I recently finished reading JFK and the Unspeakable – Why He Died and Why It Matters by James W. Douglass. As James Bradley best said it in his praise of the book: “A remarkable story that changed the way I view the World”.
Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:
“The Unspeakable” is a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination—in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil w^hose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.
Whether or not JFK was a martyr his story could never have been told without the testimony of risk-taking witnesses to the truth. Even if their lives were not taken—and some were—they were all martyrs in the root meaning of the word, witnesses to the truth. The belief behind this book is that truth is the most powerful force on earth, what Gandhi called satyagraha, “truth-force” or “soul-force.” By his experiments in truth Gandhi turned theology on its head, saying “truth is God.” We all see a part of the truth and can seek it more deeply. Its other side is compassion, our response to suffering. The story of JFK and the Unspeakable is drawn from the suffering and compassion of many witnesses who saw the truth and spoke it. In living out the truth, we are liberated from the Unspeakable.
Two critical questions converge at Kennedy’s assassination. The first is: Why did his assassins risk exposure and a shameful downfall by covertly murdering a beloved president? The second is: Why was John Kennedy prepared to give his life for peace, when he saw death coming.? The second question may be key to the first, because there is nothing so threatening to systemic evil as those willing to stand against it regardless of the consequences. So we will try to see this story initially through the life of John Kennedy, to understand why he became so threatening to the most powerful military-economic coalition in history that its wielders of power were willing to risk everything they had in order to kill him.
To match the efficiency of a totalitarian enemy, U.S. military leaders urged legislation that would mobilize the nation to a state of constant readiness for war. Thus the National Security Act of 1947 laid the foundations of a national security state: the National Security Council (NSC), the National Security Resources Board (NSRB), the Munitions Board, the Research and Development Board, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Before the act was passed, Secretary of State George Marshall warned President Truman that it granted the new intelligence agency in particular powers that were “almost unlimited,” a criticism of the CIA that Truman would echo much too late—soon after the assassination of John Kennedy.
Castro’s comparison between Cuba and Vietnam provokes further questions about John Kennedy. If JFK had the courage to resist the CIA and the Pentagon on Cuba, as Castro recognized, how could he have allowed himself to be sucked into the war in Vietnam? Or did he finally turn around on Vietnam in a way that paralleled his changes toward the Soviet Union and Cuba? Did John Kennedy ultimately make a decision for peace in Vietnam that would become the final nail in his coffin?
As spring turned into the summer of 1963. President John F. Kennedy had decided to withdraw the U.S. military and neutralize Vietnam, just as he had done in Laos. When he said that one day to his aides Dave Powers and Kenny O’Donnell, they asked him bluntly: How could he do it? How could he carry out a military withdrawal from Vietnam without losing American prestige in Southeast Asia?
In Kennedy’s short presidency, the military-industrial complex actually increased its profits and power. JFK’s initial call to develop a military response to the Soviet Union and its allies that would be “more flexible” than the Eisenhower policy of mutual assured destruction expanded the Pentagon’s contracts with U.S. corporations. Yet in the summer of 1963, the leaders of the military-industrial complex could see storm clouds on their horizon. After JFK’s American University address and his quick signing of the Test Ban Treaty with Khrushchev, corporate power holders saw the distinct prospect in the not distant future of a settlement in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were prepared to shift their war of conflicting ideologies to more peaceful fronts. Kennedy wanted a complete ban on the testing of nuclear weapons, then mutual steps in nuclear disarmament. He saw a willing partner in Khrushchev, who wanted to ease the huge burden of arms expenditures on the Soviet economy. In that direction of U.S.-Soviet disarmament lay the diminished power of a corporate military system that for years had controlled the United States government. In his turn toward peace, Kennedy was beginning to undermine the dominant power structure that Eisenhower had finally identified and warned against so strongly as he left the White House.
In his deepening alienation from the CIA. the Pentagon, and big business. John Kennedy was moving consciously beyond the point of no return. Kennedy knew well the complicity that existed among the Cold War’s corporate elite. Pentagon planners, and the heads of “intelligence agencies.” He was no stranger to the way systemic power worked in and behind his national security state. But he still kept acting for “the interests of the great mass of Other people”—and as his brother Robert put it, to prevent “the specter of the death of the children of this country and around the world.” That put him more and more deeply in conflict with those who controlled the system.
On September 20, 1963. two months and two days before his death. Kennedy spoke to the United Nations. He took the opportunity to return to a theme of his American University address—pursuing a strategy of peace through a step-by-step process. Peace,” he said, “is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.”
Just as Chicago was the model for Dallas, Saigon was the backdrop for Chicago. The virtual simultaneity of the successful Saigon plot to assassinate Ngo Dinh Diem and the unsuccessful Chicago plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy strongly suggests their having been coordinated in a single, comprehensive scenario. If Kennedy had been murdered in Chicago on the day after Diem’s and Nhu’s murders in Saigon, the juxtaposition of the events would have created the perfect formula to be spoon-fed to the public: “Kennedy murdered Diem, and got what he deserved.”
How real was the threat to use President Kennedy’s assassination as the justification for an attack on Cuba and the Soviet Union? When we take off our Warren Commission blinders, we can see that the letter sent to the Soviet Embassy was designed to implicate the Soviets and Cubans in the murder of the president of the United States. That was the apparent tactic of a twofold, winner-take-all plot: a plot to assassinate the president who was prepared to negotiate an end to the Cold War, intertwined with a deeper plot to use fraudulent proof of the U.S.S.R.’s and Cuba’s responsibility for that assassination so as to justify the option of preemptive strikes on those same two Communist nations. President Kennedy encountered that kind of push for a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union from the beginning of his presidency. While such a “winning strategy” was becoming a top-secret, military priority, the pressures on Kennedy to approve it were so intense that it took a contemplative monk in the silence of his Kentucky monastery to recognize and articulate the truth.
On December 22, 1963, one month to the day after JFK’s assassination. Former President Truman published a very carefully worded article in the Washington Post warning the American people about the danger of the CIA taking over the government. He wrote: “I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and Operations of our Central Intelligence Agency—CIA … “For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas. “We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” Truman’s warning, with its ominous post-assassination timing, was greeted by total silence. Had it been noticed and heeded, the controversial ex-president might have been accused more justly this time of trying to abolish the CIA, since he did indeed want to abolish its covert activities. President Harry Truman had himself established the CIA in 1947, but not. he thought, to do what he saw it doing in the fall of 1963.
Then came the heart of the speech, the most eloquent statement of John F. Kennedy’s presidency: “So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s memory of what Jacqueline Kennedy said to Mikoyan was more succinct: “My husband’s dead. Now peace is up to you.” That essence of her message is appropriate to us all. John F. Kennedy is dead. Now peace is up to us.
President Kennedy’s courageous turn from global war to a strategy of peace provides the why of his assassination. Because he turned toward peace with our enemies, the Communists, he found himself at odds with his own national security state. Peacemaking was at the top of his agenda as president. That was not the kind of leadership the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military-industrial complex wanted in the White House. Given the Cold War dogmas that gripped those dominant powers, and given Kennedy’s turn toward peace, his assassination followed as a matter of course. The story of why John Kennedy died encircles the earth. Because JFK chose peace on earth at the height of the Cold War, he was executed. But because he turned toward peace, in spite of the consequences to himself. humanity is still alive and struggling. That is hopeful, especially if we understand what he went through and what he has given us as his vision.
A must read on leadership, politics and world affairs.