Greg's Reviews > JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters

JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglass
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it was amazing

For well over a year after I purchased James W. Douglass’s book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, I delayed opening it. In a strange way, I feared having my worst suspicions about the circumstances surrounding his death confirmed. Once I finally begin reading, however, I quickly became caught up in a masterfully told, and scrupulously researched, tale of alternating darkness and light. I recommend this book to all who wish to understand why JFK was murdered, by which web of conspirators, and why it still matters 50 years later.

Douglas believes that Kennedy’s execution cannot be understood apart from the political and cultural context of the time. It is Douglas’ argument – supported by mountains of footnoted data – that powerful figures in the intelligence and military establishments came to believe JFK’s gradual turning away from the rigid tenets and course of Cold War thinking – including America’s reliance upon nuclear weapons – constituted a very real threat to the survival of the United States. How this state of affairs came to be is what makes this book so very interesting and, despite Kennedy’s murder, oddly hopeful.

For those of us born in the ‘40s and reared in the ‘50s, Douglass brings back with remarkable freshness many things about those times we may have forgotten, or deliberately buried in our memories. Younger persons, for whom JFK is only a figure from the past, will likely be both fascinated and horrified by some of the attitudes and actions of those in authority at the time. While our popular culture’s portrayal of those days has nostalgically pictured the ‘50s and ‘60s as a period of prosperity, tranquility, and even as a fun time to be alive, it was actually a time of considerable international and domestic tensions. JFK’s election in 1960 occurred precisely when several of these smoldering wicks were about to burst into flame.

What makes the story of Kennedy’s journey away from the violence of war, and the ideologically rigid view that fueled it, so remarkable is that he – like all of us alive then – was clearly a product of the virulent anti-communism permeating American society. It is painful to remember how dramatically stark was the division between “us” – the United States and West in general – and “them” – specifically Russia and China, but also including those in “the Soviet bloc” (and, for many conservatives, even the self-anointed “nonaligned” states).

Recall, for instance, these markers of the time:

• The “fall of China” to the Communists in 1949 with Mao’s defeat of Chiang Kai-shek, and the seeming irresistible spread of Communist ideology through poor and troubled countries;
• The bloody struggle between UN forces (largely American in composition) and Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean War, beginning in 1950;
• Senator Joseph McCarthy’s strident claims throughout the early ‘50s about how communists had infiltrated many departments of the federal – and perhaps even state – governments;
• The House Un-American Activities Committee’s subsequent witch-hunts and black-listings of authors, movie producers, and many others;
• Americans’ widespread fear of the Soviet Union’s intentions with its recent acquisition of atomic weapons; and,
• How the South believed that “outside trouble-makers” represented a “threat to order” by stirring up the black people of the South.

Like all of us, JFK was a complex person. What Douglass’ book reveals, however, is the amazingly strong – and highly admirable – strength of moral character that shaped and governed his actions. He also had the remarkable capacity to learn from experience and, accordingly, to grow in understanding and to alter his behavior accordingly. (I realize that the foregoing comments will offend those convinced of Kennedy’s moral “failings” as evidenced by his many extra-marital affairs. One of the saddest features of our current time, however, is how we seemingly have lost all perspective concerning morality and public ethics. While not condoning JFK’s womanizing, such frankly pales before those who – while remaining publicly chaste and pious – would, nonetheless, lie and connive to take us to war and to the inevitable killing fields that would follow. JFK, unlike many otherwise “moral” political and military leaders, had an abhorrence of war, and nuclear war in particular. That he had the wisdom and courage not to succumb to Cold War ideology and “nuke” the Soviet Union, plus his stubborn resistance to be taken in by those eager to use massive force under the slightest pretext, says a great deal about his true moral center and I, for one, salute him for it.)

Kennedy’s mistrust of the military-intelligence community began early with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. The entire operation, actually planned in the closing months of Eisenhower’s second term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was based upon a key falsehood: that the invasion forces (of Cuban exiles living in the United States) would be sufficient to overcome Cuban resistance. Both the CIA and their allies in the military establishment knew this was untrue; the invasion was actually intended to trigger US naval and/or air involvement when it became clear that the invading forces were floundering. Instead, to their chagrin, Kennedy refused to commit US assets. The subsequent failure of the invasion created long-lasting resentment against the Kennedy clan among the Cuban exiles and planted poisonous seeds of doubt in the minds of the intelligence-military community about Kennedy’s ultimate loyalties. Whose side was he really on?

The real turning point came however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Only in recent years have we learned how very close we came to all-out nuclear war that autumn. Both JFK and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, balked at the horrors that any misstep might unleash; both sent conciliatory messages and, through frantic negotiations, took mutual steps to reduce tensions. It was following these tense days that discussions between the two men began, many of them channeled through, and mediated by, Pope John XXIII (who was then dying of cancer). From that time through the end of his life (which was only 13 months away), JFK took deliberate steps to diminish – with the hope of eventually ending – the deadly standoff between their two nations which was fueled by the false black/white polarities of the Cold War.

Douglass marvels at – and celebrates – that Kennedy was able to do this, given that he had grown up as a believer in – and utilizer of – the same rhetoric. He credits his ability to do so with both his strong commitment to Catholic Christian moral teachings and to his personal acquaintance with death and suffering during World War II.

We learn some admirable things about Mr. Khrushchev’s own capacity to learn and change, too, largely unknown at the time, thanks to his subsequent revelations and insightful recollections by one of his sons. In sum, we were all fortunate that each country had leaders who, in essence, were neither self-righteous nor ideologically rigid. Had it been otherwise, we might not be here to talk about this.

Throughout the remainder of Kennedy’s presidency, he had to constantly battle the ongoing pressure of his military and so-called intelligence advisors, all of whom distrusted the Soviets and who seemed to embrace the idea that “the only good Communist is a dead one.” Because the CIA had agents everywhere, it was aware of Kennedy’s ongoing exchanges with Khrushchev and took this as growing evidence of JFK’s drift toward dangerous liberalities of thought. (As late as the spring of 1963, his generals were urging him to grant them the go-ahead to launch a surprise first strike against the Soviets – their gains in weaponry will soon rule this out as an acceptable-risk maneuver, they told him. When he asked them about the numbers of casualties the generals were talking about, they replied that they expected up to 160 million Soviet citizens vs. an “acceptable loss” of up to 40 million Americans. JFK stormed out of that particular meeting muttering, “Those ‘s.o.b.’s. And they call us members of the human race!”)
Kennedy also left ample evidence that he intended to withdraw all troops from Viet Nam following his hoped-for re-election in 1964, and his turn towards breaking the Cold War cycle was no more clearly evidenced than in his remarkable and still deeply-moving commencement address at American University in 1963.

"I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived--yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.
What kind of peace do I mean? 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 on earth worth living, the kind that enables men 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.
I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war--and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task…

"… I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude--as individuals and as a Nation--for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward--by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.

" First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable--that mankind is doomed--that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade--therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable--and we believe they can do it again..
There is no single, simple key to this peace--no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process--a way of solving problems.

"With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor--it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.

"…So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it…

"Second: Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union… No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements--in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.

"Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war…

"In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours--and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.

" 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."

In these words we glimpse some of the profound changes which occurred in Jack Kennedy in the short period from his inauguration to mid-1963. While they may have stirred hope in the hearts of his listeners – including those in Khrushchev’s intimate circle – those in control of America’s intelligence and military forces viewed them with growing alarm.

This musing is not intended as a blind paean to JFK; I am aware of his shortcomings as a fellow human being. But I do join with James Douglass in celebrating the man’s moral compass, his great courage in the face of overwhelming adversity and mortal dangers, and his willingness to attempt to call (or pull) his fellow citizens along with him in turning the corner away from blind and rigid formulations of belief structures and towards the recognition of the common interests all human beings share, no matter what their nationality or ideology.

Douglass also takes much hope from this story: if JFK – and his adversary/friend Khrushchev – could take such steps, despite all of their structured and ideological entanglements, perhaps – just perhaps – so can we. The need to do so is as urgent today as it was 50 years ago, but where or where are the leaders with the vision to take us there?
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