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JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters
By John Ketwig (Reviewer)
JFK and the Unspeakable:
Why He Died and Why It Matters
By James W. Douglass
(Orbis Books, 2008)
Let me begin by stating that this is probably the most important book I've ever read!
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, I was a junior in high school. Everyone was shocked by the death of our youngest and most personable President ever, and over the years we have heard snippets of information that convinced the majority of Americans that the assassination had been the work of a conspiracy. The Warren Commission offered an official explanation of what had transpired, but it was immediately obvious that there were glaring factual problems throughout both the investigation and the document. We were, of course, about to hear another series of lies and misrepresentations that would increase America's role in Vietnam. In our lifetimes we have seen other official US Government travesties like the Watergate fiasco, Iran-Contra, and the Iraq War to rid Iraq of WMDs, or weapons of mass deception.
I have been fascinated with the assassination of JFK over the years, and I have a number of books and films on the subject. I have never seen any work to compare to "JFK and the Unspeakable" in detailed research and documentation. The murder of our President was shocking at the time, and it seemed to tilt our country and its policies away from the traditional role as the most beneficent and compassionate nation on the globe. Almost immediately, we found ourselves involved in the war in Vietnam, a senseless, cruel, and unnecessary conflict that tore apart our social fabric at home and tarnished our country's standing around the world. Suddenly, America seemed to have become a warmonger, a nation swaggering before the international community with bandoliers full of nuclear warheads slung over its shoulders, and a vast arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons stuffed in its waistband.
James W. Douglass and his wife have been peace activists for many years. A theologian, Douglass is an admirer of Thomas Merton, a religious and spiritual writer who began to write about issues of war, peace, and militarism in the early 1960s. Merton shared his writings with a wide circle of friends, and after the assassination of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy he began to comment on the profound changes he saw in America's leadership and direction, and an incipient evil whose depth and deceit seemed beyond the capacity of words to describe. There was a very active push toward using our nuclear weapons to obliterate Communists in Cuba, Laos, and anywhere our sacred concepts of democracy and capitalism were not embraced with unquestioning enthusiasm. Merton called this frightening presence and its influence "The Unspeakable."
"JFK and the Unspeakable" is a history book, compelling in its research and documentation, as I've said above. Its revelations are both enlightening and troubling, and it seems there is a new disclosure almost every page.
The story begins when Kennedy first arrives in the Oval Office. At that point JFK was a committed cold warrior, and not fully aware of all the preparations for war that were already in place. Laos was the major focus then, far more than Vietnam, and Kennedy immediately began to question the Eisenhower administration's policies there. Laos was experiencing intense civil strife bordering upon civil war. The CIA and our military had deposed Souvanna Phouma, who wanted Laos to remain a neutral nation, in favor of the tyrannical anti-communist General Phoumi Nosavan. The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged Kennedy to send in troops to eliminate the communist threat, and to consider bombing Hanoi and even China to stop the communists once and for all. Air Force General Curtis LeMay was openly adversarial to JFK, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Lyman Lemnitzer argued for a policy of unlimited escalation in Southeast Asia, stating, "If we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can guarantee victory." Kennedy resisted, and in June of 1961, succeeded in negotiating with Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev to mutually support a neutral and independent Laos to be governed by a government elected by the Laotian people. The CIA and military saw this as losing Laos, and they immediately began to request sending American troops to save Vietnam. As the pressure mounted, in October Kennedy very boldly told a public lie, that Pentagon leaders were "reluctant to send organized US combat units into Southeast Asia." He increased the number of advisors working with the South Vietnamese army, but steadfastly resisted the pressure to send combat troops.
Things had become tense, almost desperate. Lemnitzer and LeMay insisted they be given authorization to use nuclear weapons in Berlin and Southeast Asia. In August, Khrushchev had begun building the Berlin Wall. The military wanted to smash it with our tanks, but the President resisted. Tensions increased, but shortly before JFK was scheduled to speak to the United Nations, Khrushchev sent a note expressing his concerns about the specter of a nuclear war. Kennedy responded, telling the UN that America was a country seeking peace, and soon after Khrushchev and Kennedy began a secretive exchange of communications that was based upon their common concern that a nuclear war could destroy the planet.
At the same time, Kennedy defied the CIA and the Joint Chiefs regarding the terrible threat posed by a communist regime in Cuba, just 90 miles off Florida's coast. In March of 1961, barely settled into the Oval Office, Kennedy rejected the CIA's well-established plan for "an amphibious/airborne assault" on Cuba. The CIA had been training a force of Cuban exiles for an invasion. Kennedy was skeptical of the plan, but he finally approved it, but emphasized that he would not introduce US forces, even if the invasion faced defeat on the beachhead. On April 15, 1961, eight B-26 bombers of the Cuban Expeditionary Force attacked the Cuban Air Force. Douglass does not explain how the exile army got access to B-26 bombers. The American air support never happened, and Castro's forces overcame the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 19th.
The CIA had not been sure of Kennedy's approval right up to the last minute, and they had prepared a covert alternative if he had denied their activities relative to the invasion. The CIA advisers would appear to be captured by the invaders, although they would continue the planning and execution of the raid from their "prison" cells. What this meant, in effect, was that the CIA considered itself above the rule of the President. When Robert Kennedy learned of this plan, he called it "virtually treason." JFK told a colleague that he wanted "to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds." He immediately issued National Security Action Memoranda (NSAMs) to remove all military-style operations from the reaches of the CIA. He very pointedly announced that General Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs would be his primary military advisers, and then he asked the three CIA officials, including Director Allen Dulles, who had steered the Bay of Pigs operation to resign. Kennedy also moved to cut the CIA's budget dramatically in the upcoming years. This was completely contrary to the precedents set by the Eisenhower administration, and the powers in Washington were shocked. Meanwhile, JFK had come to appreciate the enormous power and influence of the CIA and military in Washington, and he began to wonder if he, as President, could ever be strong enough to actually steer the policies of the United States.
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. By this time, Kennedy and Khrushchev had been exchanging secret correspondences for some time, and they agreed that it was imperative to the survival of the planet that they find ways to avoid nuclear war. This is the message of this book, and the great revelation about JFK's worth to humanity, and the scope of the loss when his work was abruptly interrupted. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a test, and the two leaders found common ground and quietly, covertly defused the situation without resorting to death or destruction. And, on both sides, the military powers saw this as an unconscionable affront to their authorities, perhaps even as treason.
There were twenty one confidential letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Released by the State Department in 1993, the letters reveal that the Soviet Premier was also concerned that his country's military and foreign service people would disapprove. The letters were often contentious, but sometimes friendly and informal, with descriptions of children and the joys of life interspersed with political topics. They liken their responsibilities to Noah's Ark, where the "clean" and the "unclean" were brought together and forced to coexist in order for any to survive. "We have no other alternative:" Khrushchev wrote, "either we should live in peace and cooperation so that the Ark maintains its buoyancy, or else it sinks."
"JFK and the Unspeakable" is an enormous book, with page after page of carefully documented information that gives the reader a fresh new understanding of the times and events that so impacted our lives. The book gives great insight into the militarism that has engulfed America since Kennedy was assassinated. It details many aspects of the murder, leaving little doubt what forces were behind it, but it never specifically names the actual murderers. It is a collection of anecdotes and incidents, the pieces of a puzzle crafted with a jigsaw's careful, twisted precision. It is not a conspiracy theory, but of course the reader has to come away thoroughly and completely convinced that if there was no conspiracy, there was a coincidence of circumstances and an avoidance of facts that defy all imagination.
The point of this book is not to pass judgment. "JFK and the Unspeakable" is essentially a portrait of John Kennedy, and a story of his coming to terms with the realities of international politics in the age of the mushroom cloud. Kennedy dared to believe in the basic worth of every human being on the planet, including the communist Nikita Khrushchev. Stripping away the protocols and pretensions of politics and military might, Kennedy discovered that universal nuclear annihilation was not a foregone conclusion. He chose to pursue peaceful solutions to the world's problems, and the Soviet Premier met him halfway. The warmongers were put in their places, and the final chapter that took place in Dallas that terrible day in 1963 was almost certainly their response. The author of this book describes many fascinating events relevant to the assassination, and his research sheds a bright light upon the political environment that led to the silencing of John F. Kennedy. It is the huge preponderance of information that leads the reader to draw a conclusion, not the minute technical details. The result is an astounding, revealing, convincing and very troubling book. What a shame that John Kennedy didn't have more time to do his work. Again, as a Vietnam veteran, an opponent to militarism and war, and a concerned political spectator over the past fifty years of American history, I think "JFK and the Unspeakable" is probably the most important book I've ever read. I urge you to judge it for yourself.
John Ketwig is a Lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of "...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam."