JFK And the Unspeakable Why He Died & Why It Matters (Orbis Books, 2008), by James Douglas.
As a sensitive and serious subject, the assassination of President Kennedy has been approached from many different ways by journalists, historians, psychologists, witnesses and even suspects who have acknowledged their roles in a conspiracy.
But James W. Douglas comes down a very different and spiritual path.
A Catholic theologian, anti-war activist, conscientious objector and peace advocate, Douglas was slow to connect the death of the President with the constant threat of war, but he did with the help of Thomas Merton, a monk who had attended Cambridge and Columbia.
Merton, whose autobiography The Seven Story Mountain, has been compared to the Confessions of Saint Augustine, thought deeply and wrote often about war and racism (including Peace in the Post-Christian Era), until he was banned from doing so by his order. The prohibition led him to conduct lengthy correspondence with a wide variety of people, including RFK’s wife Ethel Kennedy, Clare Booth Luce, Evora Arca de Sardinia, wife of a Bay of Pigs commander, and Douglas.
"The Unspeakable," according to Douglas, "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 whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe."
"One of the awful facts of our age," wrote Merton in 1965, "is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable."
"The Vietnam War, the race to a global war, and the interlocking murders of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were all signs of the Unspeakable," explains Douglas. "It remains deeply present in our world."
"Those who are at present so 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."
"It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said;" wrote Merton, "the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience…"
In one his letters, Merton even foresaw Kennedy’s murder when he wrote, "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’s 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 some day by miracle. But such people are long marked out for assassination."
And Douglas argues, Kennedy did have an epiphany, a sudden (or maybe it was a slow and gradual) realization that war could not be fought on the same terms as it was before because of the development of nuclear weapons. Douglas had his own epiphany when he realized that JFK’s conflicts with his own generals and administrators led to his death, the why of his assassination. And now he wants to do something about it.
"When we become more deeply human, as Merton understood the process," says Douglas, "the wellspring of our compassion moves us to confront the Unspeakable."
For Douglas, as with most of us, we would prefer not to confront the Unspeakable, but Douglas goes into their Nest, and in this book he reports back what he found there.
"By overlooking the deep changes in Kennedy’s life and the forces behind his death, I contributed to a national climate of denial," he writes. "Our collective denial to the obvious, in the setting up of Oswald and his transparent silencing by Ruby, made possible the Dallas cover-up. The success of the cover-up was the indispensable foundation for the subsequent murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy by the same forces at work in our government – and in ourselves. Hope for change in the world was targeted and killed four times over. The cover-up of all four murders, each leading into the next, was based, first of all, on denial – not the government’s but our own. The unspeakable is not far away."
"The unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became 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.’ John Kennedy’s assassination is rooted in our denial of our nation’s crimes in World War II that began the Cold War and the nuclear arms race…By avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of state done for our security, we who failed to confront the Unspeakable opened the door to JFK’s assassination and its cover-up. The Unspeakable is not far away."
Most important, notes Douglas, "…The story of JFK and the Unspeakable is drawn from the suffering and compassion of many witnesses who saw the truth and spoke it." Douglas introduces us to those witnesses and lets us hear what they have to say. "In living the truth, we are liberated from the Unspeakable."
With his chronological time line, and compare and contrast style, Douglas shows that the assassination of President Kennedy was not the work of one lone, deranged gunman, or the act of Cubans, mobsters or renegade government agents, but whatever happened at Dealey Plaza it was a well planned and executed coup d’etat.
By chronologically comparing and contrasting the lives and experiences of Kennedy and his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Douglas reasonably demonstrates that Oswald was not the lone nut loser that Warren Commission apologists portray, but an active player in the big game, though only as a pawn and patsy.
According to Douglas, the paths that led Oswald and Kennedy to Dealey Plaza were divergent but pushed along by the same hidden forces, with the motive for the assassination found with Kennedy rather than in the mind of his accused assassin.
Like David Talbot’s book Brothers before him, Douglas reframes the Kennedy presidency to include the backstage manipulations that we’ve only recently learned about.
The conflicts with the CIA after the Bay of Pigs, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and with the racists in his own party fighting the civil rights revolt, as well as his determination to withdraw from Vietnam and establish a dialog and diplomatic resolution to the Cuban problem, were all forces that set Kennedy up for retaliation by those who made the Unspeakable happen.
Kennedy, more than once, reflected that a Seven Days in May style military coup could occur in the United States if there was a Bay of Pigs type conflict, and then another similar situation, like the Cuban Missile Crisis presented. Then, if there was a third Bay of Pigs type event, Kennedy reasoned, a coup was possible.
Douglas says that Kennedy’s "third Bay of Pigs" was his "Peace Speech" at American University on June 10, 1963, which he reproduces in full as an appendix.
But while being threatening to the military-industrial complex, the American University speech was not the straw that broke the camel’s back if you believe (as I do) that Col. Jose Rivera (USAR) had expressed foreknowledge of the assassination and of Oswald’s patsy role, as early as mid-April, 1963, months before the Peace Speech.
Douglas starts out with a brief, but incomplete chronology at the beginning, but then jumps around a little in his six chapters, each dealing with various people and events that lead up to what happened at Dealey Plaza.
In his first chapter, A Cold Warrior Turns, Douglas show how JFK’s slow evolving epiphany brings him to the realization that war is not the answer, and he turns to backchannel diplomacy when his own administration balks at talking with the enemy (does this sound familiar?).
If the President’s assassin was a real psychotic, lone-nut, spree killer, as the official story makes him out to be, then it could all be explained psychotically, like other real psycho spree killers (Howard Unruh for instance), and it would be disjointed from the real world that the victim inhabited.
But if that lone assassin is Lee Harvey Oswald, then his background, history, personal profile and every attribute we know about him, as well as his associates, indicate that he was a covert intelligence operative affiliated with a domestic, federal intelligence agency/network. (One that is still in operation, I might add – BK)
Oswald’s background fits like a glove into to the covert history of the Cold War, as Douglas so artfully demonstrates by zig zagging the lives of Kennedy, the King, and Oswald, the Pawn, showing how hidden hands put the Pawn into position to checkmate the King.
Limiting his chronology from January 17, 1961, when President Eisenhower gave his farewell address and warned of the "military-industrial-complex," and ending at 11:21 AM, November 24, 1963, with the murder of Oswald, Douglas focuses on what he deems necessary to conclusively show that JFK was the victim, not only of a conspiracy, but a high level coup. And he succeeds.
Although only 24 years old, Oswald had been involved in at least a half dozen major covert intelligence operations, beginning with his radar monitoring and guarding of the U2 spy plane in Japan. On Holloween, October 31, 1959, Oswald turned his passport, which identified him as an "Import – Export" agent, over to State Department officer Richard Snyder. Oswald threatened to give the Soviets information he had learned in the Marines. Although there is no record of Oswald ever being questioned by the KGB, six months after he defected, Gary Powers was shot down in a U2 over Russia, which forced cancellation of a meeting between Eisenhower and Kruschev.
Douglas speculates that Oswald did tell them. All that was necessary to know in order to shoot down a U2, was the speed and altitude of the plane. Gary Powers himself speculated that Oswald gave the Soviets the information they needed to shoot him down. Oswald, it turns out, had a US Military ID card identical to the card Powers had on him when he was shot down. There was also speculation that Oswald was in attendance at Powers’ trial.
In any case, Oswald was not prosecuted, or even officially debriefed when he returned home with his Russian wife and baby. George De Mohrenschildt, at the request of the CIA’s J. Walton Moore, met the Oswalds and introduced them to his circle of friends, which included Ruth and Michael Paine.
While still under the guidance of De Mohrenschildt, in October, 1962, Oswald got a job at the graphic arts firm Jaggers-Chiles-Stoval, that did work for the Army Security Agency, placing captions on maps and photographs taken by the U2. So during the Cuban Missile Crisis that month, when the President held up photos of Cuban missile sites, the man who would be accused of killing him, may have placed the arrows and captions on those very photographs.
Douglas says that the Oswalds were handed off like a football, from De Mohrenschildt to the Paines. Douglas says that J. Walton Moore, of the Dallas Domestic Contacts Division of the CIA had his longtime contact George de Mohrenschildt meet Oswald, saying that sometime in the summer of 1962 one of Moore’s associates gave him Oswald’s address in Fort Worth, and de Mohrenschildt called Moore on the phone to confirm the mission.
According to Douglas, it was Moore, of the CIA’s Domestic Contacts Division in Dallas who had De Mohrenschildt befriend Oswald, and it was De Mohrenschildt who arranged for the Oswalds to meet Ruth and Michael Paine, who became sponsors and benefactors of the accused assassin and his family.
With the assistance of the Paines, the Oswald family moved to New Orleans in the wake of the Walker shooing, which was later blamed on Oswald. Going into all the sorid details of Oswald in New Orleans, Douglas brings out the founding of the Fair Play for Cuba chapter, the run ins with Carlos Bruingier and the DRE, but doesn’t get into the whole Morley vs. CIA over the Joannides records.
Most important however, Douglas fits in the anti-Castro Cuban training operations, the CIA maritime raids on Cuba and the backchannel negotiations that were suppose to be secretly going on between JFK and Castro.
In the Chapter on Kennedy, Castro and the CIA, Douglas writes that, "It was while John Kennedy was being steered into combat with the CIA and the Pentagon at the Bay of Pigs that Thomas Merton was being blocked from publishing his thoughts on nuclear war by his monastic superiors. Merton, like Kennedy, decided to find another way. The words pouring out of Merton’s typewriter were spilling over from unpublished manuscripts into his Cold War letters." (p.17)
"On December 31, 1961, Merton wrote a letter anticipating the Cuban Missile Crisis ten months later. It was addressed to Clare Booth Luce, wife of Time-Life-Fortune owner Henry Luce, a Cold War media barron," who financially supported the maritime raiders, and wrote stories about them for Life. (p.18)
"As Merton challenged the Cold War dogmas of Clare Booth Luce, he was raising similar questions of conscience to another powerfully situated women, Ethel Kennedy…" (p.19) and Merton began to see a change in Kennedy’s political thought.
At a speech the president gave at the University of Washington, Kennedy said, "It is a curious fact that each of these extreme opposites resembles the other. Each believes that we have only two choices: appeasement or war, suicide or surrender, humiliation or holocaust, to be either Red or dead." (p.19)
Douglas says that JFK’s "fourth Bay of Pigs" was the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and he notes the role Norman Cousins played, and the methodology he used in changing public opinion on the issue. Douglas notes that the Senate vote on ratification of the treaty, approved by a vote of 80 – 19, was held on September 24, not an unimportant date on the Road to Dallas.
"One pawn in the Cold War who needed a way out before it was too late was a young ex-Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald. In following Kennedy’s path through a series of critical conflicts, we have been moving more deeply into the question: Why was John Kennedy murdered? Now as we begin to trace Oswald’s path, which will converge with Kennedy’s, we can see the emergence of a strangely complementary question: Why was Lee Harvey Oswald so tolerated and supported by the government he betrayed?" (p. 37)
"The same government issued a report that described Oswald as unable "to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually disconnected with the world around him. Long before the assassination he expressed his hatred for American society and acted in protest against it….He sought for himself a place in history – a role as the ‘great man’ who would be recognized as having been in advance of his times. His commitment to Marxism and communism appears to have been another important factor in his motivation." (p.39)
Of course this alleged motive, contrived by the Warren Commission, doesn’t take into account the fact that Oswald, who "sought for himself a place in history," denied killing anybody and claimed to be a "patsy."
As Douglas puts it, "If we turn from Warren Report psychology to Cold War history, why was the ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald not arrested and charged a year and a half before the assassination when he came back to the United States from the Soviet Union, where he had announced at the American Embassy in Moscow that he would hand over military secrets (about U2 flights) to the Soviets?" (p.39)
"Oswald’s trajectory, which would end up meeting Kennedy’s in Dallas, was guided not by the heavens or fate or even, as the Warren Report would have it, by a disturbed psyche, Oswald was guided by his intelligence handlers. Lee Harvey Oswald was a pawn in the game. He was a minor piece in the deadly game Kennedy wanted to end. Oswald was being moved square by square across a giant board stretching from Atsugi to Moscow to Minsk to Dallas. For the sake of victory in the Cold War, the hands moving Oswald were prepared to sacrifice him and any other piece on the board. However, there was one player, John Kennedy, who no longer believed in the game and was threatening to turn over the board." (p.41)
In the chapter on JFK and Vietnam, Douglas bring in Operation Northwoods, which many believe was incorporated in the assassination planning.
"On March 13, 1962, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom Kennedy inherited from the Eisenhower, General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, proposed ‘Operation Northwoods.’ It’s purpose was to justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba, in which a "Remember the Main incident could be arranged in several forms. We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba…" (p.96-97)
Kennedy rejected Northwoods, and his solution to the Vietnam problem was "Easy" the president said, "Put a government in there that will ask us to leave." (p.134)
In Marked Out for Assassination, Douglas says that, "Investigative journalist Joseph Trento testified in a 1984 court deposition that, according to CIA sources, James Angleton was the supervisor of a CIA assassination unit in the 1950s. The ‘small assassination team’ was headed by Army colonel Boris Pash. At the end of World War II, Army Intelligence colonel Pash had rounded up Nazi scientists who could contribute their research skills to the development of U.S. nuclear and chemical weapons…" (p.143)
Douglas brings out the individual stories of a number of important witnesses, most of whom we have heard from before, but Boris Pash is one of the few individuals Douglas introduces who has managed to avoid the limelight, even in death.
Douglas gives much play to James Wilcott (p. 146-148), a CIA accountant stationed in Tokyo (1960 – 1964) who claimed that it was common knowledge in the CIA station there that Oswald was an agent who was disbursed CIA funds from a case officer. Both Wilcott and his wife were CIA administrators.
"In the decade following his HSCA testimony," notes Douglas, "Jim Wilcott joined Vietnam veteran Brian Willson and the Nuremberg Actions community outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in nonviolent resistance to weapons shipments to the CIA sponsored Contra war in Nicaragua. While sitting on the railroad tracks, Willson was run over by a weapons train, which severed both his legs. Undeterred, Jim Wilcott was arrested for blocking a later train." (p.147)
We’re going to hear more about Mr. Wilcott, but as Douglas surmises, "Thus, even the assassination of a president could be funded unconsciously by American taxpayers and carried out unknowingly by government employees, while only a few such as CIA Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms and Counter-intelligence head James Angleton knew the intended result beforehand." (p.148)
In Saigon and Chicago (Chapter 5), Douglas reinforces the image of Kennedy losing grip on his government, especially in Saigon, where his ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge was pushing for a coup to oust Diem, while Kennedy wanted Lodge to use diplomacy.
It’s quite apparent, in retrospect that Kennedy’s attempt at appeasement of conservative Republicans by appointing two of their own – Lodge in Vietnam and John McCone as head of the CIA, backfired in Kennedy’s face.
There are a few little gems in "The Unspeakable," like Boris Pash, and Marvin Gheesling (p.177), the FBI agent who, on October 9, 1963, took Oswald off the FLASH notice, effectively "turned off the alarm switch on Oswald literally an instant before it would have gone off."
While the coup in South Vietnam was being undertaken, the FBI and Secret Service were uncovering a plot to kill the President in Chicago (p.200-207).
"Thomas Vallee had been led along a trail that Lee Oswald would follow after him…" writes Douglas. The ex-Marine who worked at a CIA sponsored Cuban commando training camp in Levittown, Long Island. "Thomas Arthur Vallee and Lee Harvey Oswald, two men under the CIA’s thumb for years, were being set up, one after the other, as scapegoats in two prime sites for killing Kennedy." (p.205)
In Chicago, Douglas visits the building on the parade route Kennedy would have used, and visits the assassin’s lair where Vallee would have been placed and branded as the assassin if JFK had gone to Chicago that day. Into the Nest of the Unspeakable.
Douglas makes the point that if Kennedy had been killed in Chicago on November 1, we might have known Thomas Arthur Vallee as his deranged, ex-Marine, lone-nut assassin rather than Oswald.
"Lee Harvey Oswald was being systematically set up for his scapegoat role in Dallas, just as Thomas Arthur Vallee had been set up as an alternative patsy in Chicago," writes Douglas in Washington and Dallas. "Vallee escaped that fate, when two whistleblowers, Chicago Police Lieutenant Berkeley Moyland an FBI informant named ‘Lee,’ stopped the Chicago plot. Oswald was not so fortunate in Dallas. His incrimination by unseen hands continued…" (p.221)
Douglas also outlines the original cover story, that is still propagated in some quarters.
"Just as Chicago was the model for Dallas, Saigon was the backdrop for Chicago…." says Douglas, indicating a connection between what was going on. "…The legend created for the Dallas scenario of the gun-toting malcontent Lee Harvey Oswald followed a similar pattern. From the claims made by a series of CIA officers to the authors of widely disseminated books and articles, John Kennedy had been convicted in his grave of having tried to kill Fidel Castro, whose supposedly deranged surrogate, Lee Harvey Oswald, then retaliated. As a successful Chicago plot would have done, the Dallas plot ended up blaming the victim. ‘Kennedy tried to murder Castro, and got what he deserved.’" (p.218)
Douglas wrote that, "Those who designed the plot to kill Kennedy were familiar with the inner sanctum of our national security state,...The assassins' purpose seems to have encompassed not only killing a president determined to make peace with the enemy but also using his murder as the impetus for a possile first strike against that same enemy."
The inclusion of Northwoods in the Dealey Plaza operation is the lynchpin that proves that the bullets that killed the President came from the Pentagon, and the assassination is the most significant national security issue yet to be resolved.
We’ve come to learn a lot since JFK was buried, and one of the most important things we should have learned is that the assassination of President Kennedy was a terrorist attack on our nation, as well as one man, and that we must now, or eventually, come to face the Unspeakable and confront it with the truth we’ve come to know.
As Douglas puts it, "Unknown to ordinary citizens watching President Kennedy’s funeral on their television sets, the agencies of a national security state had quickly formed a united front behind the official mourning scenes to cover up every aspect of JFK’s assassination. National security policies toward enemies beyond the state (with whom the slain president had been negotiating a truce) made necessary the denial of every trace of conspiracy within the state. As a saddled, riderless horse followed the coffin through the capitol’s streets, plausible deniability had come home to haunt the nation." (p.82)
And now the game tables are being overturned, and what was once kept secret for reasons of national security, must now be revealed for reasons of national security, so the Nest of the Unspeakeable can be confronted and purged.
[ William Kelly, co-founder of the Committee for an Open Archives (COA) and a member of the Coalition on Political Assassinations (COPA) can be reached at email@example.com ]