James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable. Part One.

James Douglass
is bracing us to reimagine John F. Kennedy around the 50th anniversary of his “rendezvous with death.” He’s encouraging us to face what has seemed to me a central question — not so much the “Who Killed JFK?” bumper-sticker, but more “Why can’t we know?” The answer, Jim Douglas says, is “unspeakable.” He’s adopting a code-word that the late Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton applied to the eternal enemy, “the void,” darkness iself, “systematic evil that goes beyond the imagination.” Douglass’s “unspeakable” is the multifarious modern Satan which took the form of a movement in the upper reaches of Kennedy’s own national security state to kill the president as he made a radical and inspired turn toward peace. He has written a conspiracy book with a scholar’s footnotes and a theological subtext. And a robust Oliver Stone endorsement.

Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable is a meticulous compilation of Kennedy and assassination studies. I came to it late, five years after publication, on the recommendation of friends sharing a precious secret. It’s a shocker that has the air, throughout, of a deeply serious inquiry. Jim Douglass has his own temperate, good-humored air. Born in Canada, he’s lived many years in Birmingham, Alabama as a Catholic Worker peace activist and soup-kitchen friend of the down-and-out, all the while teaching himself how to research and write history.

unspeakable coverThe story, like the book title, has two main axes. Jim Douglass’s JFK is far from the oversold man of “vigah,” the reckless bounder of Camelot. He’s been a sickly, often bedridden child, seared by war in the Pacific, mortally threatened by Addison’s disease. He was “dying all his life,” as Douglass puts it in conversation. “He had a raven on his shoulder.” Over-familiar with the last rites of his church, JFK came to politics and daily life for the “fullest experience possible… able to live on the edge because he was ready to lose it all.” He is making a profound turn in the last year of his life and presidency. Trapped and embarrassed by the CIA’s blundering invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in April, 1961, then shaken to the core by the near-catastrophic Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962, Kennedy was deep in back-channel dialogs with Nikita Khrushchev by 1963, closer in spirit to the Russian chief than either felt to their own military men. In the definitive American University “peace speech” of June, 1963, Kennedy was searching for a politcal path to ending the Cold War, and astonishingly negotiated and passed a nuclear test ban treaty that same summer. All the while, Douglass writes, JFK was continually reciting a favorite poem, Alan Seeger‘s “I have a rendezvous with Death,” to his wife and his 5-year-old daughter Caroline, who once stunned Kennedy’s national security council by reciting the poem start to finish in mid-meeting. Kennedy himself left behind hand-written notes to himself, quoting Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God — and I see a storm coming; If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.” This is the man awakening that Jeffrey Sachs celebrated with me at the JFK Library last Spring, but Jeff Sachs declined to connect Kennedy’s turn, or that American University speech, with Kennedy’s undoing. As Jim Douglas remarked to me, “Jeff Sachs wrote JFK without the Unspeakable.”

The other axis of Douglass’s narrative is the secret apparatus of the national security state after World War 2. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the forced retirement of CIA chief Allen Dulles, Douglass pictures JFK at sword-points with his spies and special-operations team, also with famous hawks like General Curtis LeMay among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismayed that Kennedy hadn’t attacked the Russian bases in Cuba and itching, several of them, to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It’s Douglass’ argument, with a lot of circumstantial evidence behind it, that well into 1963, the security chiefs dug in to protect their power and their worldview. Practiced and proficient in covert coups and “plausible deniability,” they snuffed out John Kennedy with masked forces and much the same sang froid they’d directed against Iran’s young democracy in 1953 and against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in January, 1961, just days before JFK’s inauguration. “Who Killed JFK?” has always been the wrong question, James Douglass is telling us, because it comes to focus on the shooters.

The question of what killed John Kennedy and why he was killed focuses instead on the evidence we have that the shooters are almost irrelevant. But the system is very relevant… The relation above all of JFK to his government is at the heart of it. The nature of the question will take us so far into what Thomas Merton called ‘the unspeakable’ that we’ll almost feel we’re lost in darkness as we’re seeing the light.

James Douglass in Birmingham with Chris Lydon in Boston, September, 2013.

This is the second, not the last, of our Kennedy conversations on the 50th anniversary of his death, and there will be other angles of inquiry. But doesn’t it feel better to open with a writer who challenges so much received opinion and our deepest sentiments about the man and our government?

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  • Bill Rieken

    I’ve always felt the CIA did it to start the Vietnam War and five years later they did it to Martin Luther King and RFK to keep it going. JFK is reported to have turned pale and ran out of a meeting after being told the CIA had just assassinated the corrupt president of South Vietnam after he had told them not to. The CIA’s assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the former Belgian Congo and the CIA-directed overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Iran in 1953 to protect BP’s oil contracts with the Shah of Iran, and the invasion of Iraq are more evidence that the U.S. was being run by secret intelligence agencies.

  • This is a terrific interview. I’m anxious to listen to Part 2. I’ve read James Douglass’ “JFK and the Unspeakable” and was deeply moved as well as disturbed by it, though not surprised by Douglass’ thoroughly researched account of Kennedy’s assassination. As you bring out in the interview, the key question isn’t who pulled the trigger or triggers, but, as in the subtitle of the book, WHY he died, and why it MATTERS. That is, what was JFK doing and saying that made him so “dangerous” in the eyes of his whole National Security apparatus that they felt they had to have him murdered? And what does what happened to JKF have to do with what’s going on today? For those who want to explore these questions in a broader context, both historically and now, there’s a play that’s just been written called “Project Unspeakable” that deals with all FOUR major assassinations of the 1960’s — of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, as well as JFK — and that raises questions about similar cover and often criminal activities on the part of today’s National Security State. More information about “Project Unspeakable” is available at , including how people can organize a reading or performance of the play.

  • Jim is a friend of mine for over 25 years. He is a man of the highest integrity. His research is infallible.

    • Yes I read book right when it came out should reread as with anything good even if about bad which is what keeps many from facing the truth, that their God, if existing will be waiting for them, with me as nightwatchman from heel in heel as disciplinarian , funny how it makes them laugh but seldom worry as I remind them they can get their ” forgive me for i have sinned cards” missing, marksmen marks in archery at the same place the Culpable In Assassinations got their SS false id’s for the knoll-edge of cover up.Thank you, Sir.

    • And I am speechless.. you were that close to one of the three men that were to change our future for the better and deliver our highly evolving true promise that any and all Gods, if, would have wished.I am sorry for your inability by their thwarting to give us the real world we all deserves to give ourselves, verses the false P.A.S.T., “Post Assassination Stress Trauma,they did, Once again, thank you.,

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  • As Aurthur Krock said in NYT article (when they could barely afford honesty) “if there is ever an attempt at a coup it will come from the CIA.”

  • Jeff Blankfort

    This morning I interviewed Jim Douglass regarding his extremely important book for my Takes on the World program on KZYX in Mendocino, California. One 42 minute interview could hardly cover the subject but I think people will find it intriguing and get his book which is a genuine “must read.” Here’s the link: http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/72791

    • Yes, we must expose full truth to all.
      We are the only majority looked at as a minority: the truth tellers of JFKMLKRFKillers

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  • Lance Banson

    Does Jim link LBJ to all four shootings (JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, RFK)?

  • Nixak*77*

    It’s 4 yrs later Nov 22, 2017. Not very much on the 54th anniversary of JFK’s death. One article on alternative source website Global Research in tribute to JFK, & then I found one alt-news site that’s pushing the dubious [IMO ‘limited hangout’] claim that the mafia was the real power behind the JFK ‘hit’. They even claimed that JFK was conspiring w the head of Cuba’s military [3rd in charge behind the Castro Bros] to pull a coup on Castro & set up a power-sharing govt w Cuban exiles. I’ve never heard that before & have NO idea what this guy’s source was for such a [IMO dubious] claim.

    As far as mafia involvement in the JFK hit, IMO Kevin Costner’s ‘Jim Garrison’ character in Oliver Stone’s classic ‘JFK’ said it best: ‘I’ve no doubt of mafia involvement, but only at a lower level. Could the mafia get Kennedy’s secret-service protection to [literally] stand-down [ala the 2 SS men who’d normally ride directly behind the president on foot-rests built into the presidential limo, who were ordered off the back of JFK’s limo by a SS capt], or get the SS guys to literally stand & watch JFK get his brains blown all over Dealey plaza before even reacting?? Could the mafia get the SS to change JFK’s parade route thru Dealey plaza, so that it would pass directly underneath the book-depository bldg & by the grassy knoll while slowing to a crawl to make that 120` turn pass the book depository?? Could the mafia get JFK’s limo driver to come to a near complete stop- AFTER JFK was ALREADY HIT- in front of the grassy knoll, until JFK took that devastating head-shot(s), before speeding off as he should have done upon hearing the 1st shot?? Could the mafia get the SS to literally & illegally ‘hi-jack’ JFK’s body from Parkland hospital, so the doctors there could NOT do the autopsy?? Could the mafia then get military doctors at Bethesda in DC to make such a mess of JFK’s autopsy?? And exactly who was the mafia rep on the Warren Commission cover-up??

    Whether the CIA used the mafia to hire some untraceable hitmen / shooters to do the JFK hit, is IMO as Mr Douglass says- a secondary issue. The guy @ this site then claimed the LH.Oswald’s mom dated some N.O. mob guy(s) who was/were part of N.O. mob boss Trufacante’s crew, & then claimed the David Ferry was Trufacante’s pilot & Bannister was his P.I. [we know Jack Ruby once worked as ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon’s P.I.]. Whether that’s true or NOT, we know for sure Ferry was a CIA / Military pilot & Bannister was an ex FBI & Naval Intel agent!! And we know there’s photo evidence of CIA black-op guys E.Howard Hunt & Frank Sturgis in Dealey Plaza [masquerading as hobos] on Nov 22nd 1963!! And we know that like Jack Ruby, Hunt & sturgis were tied to ole ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon [via Watergate]!!

  • I thought about JFK’s assassination on the anniversary this year and re-posted this remembrance:Jan Krause Greene
    November 22, 2013 ·
    I hope to write a blog about this today, although the day is not headed in that direction so far. But I must pay tribute to John F Kennedy. He truly inspired me and helped to shape my values. I campaigned door-to-door for him when I was 12. I watched his Inauguration on television with my friends whose parents were mostly Nixon supporters. I was so happy and proud that he was elected. So truly devastated the day he died. Like most of America I was glued to the television. When his coffin was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda my mother took me and two friends to pay our respects. I will always be grateful to her for that. We stood in line from dusk to dawn. It remains one of the most moving experiences of my life. Even now, the memory of all this brings tears. I was never quite the same after JFK’s assassination – the end of naive innocence. But two years later, I was thrilled to work in RFK’s Senate office on weekends. A wonderful experience for a high school girl. I never actually met JFK, but I met RFK, ate lunch with him, joked with him and was invited to a pool party at his house. Of course, his assassination totally devastated me again.

  • Yesterday, I posted this blog:
    We Stood Together
    Posted on November 24, 2013 by What a Heart Can Hold
    Fifty years ago today, I set out just after dark with my mother and two friends to pay our respects to our slain president as he lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. It was a last minute decision. I had begged my mother to take us. She thought it might be dangerous, but in the end, she knew that we would be witnesses to history. We put on our winter coats and climbed into our Rambler American. As we listened to coverage on the radio during the drive from Wheaton, Maryland into Washington, D.C., we wept.
    I don’t remember how my mother found a place to park, but she did. As we walked towards the crowd, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – a huge mass of people of all ages. The line was so long that we couldn’t see the front, and after we joined them, it was only minutes before we couldn’t see the end. I still remember thinking how “wide” the line was – maybe as many as 5 to 10 people abreast. I expected it to be single file, just like all the lines I waited in to receive Communion at church, or to buy something in a store. We stood four abreast – my mother, worried at first about our safety, but now knowing she had made it possible for us to be part of something we would never forget – myself, and my two close friends.
    I remember being cold and wondering if we would ever actually get to the Capitol building. At first, we were caught up in our own little drama of waiting, shivering, hoping they didn’t turn us away because it was too late. But then something shifted for me. I began to notice what was going on around us. The crowd continued to grow and as it grew, I began to feel an intense solidarity with the people around me.
    Local residents were arriving with blankets, hats, gloves to keep us warm. Others were bringing coffee and hot chocolate. People were singing. Strains of “We Shall Overcome” and “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Come Home” kept starting up in different parts of the line. Near us people had linked arms and were swaying together. Someone was singing “Amazing Grace” in a soft, clear voice.
    We stood in line until dawn, entering the Capitol Rotunda as the sun was rising. After the hours of waiting, our moment in the rotunda went by so quickly. As we walked by the flag-draped casket, I tried to connect what I was seeing with the president I had loved and admired. I couldn’t do it. He had been vital, optimistic, inspiring. Now I was looking at a coffin and I just couldn’t believe that he was in it. I was so completely sad.
    The assassination itself took away my innocence. Indeed, it took away the innocence of many in my generation, irretrievably lost to something that we had never imagined could happen. My view of the world was forever altered by a gunshot in Dallas on that Friday afternoon. Writing this now makes me realize how naive and protected my life, our lives, had been. I had been able to get to the age of 15, safe and secure, mostly carefree and happy. I knew there were problems in the country and the world, but I saw them as something I would help to solve, not something that would ever cause me personal, gut-wrenching grief.
    I was 12 years old when John F Kennedy became president. Even though I was a pre-teen, I was captivated by him…his message, his youth, his vitality. For the first time, I began to think of how to contribute to society. He tapped into my idealism and made me feel that I could really make a difference in the world. I campaigned door-to-door for him (something I have done for my candidate in almost every presidential election since that one so many years ago.)
    I watched his inauguration with friends. None of their parents had voted for Kennedy, but mine had, and I was so proud as he took his oath of office. I was young enough and innocent enough to believe that he could lead Americans into an almost perfect era of social justice and peace in the world. I believed in the New Frontier and I believed in the USA. I knew we had our problems. There was no way to grow up close to Washington and not realize that black people had been treated unfairly in this country for as long as they had been here. Just as there was no way to live near DC and be unaware of poverty. But I believed that Kennedy wanted to solve these problems and that he could
    I was too young to understand all the complexities of domestic policy and foreign affairs. There was so much I did not know. What I did know was that there were still injustices in our society and that there was a president who wanted to fix these things. Not just here, but abroad. Not only that – he actually wanted young people to help him, and I wanted with all my heart to be one of those young people.
    He was so influential in shaping my values that all these years later, knowing all that I know now, I still have those values. I still want the same things for our country and I still want to be part of the solution. My scope of concern is wider now and the specific details are different – more mature, more aware of complexity, and yet, still framed by the idealism that he touched and nurtured. An idealism that couldn’t be extinguished with a gun.
    But my innocence was a different matter. It was gone. Never to return. It didn’t have a chance. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, the Democratic National Convention, Kent State … and so much more. It changed the way I looked at the past as well as the present. When innocence is lost it re-shapes the way you see the world.
    Yet, that night at the Capitol gave me something I never had before. I felt that I was part of something so much bigger than myself. I was part of a crowd that shared the same sorrow – that had shared the same hope for a better world – and I knew that some of us would want to keep working together for that better world. Seeing all those people come to stand all night in the freezing cold in order to pay their respects taught me something. We were there, not just to our honor our slain president, but also to comfort each other. We stood together because we needed each other even more than we needed to walk past his casket. All these years later, we are re-living those days because we still need each other.
    That was always part of JFK’s message – the New Frontier was about forging ahead together. These are the last lines of the speech that he was to give the night he died:
    “Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a Party is not to Party alone, but to the nation, and indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of politic power, but the preservation of peace and freedom.
    So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.
    Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause – united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future – and determined that land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.”
    In the many years that followed, we may have picked the part of his message that resonates for us each of us personally – I ended up being a pacifist, an advocate for social justice and environmentalist – but his message of working together is still one of his most important legacies. I hope this 50th anniversary helps us remember that.