john f. kennedy

JFK And The Unspeakable

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.

 

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On Profiles In Courage

I recently read Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy.

The central theme of the book is: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues -courage. “Grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway defined It. And these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles. A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today —and in fact we have forgotten.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “I am not so sure, after nearly ten years of living and working in the midst of “successful democratic politicians,” that they are all insecure and intimidated men.” I am convinced that the complication of public business and the competition for the public’s attention have obscured innumerable acts of political courage—large and small—performed almost daily in the Senate Chamber. I am convinced that the decline— if there has been a decline—has been less in the Senate than he public’s appreciation of the art of politics, of the nature of the Senate as a legislative chamber. And, finally I am convinced that we have criticized those who have followed the crowd—and at the same time criticized those who have defied it—because we have not fully understood the responsibility of a Senator to his constituents or recognized the difficulty facing a politician conscientiously desiring, in Webster’s words, “to push [his] skiff from the shore alone” into a hostile and turbulent sea. Perhaps if the American people more fully comprehended the terrible pressures which discourage acts of political courage, which drive a Senator to abandon or subdue his conscience, then they might be less critical of those who take the easier road—and more appreciative of those still able to follow the path of courage.”

2- “Where else, in a non-totalitarian country, but in the political profession is the individual expected to sacrifice all— including his own career—for the national good? In private life, as in industry, we expect the individual to advance his own enlightened self-interest—within the limitations of the law—in order to achieve over-all progress. But in public life we expect individuals to sacrifice t their private interests t( permit the national good to progress. In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige and his chosen career on a single issue.”

3- “Fortunately or unfortunately, few follow that urge—but the provocation is there—not only from unreasonable letters and impossible requests, but also from hopelessly inconsistent demands and endlessly unsatisfied grievances.”

4- “Great crises produce great men, and great deeds of courage. This country has known no greater crisis than that which culminated in the fratricidal war between North and South in 1861. Thus, without intending to slight other periods of American history, no work of this nature could overlook three acts of outstanding political courage—of vital importance to the eventual maintenance of the Union—which occurred in the fateful decade before the Civil War. In two cases—involving Senators Sam Houston of Texas and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, both of whom had enjoyed political dominion in their states for many years— defeat was their reward. In the third—that involving Daniel Webster of Massachusetts—even death, which came within two years of his great decision, did not halt the calumnies heaped upon him by his enemies who had sadly embittered his last days.”

5- “Webster had written his own epitaph: I shall stand by the Union … with absolute disregard of personal consequences. What are personal consequences … in comparison with the good or evil which may befall a great country in a crisis like this? … Let the consequences be what they will, I am careless. No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer or if he fall in defense of the liberties and Constitution of his country.”

6- “Lamar: If [a Senator] allows himself to be governed by the opinions of his friends at home, however devoted he may be to them or they to him, he throws away all die rich results of a previous preparation and study, and simply becomes a commonplace exponent of those popular sentiments which may change in a few days. . . . Such a course will dwarf any man’s statesmanship and his vote would be simply considered as an echo of current opinion, not the result of mature deliberations.”

7- “Lamar: The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.”

8- “George Norris: It happens very often that one tries to do something and fails. He feels discouraged, and yet he may discover years afterward that the very effort he made was the reason why somebody else took it up and succeeded. I really believe that whatever use I have been to progressive civilization has been accomplished in the things I failed to do rather than in the things I actually did do.”

9- “Columnist: The fact that thousands disagree with him, and that it is politically embarrassing to other Republicans, probably did not bother Taft at all. He has for years been accustomed to making up his mind, regardless of whether it hurts him or anyone else. Taft surely must have known that his remarks would be twisted and misconstrued and that his timing would raise the devil in the current campaign. But it is characteristic of him that he went ahead anyway.”

10- “This has been a book about courage and politics. Politics furnished the situations, courage provided the theme. Courage, the universal virtue, is comprehended by us all—but these portraits of courage do not dispel the mysteries of politics. For not a single one of the men whose stories appear in the preceding pages offers a simple, clear-cut picture of motivation and accomplishment. In each of them complexities, inconsistencies and doubts arise to plague us. However detailed may have been our study of his life, each man remains something of an enigma. He However clear the effect of his courage, the cause is shadowed by a veil which cannot be torn away. We may confidently state the reasons why—yet something always seems to elude us. We think we hold die answer in our hands—^yet somehow it slips through our fingers.”

11- “Of course, the acts of courage described in this book: would be more inspiring and would shine more with the tradition. luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot wholly about himself in his dedication to higher principles. But it may be that President John Adams, surely as disinterested as well as wise a public servant as we ever had, came much nearer to the truth when he wrote in his Defense of ^the Constitutions of the United States: “It is not true, in fact, that any people ever existed who love the public better than themselves.””

12- “John C. Calhoun: I never know what South Carolina thinks of a measure. I never consult her. I act to the best of my judgment and according to my conscience. If she approves, well a and good. If she does not and wishes anyone to take my place, I am ready to vacate. We are even.”

13- “These stories are the stories of such a democracy. Indeed, there would be no such stories had this nation not,t maintained its heritage of free speech and dissent, had it not fostered honest conflicts of opinion, had it not encouraged tolerance for unpopular views. Cynics may point to our inability to provide a happy ending for each chapter. But I am certain that these stories will not be looked upon as warnings to beware of being courageous. For the continued political success of many of those who withstood the pressures of public opinion, and the ultimate vindication of the rest, enables us to maintain our faith in the long-run judgment of the people.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

Profiles In Courage