Can Obama Face the 'Unspeakable'?
If there’s one book I wish President Obama would read over the holidays, it is JFK and the Unspeakable.
Obama, like President John F. Kennedy, has had his first encounters with the permanent warfare establishment, and so far, has been persuaded by their arguments. This book could open his eyes – and ours – to the possibility of another path.
In this eloquent, remarkable book, longtime peace activist and theologian Jim Douglass uses Thomas Merton, a prominent Catholic monk, to elevate the study of Kennedy’s presidency to a spiritual as well as physical battle with the warmongers of his time.
In 1962, as Douglass records in his preface, Merton wrote a friend the following eerily prescient analysis:
“I have little confidence in Kennedy. I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality ….
“What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”
Merton coined the term “the Unspeakable” to describe the forces of evil that seemed to defy description, that took from the planet first Kennedy, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and which tragically escalated the war in Vietnam.
Merton warned that “Those who are at present too eager to be reconciled with the world at any price must take care not to be reconciled with it under this particular aspect: as the nest of the Unspeakable. This is what too few are willing to see.”
The Unspeakable represents not only willful evil but the void of an agenda for good, an amorality that, like a black hole, destroys all that would escape from it.
Douglass defines the Cold War version of the Unspeakable as “the void in our government’s covert-action doctrine of ‘plausible deniability,’” that sanctioned assassinations and coups to protect American business interests in the name of defeating communism.
Douglass traces Kennedy’s confrontation with the Unspeakable and his efforts to escape that trajectory. Kennedy came to understand that peace through war would never bring us true peace, but only a “Pax Americana,” which would foster resentment among the conquered, sowing the seeds of future conflicts, a fear that has proven true over and over in the years following his death.
Douglass opens with a sort of mea culpa, noting that by failing to see the connection between Kennedy’s assassination and his own personal fight against nuclear weapons, he “contributed to a national climate of denial.”
Douglass explains that the cover-ups of the assassinations of the Sixties was enabled in large part by denial, and not just by the government, but by those of us who never clamored for the truth about what happened.
Douglass reminds us that “The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that has become foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves. Our citizen denial provides the ground for the government’s doctrine of ‘plausible deniability.’”
Douglass quotes Gandhi on the principle of satyagraha, how truth is the most powerful force on earth, and how, as Gandhi said, “truth is God.” If you want to see God, you must first be able to look truth in the face.
Douglass frames Kennedy’s assassination as rooted in our Cold War past. Our collective failure to demand accountability for the crimes done in our name came back to haunt us in the most visceral of ways on Nov. 22, 1963, when the President was shot dead in the street in front of us.
With astonishing moral clarity and elegant prose, Douglass lays out Kennedy’s multiple battles with the military, industrial and intelligence establishments, which are not really separate entities, but deeply interdependent on each other.
The well-documented (and footnoted and indexed) book opens with a succinct chronology of major events during Kennedy’s administration. Seeing all the events laid out simply, end-to-end, makes the book’s conclusions all the more powerful.
The answer to the question implied in the book’s subtitle of “Why he was killed and why it matters” seems self-evident when you strip away all the false history and distractions that have been injected into the record to muddy the waters and look simply, finally, at what happened.
Douglass takes us back to what may well be the source of John Kennedy’s courage – the sinking of his PT boat and his heartbreakingly difficult but ultimately successful efforts to rescue his comrades. Kennedy faced his own death several times during that first long night, and told his fellow crewmembers when he got back to shore that he’d never prayed so much in his life.
Even after he was safe, Kennedy plunged back into the ocean a second time in an attempt to signal another boat. Kennedy’s utter selflessness was not some liberal fantasy; it was an actuality, for his PT crew.
As Robert Kennedy wrote later, at least half of John Kennedy’s life he suffered some form of pain. He had scarlet fever as a child, and suffered from back trouble most of his life. He was beset with illnesses, often at the most inconvenient times.
But he never complained, and few realized what he dealt with. Perhaps these experiences shaped John Kennedy’s own sense of compassion for others.
And perhaps these experiences, in which death seemed always nearby, gave him the courage to do what few others would attempt, as the Cold War nearly exploded into a hot one during the Cuban missile crisis.
Kennedy’s first confrontation with the Unspeakable came during his first 100 days in office with the Bay of Pigs operation he inherited as a going concern from the Eisenhower Administration. The CIA convinced Kennedy that the operation would be successful, and that no American troops would be needed (Kennedy’s prerequisite for launching the operation).
The Cuban exiles were trained and ready and well supplied, he was told. Kennedy approved the plan, and the plan was a disaster.
In the Bay of Pigs account, Douglass referenced something I had never read before – coffee-stained notes from Allen Dulles leftover from an unpublished draft of an article, discovered by Lucien S. Vandenbroucke. In the notes, Dulles acknowledges the plan had no chance of success, but that he and others in the CIA drew Kennedy into the plan on the assumption that when it failed, Kennedy would send in the military to finish the job.
Dulles and the CIA had vastly underestimated Kennedy’s capacity to absorb defeat rather than to escalate a situation.
Douglass also cites an NPR report by Daniel Schorr to support this notion. Schorr attended a special conference on the Bay of Pigs in 2001, and reported on NPR additional details supporting this thesis, concluding that, “In effect, President Kennedy was the target of a CIA covert operation that collapsed when the invasion collapsed.”
The CIA even had a plan to circumvent Kennedy if Kennedy had not agreed to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Under the plan, Kennedy would be maneuvered into rubber-stamping it through the careful stage-managing of his ignorance.
But the one thing the CIA could not do was order the military’s direct intervention. For that, they needed the President. And that is where Kennedy won his first battle with the Unspeakable. He refused to choose more death and destruction over defeat.
Kennedy would demonstrate this capacity two more times – during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in his refusal to escalate troop levels in Vietnam.
Douglass outlines in perhaps the greatest detail yet the various backchannels President Kennedy used to open avenues of communication with both the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Castro was more distrustful of Kennedy than Khrushchev was at first, but Khrushchev told Castro that Kennedy could be trusted.
Indeed, Castro became so enamored of Kennedy that he was visibly distressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination. He felt they had just started to make progress, and was concerned about his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and queried a contact about Johnson’s relationship with the CIA. (Castro knew how the system worked perhaps even more acutely than Kennedy did, having been at the receiving end of its actions for so long.)
Douglass is not uncritical of Kennedy, and points out his notable failing for even half-heartedly supporting the coup that led to the assassination of Diem in Vietnam.
But Douglass adroitly sidesteps sideshow issues that make up too much of the Kennedy literature of late, and focuses on Kennedy’s most important policy decisions, and how they show Kennedy’s changing and continually evolving mindset.
It was that evolution that threatened the ruling class who perhaps had assumed at first that they had elected one of their own to the White House. Kennedy was, after all, rich and privileged, and with that combination usually came the typically pro-business-above-all-else mindset.
But Kennedy was not one of them, as Douglass makes clear through the context of Kennedy’s actions in office. He was operating with a more spiritual understanding of our place in the world. And Merton proved right. That evolution put a target on his back.
Douglass’s book is a wondrous mixture of biography, history and conspiracy realities. Douglass seamlessly mixes new information about long acknowledged events with well-documented discoveries about the CIA’s covert relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald in a narrative that is tragic, compelling, and works on the reader with a quiet moral force, relentlessly asking us to face the truth about these events.
We, too, face the Unspeakable, each and every day. What can we do better? Douglass quotes Gandhi saying “truth is God,” and suggests that only by confronting the truth about our past can we be liberated from the Unspeakable.
The only fault I would find with the book, and it’s a really small one, is some reliance near the end on a couple of first-person accounts for which there are no additional corroborating records. The events may be true accounts, and if they were true, it makes sense there would be no corroborating records.
But the author provides no caveat, and given how well-documented the rest of the book is, those episodes stick out for their thinness. Still, these events are not central to the book’s thesis, and if proven false, they in no way detract from the rest of the nourishing narrative.
As someone who has researched the Kennedy assassination for over 17 years, and who has read many books on the case, I can finally say, for the first time, this is the single best book ever written on why Kennedy was killed, who did it, and why it still matters.
It’s only fair to note that Douglass quoted from my own writings on the subject liberally. But before you assume that affected my objectivity, so have many others whose books I could not in good conscience recommend. Douglass maintains an unerring focus on the truth of what happened that is all too rare in books on the assassination.
If you’re only going to read one book on President Kennedy’s assassination, let Douglass, like Charon, ferry you through that murky realm. If enough people read and talk about this book honestly, a sea change in our foreign policy will become not just possible, but inevitable.
The truth really could still set us free, if we are brave enough to confront it.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.
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