Reintroducing JFK: Seeing Our Slain President Through a New Lens by Steve Clemens. June 2008
Review of James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2008)
I had just turned 13 the month before the startling news was broadcast into my 8th grade classroom: President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and had been rushed to the hospital. It was followed by the bulletin that the President was dead. Lorenzo, my fellow classmate, an Italian Catholic, burst into tears. I sat quietly thinking: at least we got that Papist out of the White House! The anti-Catholic indoctrination I received from my church and parents never allowed me to see JFK as a person, only a symbol of a false religion to reject. Oh, and he was a Democrat as well!
Had I known the JFK that Jim Douglass reveals in his new book, I would have had more reasons to dismiss him: a President engaging in peacemaking activities with the Premier of the godless Communists, Nikita Khrushchev, passing letters back and forth that even members of his Cabinet were unaware! A US President secretly arranging for face-to-face consultations with Fidel Castro to resume normal diplomatic relations with a communist Cuba! The man who issued the secret National Security Action Memorandum 263 ordering the removal of 1,000 US Military advisors from Vietnam by the end of 1963 and ALL US Troops by the end of 1965. Under the guise of “peacemaking” President John F. Kennedy was urging “capitulation” to the Soviets in the Cold War – at least from my junior high school analysis.
Jim Douglass describes JFK’s “turning” – his movement toward peace rather than “victory” after the almost catastrophic “Cuban Missile Crisis” the year before in 1962. While the world was on the brink of nuclear devastation, I had practiced the “duck and cover” technique at school in the event the Ruskies dropped “the big one”. My own personal “turning” toward peace began five years later when I had to register for the military draft when I turned 18 in the fall of 1968. Fortunately I was no longer dependent on getting political perspective from US News and World Report (The Commies are killing our missionaries in Vietnam!) nor my theology from my evangelical/fundamentalist church (Jesus’ call to “Love your enemies” was trumped by St. Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Rome: “Let every soul obey the governing authorities”).
Having been issued a uniform and rifle for the compulsory ROTC class when I registered for my college freshman year, I had an epiphany on the rifle range when I realized that even though the targets were circular, they were, in reality, the bodies of the “Viet Cong”. Under no reading of Jesus’ teaching could I justify pulling the trigger so I registered as a conscientious objector. I had begun my own turning. Little did I know that one year later, I would be marching on the local Wheaton, IL draft board arm-in-arm with a Catholic priest! Another year later would find me taking some courses with that priest at the nearby Catholic Maryknoll Seminary. Soon I would discover Jim Douglass’ The Non-Violent Cross after I had left behind my anti-Catholic upbringing and was open to hearing the “Gospel” through a new lens. My own turning toward peace.
Why would a legendary peace theologian get caught up in conspiracy theory? That was my first question when I received an invitation to attend a Pax Christi retreat 5 or 6 years ago led by Jim Douglass. I’d read virtually all his excellent books, followed his campaign against the Trident and the White Train delivering nuclear weapons to those submarines, and had met him at several conferences on peacemaking. When he and his wife Shelly moved to Birmingham to form a Catholic Worker House, I anticipated seeing more of him because I was only four or five hours away in southwest Georgia. However, soon after they arrived, our family moved to Minnesota. Now here was a chance to re-connect with this insightful theologian-activist. But his retreat topic was on the connections between the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin King and Malcolm X! He talked about how American deals with its prophets – in similar fashion to the way the Romans dealt with the notorious Galilean troublemaker during the administration of Pilate and Felix. At the time, Jim was only beginning the long research project that has led to this first of what promises to be a trilogy of books on the killings of prophets and peacemakers in the 60s in America.
Research indeed! JFK and the Unspeakable has close to 100 pages of small-print footnotes to document and explain his sources about the JFK most of us did not know. However, a small but powerful force within the government, namely the CIA, the FBI, the Joint Chiefs of the military, and even some of his own Cabinet and advisors, came to feel the need to remove him as a danger to an American strategy of global domination. Kennedy, recognizing that the use of nuclear weapons against the Soviets would leave an estimated 140 million dead, decided you could not “win” the Cold War. The others in that military-industrial-intelligence complex felt that with “only” a few million Americans killed if America struck with a first-strike, we could “win”. The window for such an advantage in the nuclear arsenal and delivery systems would narrow and begin to close after 1964, leading some to conclude that the obstacle that the President embodied would have to be removed before the end of 1963.
The “unspeakable” in the title comes from Trappist monk/peacemaker Thomas Merton’s book, Raids on the Unspeakable. It is a term he used to describe the confluence of evil within systems like governments, corporations, and other power centers. Walter Wink uses the term “the Domination System”. St. Paul referred to “the Principalities and Powers”. President Eisenhower coined the phrase “the Military Industrial Complex”. Catholic Worker Dorothy Day talked about “this filthy, rotten system. The “unspeakable” that conspired (breathed together) against JFK (and later his brother as well) was the manifestation of the national security state that insisted on total allegiance to both its ideology and methodology. Kennedy ran for office as a Cold Warrior. Only his glimpse into the abyss that was the Cuban Missile Crisis allowed him to see how close that system pushed toward a nuclear holocaust.
Kennedy was truly saved by his enemy – Nikita Khrushchev. The irony this book discloses that all three antagonists, Castro, Kennedy, and Khrushchev, all had struggled for peaceful co-existence in opposition to their own advisors. Each leader was trapped within national systems that had a vested interest in keeping the conflict going rather than risking a negotiated resolution.
Through extensive interviews and research, Douglass paints a compelling portrait of the supposed assassin/”patsy”, Lee Harvey Oswald. While the Warren Commission (conveniently controlled by ex-CIA Chief, Allen Dulles) failed to interview numerous witnesses that might challenge the “lone gunman” theory, Douglass sought out the stories that convincingly (to me) argued for at least one or more “Oswald” doubles. Douglass argues that the CIA hoped to pin blame for the assassination of the US President on both Cuba and the Soviets, urging the new President, Lyndon Johnson to “retaliate” with their desired preemptive nuclear strike.
It was the successful cover-up orchestrated by the Warren Commission Report that led to the subsequent assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, followed by Kennedy’s brother, Bobby is the argument Douglass puts forth. JFK and the Unspeakable is the first of a trilogy of books attempting to unmask or at least begin to demystify this force of evil that has so captivated our national soul.
Besides attempting to portray John Kennedy’s courage in his “turning”, Douglass also wants to steel his readers who are committed to peacemaking to be realistic about the challenges we face. If the “unspeakable” is willing to kill a sitting President, what should we expect if we attempt to follow Jesus down that same road? The Kennedy that Douglass portrays is less overtly religious than Martin King in his last days (“I only want to do God’s will.”). JFK “looked into the abyss” and chose his path of change or turning when he decided that the fate of the world’s children were at stake if these nukes were ever used again. Kennedy realized that even just the atmospheric testing of these weapons imperiled the health of all humanity with the radioactive fallout.
But Kennedy’s religious tradition also spoke to him clearly – especially through the powerful words of the initiator of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII with his final masterpiece, Pacem in Terris. The impact of this work so moved Nikita Khrushchev that he is reported to have kept a medallion given to him by this beloved pontiff on his desk in the Kremlin as a way to irritate some of his own Politburo advisors.
Kennedy’s own commencement speech given at American University five months before his death certainly owed some of its power and insight to the recently deceased pope who died two weeks prior to that June 1963 address. In that speech which ironically was carried more widely over the radio to Soviet citizens (and ignored by most US media), Kennedy cautioned Americans not to demonize the other side. His words, “… not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.”, could (and should) be readily applied today to Ahmadinejad’s Iran.
The book also raises a very disturbing portrait of how this National Security State imperils our democracy. The idea of a group of secretive men (although there are probably some women in the mix today) deciding who can be or remain President exposes the figure-head nature of the power of that office. The collusion of un-elected agents, military officers, wealthy business elites, “diplomats” and others plotting behind the scenes to replace the elected head-of-state is not just something that happens in Third World nations. Was what happened in November 1963 in Dallas really a coup-d’etat?
Back in the mid-70s, William Stringfellow raised questions about the compatibility between democracy and the apparatus of a National Security State. Stringfellow, drawing on the insights of Biblical prophets and the writings of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, called the allegiance demanded of citizens by this obsession with “security” during the Cold War by its Biblical name: idolatry. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire, cold warriors searched about for new adversaries so they could continue to justify our dependence on and subservience to the military industrial complex out of fear. Terrorism conveniently became the new whipping boy and the anticipated “peace dividend” disappeared.
While Douglass’ JFK story harkens back to the Cold War, the idolatry of the National Security State is as strong as ever – and its practitioners stand ready to remove or marginalize any who stand in its way. How else could one explain the almost universal condemnation of former-President Jimmy Carter’s sit-down with the leadership of Hamas and Syria this Spring? Or the annual rite of genuflecting before the power of AIPAC by both Democrats and Republicans – each vying to out-do the other in pandering to the Israeli state, ignoring and neglecting the cries for justice emanating from behind the 26’ tall “security barrier”, the new Berlin Wall that Carter has identified as apartheid?
This book is sobering, disturbing –but ultimately hopeful as well. If even such a stout Cold Warrior as John Fitzgerald Kennedy could decide to “turn toward peace” –albeit at a terrible price – can we too break the shackles of fear and greed and begin that same turning ourselves? As Jim Douglass reminded a friend of mine: who is the real “hero”, the prime mover of this story? It is God - God working through JFK, Khrushchev, and others who had the courage to take risks for peace. “After all,” Douglass reminded him, “the nuclear holocaust didn’t happen!”
We must open ourselves to recognize the common humanity we share, as “we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” When we recognize and act on this, we join hands with the Creator and work together to build a world of peace. One place to start is exposing, unmasking, naming the truth behind this system. Exposing it to the light. It might put us in its target but only by escaping its clutches can we truly be free and healed of that primal urge to dominate.