’s near-death experiences in World War II, the deaths of family and colleagues, and his own health problems gave him a sense of the transitory nature of life. His study of politics and history, especially of the French experience in Algeria and Indochina, gave him an appreciation of the inability of even great powers to hold back liberation movements in the post-colonial world. And his willingness to expose himself to many divergent viewpoints gave him a breadth of understanding of the human condition. One footnote tells of an afternoon and evening visit Joe and Jack Kennedy made in 1940 to the Mott Street Catholic Worker in New York City, and supper and late-night talk with Dorothy Day, ardent pacifist and champion of the poor.
These experiences helped give Kennedy the inner confidence to stand up to the power and prestige of the CIA and Joint Chiefs in a series of events during his presidency, which Douglass spells out in detail: first, his refusal to order U.S. air support for the invading Cubans at the Bay of Pigs; second, his agreement with Khrushchev to settle for a coalition government in Laos; and third, his refusal to buckle to tremendous pressure for military air strikes against the Soviet missile sites in Cuba during the October 1962 crisis.
The Cuban missile crisis was the seminal event in solidifying Kennedy’s commitment to preventing a nuclear war at all cost and moving toward arms control and disarmament. This became evident in his June 10, 1963, speech at American University, in which he reached out to Soviet leaders and presented an alternative to the Cold War and a perpetual arms race. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was the first result and a hoped-for beginning of a peace race rather than an arms race.
Kennedy then further antagonized the intelligence and military establishment by contemplating an opening to Castro and preparing to halt the escalation from military advisers to troops in South Vietnam, writes Douglass, citing numerous official and unofficial sources.
Having established a motive for the assassination of the president, Douglass rejects the conclusion that Oswald acted as a lone gunman. That theory, which had been recommended to the newly installed President Lyndon Johnson, avoided the necessity to consider a conspiracy of the right wing in America. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone was vociferously challenged as biased and inconsistent with the facts. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in 1979 that Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy whose participants were not identified. Douglass hypothesizes that “the CIA coordinated and carried out the president’s murder,” but the responsibility was not limited to the CIA.
Douglass’ case is overwhelming and nearly mind-numbing in detail. It includes the curious government disinterest in Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union and his return to the U.S.; the numerous contradictions in evidence that may be explained by the existence of an Oswald double; Oswald’s various handlers; an abortive assassination plot in Chicago earlier in November; lax Secret Service protection in Dallas; Ruby’s role with the CIA; and the shout by Oswald to journalists after his capture that he was only a patsy.
This book is a fascinating whodunit mystery about one of the most famous murders of the last century. It is a tale of well-intentioned nationalist ideologues ready to use unspeakable means to achieve their perceived good ends. And it raises profound questions about whether President Obama’s interracial, international, and intercultural life experiences might enable him to break as radically with the past as JFK did in seeking a peace race rather than an arms race with a mortal enemy.
Edward E. Snyder is executive secretary emeritus of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.