By Reginald Johnson
In the most memorable speech of his presidency, John F. Kennedy told the graduates of American University in June of 1963 that America had to build a peace that would not just provide security for our nation, but for all of mankind.
“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace --- the kind of peace that makes life worth living --- the kind that enables man and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children’ --- not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women --- not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.”
In that speech as well, Kennedy talked of U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union to achieve controls on nuclear weapons and their testing. He announced a unilateral suspension of nuclear tests in the atmosphere, so as to promote “our primary long-range interests” and a “general and complete disarmament.”
Essentially, the speech was a repudiation of the Cold War.
Five months later, on November 22nd --- 52 years ago this Sunday --- President Kennedy was assassinated, gunned own in a hail of bullets as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
A later investigation by the Warren Commission held that one man, and one man only ---- Lee Harvey Oswald --- was the killer. Oswald was portrayed as a lonely drifter, alienated from society and pro-communist.
But in the book “JFK and the Unspeakable --- Why He Died, and Why It Matters,” author James. W. Douglass maintains that elements of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment --- enraged over Kennedy’s less aggressive approach to dealing with Cuba and Vietnam and his push for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union --- had him murdered. Oswald was only a scapegoat in a plot carried out by other people.
Douglass, a peace activist and Christian theologian who studied the Kennedy assassination for years, writes that Kennedy ran afoul of high military officials and the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1960s, with a series of foreign policy decisions.
The first was when Kennedy prevented direct American assistance in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles aimed at overthrowing communist dictator Fidel Castro, an invasion which was repelled by Castro’s forces. The second was in October, 1962 when Kennedy, in the eyes of the military, made too many concessions to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during negotiations to settle the confrontation with Russia over Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Kennedy rejected a plan by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch a preemptive attack against Cuba (a step which would likely have triggered a nuclear war).
The third was Kennedy’s push for a nuclear test ban; and the fourth was JFK’s order that the U.S. slow its involvement in Vietnam, and bring all troops home by 1965.
After that, Douglass contends, Kennedy was a “marked man.”
Douglass shows in the book how Lee Harvey Oswald, contrary to the myth spun by the Warren Commission, was actually an intelligence asset, a person manipulated by the CIA and made to look like some kooky pro-communist sympathizer who hated the United States and hated Kennedy. The perfect fall guy.
The author writes that while it is clear Kennedy entered his presidency with a reputation as a Cold War hardliner, his attitudes began to change, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came perilously close to World War 111.
“John Kennedy was no saint. Nor was he an apostle of non-violence. However, as we are called to do, he was turning. Teshuvah, “turning,” the rabbinic word for repentance, is the explanation for Kennedy’s short-lived, contradictory journey towards peace. He was turning from what would have been the worst violence in history, toward a new, more peaceful possibility in his and our lives,” Douglass wrote.
As his administration progressed, Kennedy knew he was out of step with the views of the military, CIA and national security team. Increasingly, he felt isolated, Douglass writes. The author maintains that Kennedy was aware of the possibility of a coup d’etat, and that his life might be in danger.
Nonetheless, Kennedy was determined to move away from the prevailing Cold War ideology of “defeating the enemy,” and towards dialogue. Douglass reports that Kennedy set up back-door channels of communication with both Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, trying to achieve détente.
The secret communications between Kennedy and these leaders were facilitated by different people, including journalists. In fact, at the moment Kennedy was shot in Dallas, French journalist Jean Daniel, who had previously interviewed Kennedy, was interviewing Castro in Havana, and getting his response to Kennedy’s openness to improving relations between the two countries.
Douglass raises the possibility that Kennedy willingly put his life on the line for peace.
“Was John F. Kennedy a martyr, one who in spite of his contradictions, gave his life as witness to a new, more peaceful humanity?” he asks. Douglass doesn’t answer that question, instead saying, “let the reader decide.”
Douglass intersperses his writing about Kennedy and the plot to kill him, with a discussion of the views of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The connection is that Merton, a noted Catholic theologian in the 1950s and 1960s, was writing considerably at the time Kennedy took office about the pressing need for more dialogue between the nuclear superpowers and a move toward disarmament, in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust. He expressed his concerns in letters sent to a number of major public figures of the day, including Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy.
Merton wrote that while he was skeptical about whether Kennedy had enough character to move away from the Cold War mindset and towards peace, he hoped he would. It’s not known whether any of Merton’s letters reached JFK himself.
Douglass based part of his book title on a term that Merton coined in the mid-sixties --- “The Unspeakable.” Merton came up with the term as the nation was rocked by the assassinations of Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King and the mounting death toll in Vietnam.
“The Unspeakable” referred to a moral depravity on the part of many of the nation’s leaders and individuals who are part of the secretive intelligence/national security apparatus. Put in another way, Merton felt there was a moral void on the part of people in power, a void which allows them to perpetrate massive crimes, such as assassinations, wanton bombing of other countries and torture, with no accountability.
But The Unspeakable affects the nation’s citizens as well, Merton said. Lulled to sleep by a media which rarely asks government leaders about what’s really going on and always paints a positive picture about the country's actions abroad, people live in a “climate of denial” about the possibility that terrible things are being done to maintain American power.
“JFK and the Unspeakable” is a remarkable book that I recommend to everyone. While I have already read quite a bit about the Kennedy assassination, this book gave me even more information and perspective. The book brought home again the power and ruthlessness of our national security state.
I was particularly moved by Douglass’s writing on John Kennedy’s transformation from Cold War hardliner to peace advocate.
I agree with Douglass’s assertion that we owe a debt of gratitude to John Kennedy, and his partner in peacemaking, Nikita Khrushchev, for taking steps to create a more peaceful relationship between the two superpowers and for pulling the world back from nuclear annihilation.