James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two


James Douglass
is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill the president and stop his turn toward peace, toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and exiting the war in Vietnam.

The very thought is appalling and should be unbelievable — of an anti-democratic insurrection that could go unacknowledged and unpunished in the United States for 50 years. But James Douglass is not alone in his suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the president and son of his Attorney General, has called the Douglass version the best book on the subject. In a remarkably under-noticed public conversation in Dallas last January — hosted by Charlie Rose of PBS, but not broadcast — RFK Jr. recounted his father’s view that the Warren Commmission inquiry on JFK’s assassination “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Further, he said, the Kennedy family long ago rejected the official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin.” His father was “fairly convinced,” said RFK Jr., that others were involved. “Organized crime, Cubans?” Charlie Rose asked. “Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. answered.

In this second half of our long conversation James Douglass is recounting disparate voices — of a Trappist monk, a dissident film-maker, and JFK’s White House counsellor — that contributed to his reconstruction of the narrative. Douglass is building obviously on Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991), both celebrated and pilloried, which made it the story, in effect, of a military coup. Is it fair, I ask Douglass, to think of his book as “Oliver Stone with Footnotes”? Not really, Douglass says. He is indebted to Stone for endorsing his work, but mainly for the film that prompted Congress to liberate a flood of evidence that Oliver Stone hadn’t seen when he made his movie.

Douglass seems to me over-correct or perhaps coy in protecting the confidence of the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s alter-ego and wordsmith. Six months before Sorensen died three years ago, he initiated contacts with Douglass, “spoke supportively” of his book, and shared views of the assassination story that he did not want to voice in public. “Why not?” I ask. Because, Douglass says, the speechwriter credited with the noblest lines of Kennedy’s “peace speech” at American University in 1963, wanted to focus on Kennedy’s legacy, as if his murder five months later were not the centerpiece of our awful inheritance. We are still confounded by the silences in this saga.

Strange to say, the most memorable witness to the mystery of JFK in Jim Douglass’s telling is the monk and venerated author Thomas Merton, observing Kennedy from afar a year before the president was killed. In the remoteness of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, two years older than the Catholic president, was watching Kennedy carefully and not without sympathy: “… he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd,” Merton wrote in 1962. But facing the “suicidal moral evil” of nuclear war, Merton measured Kennedy without great confidence either.

I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what 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.

Thomas Merton in a letter to his friend W. H. Ferry, quoted by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 11.

Merton’s prophecy provides the framework of the Douglass narrative which I read and reread, and find inconclusive but compelling. Douglass is not casting John Kennedy for sainthood but he is telling the story as holy tragedy, in which JFK with enormous courage accepted a miracle knowing that the price might be his life.

Is there an under-50 reader or listener, I wonder, who feels with my generation that we’ve all been orphaned by our enforced ignorance around the crash of John Kennedy’s vision?

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  • Walt

    Thank you RadioOpenSource, Chris and Mary.

    When I came across this book a few years ago it put an exclamation point to all the evidence I’ve read about and seen that points to a coup orchestrated by our security/military services.

    Jim Douglas stands on the shoulders of many who came before him but he has poetically and studiously understated the logic behind this Greek tragedy.

    The only thing exceptional about this country is our capacity to keep our heads up our asses. Yes, talking to you Chris Mathews. After giving credit to Ronny Reagan for winning the Cold War, he’s gone out of his way to give credit to the Lone Gunman Theory this week and insulting as loonies anyone who thinks otherwise. What a mmm tool!

    peace, W

  • Robert Zucchi

    JFK’s murder has taken on a spectral character as the half-century marker approaches, and for me as for the then unborn, the event is fossilizing into mere history. It’s the anguish that has been leached out of it, by time and age. The images are still vivid: our family in tears, the males unshaven and mostly unwashed, all of us intent on the televised drama, the obsequies, the cascade of shocks (The assassin has himself been shot!) that for days reduced us to mute bereavement.

    Mr. Douglass is an absorbing speaker and makes his points capably, and I sympathize with his implied premise that something that momentous has to have causality. But the conspiracists’ fanciful suspicions have over the years grown so unwieldy as to collapse of themselves. Their roll call includes the CIA, Cuban exiles, the military-industrialists, LBJ, the mafia, J Edgar…a guest list suitable for an Addams Family reunion. But the ascription of sustained competence and airtight omertà to most of this crowd is risible. Oh, there’s plenty of mirthless mischief in our national security wombats and their chief parasite, Daddy Warbucks, but even they aren’t completely immune from our (thankfully) tattletale media.

    Mr. Douglass has convinced me that beneath Kennedy’s surface charm there was depth, complexity, and fatalism…but more to the point of his narrative, a capacity for growth as a person and as a man with heavy responsibilities (traits he shared with his brother, Robert). It does seem as though Jack Kennedy was increasingly appalled by the material, political, and spiritual costs to the country of vying for superpower hegemony throughout the world. He certainly seems to have reasoned his way to understanding just how much it was corrupting us.

    And too, there is something troubling about reliance on the “lone gunman” hypothesis to account for the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK…the latter two within about a month of each other, and in whom reposed (as far as I’m concerned) the conscience of our equivocal democracy. A political figure with an egalitarian cast of mind never lacks for a passel of enemies in America.

    As against that we need to contemplate the stubborn randomness, the dumb happenstance of the phenomenal world. In Sarajevo in summer 1914, a chauffeur took a wrong turn and stalled the Archduke’s car while reversing, right in front of Gavrilo Princip, who had thought the assassination plot a failure until the royal couple inexplicably appeared before him. In spring 1865, the lone policeman guarding Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre wandered off at intermission, and was absent when the assassin struck. The bulletproof bubbletop wasn’t mounted on Kennedy’s limousine (possibly, though this is disputed, at his insistence) on the day he died in Dallas, even though he had privately called Dallas “nut country.”

    Chris Lydon usefully pursues a parallel line of thinking with a counter-argument to Mr Douglass’s thesis: how was this man a threat to the hawks when he campaigned on a bogus issue of a missile gap, accused Eisenhower and Nixon of allowing Cuba to fall to Communism, increased funding for building missiles once in office, pursued a course of trying to assassinate Castro, and approved the overthrow of the Diem regime in Vietnam? Mr Douglass replies, in effect, that Kennedy was indeed a Cold Warrior, but had a change of heart.

    These two interviews are invaluable…they provoke to thought. We’ve never had an honest national conversation about our postwar role in the world, because as strenuously as our leaders have adapted themselves to the role of chief administrators of the Hegemon, we Americans have just as strenuously repressed or sublimated any lasting awareness of it. Of our hegemonic paradigm…that if we downsize the war machine and its writ of virtually unrestricted intervention, a vacuum will be created which our enemies will instantly fill…nothing is said or even thought. (As for example, how about asking if that scenario is even true?) This abnegation has cost us terribly. We are suffering economically and socially. Our politics are a humiliation. And the F-35 fighter, counting procurement, operational, and maintenance costs, will run us north of a trillion dollars. (Yawn…)

  • I am 29 and son of a military officer. Not only do I feel orphaned, the history of JFK as was shared with me from all authoritative figures is a travesty. His vision is not only lost but shrouded behind Oswald. Before I met Jim Douglass all I knew of JFK was Bay of Pigs, NASA and his assassination – before I met Jim I was taught to treat the USA as holy and untaintable. I have now learned of the Unspeakable which lies in all of us.

  • Can’t help but relate the JFK arc to royal kingship, particularly as studied by Luc de Heusch in Central Africa. From the fringe of the US empire, it’s often difficult to understand the fascination people have for federal politics as if it were a special case, away from “The Rest of the World”. The fervour with which some people may talk about the death and life of a politician makes more sense to me when I think of the sensemaking at work, in that society. Reference to ancient Greece may especially be useful in coupling drama and polis. Not that it’s a unique connection, but it’s “louder” in the States than in other places where I’ve lived.

    As for this two-part interview itself, it brings up interesting issues of critical thinking. It’s one thing to debunk the official story. It’s another thing to propose an alternative narrative. Pushing a counternarrative as if it were undoubtedly the Truth is yet another thing, entirely. Thankfully, Douglass doesn’t fall into that latter trap, and allows people to remain skeptical about this allegedly-unspoken story. He thus allows people to use their own critical thinking skills to “make up their minds” about the context of JFK’s death. Many journalists talk explicitly about not doing this, because people “don’t take the time” to think about those issues or, according to some, don’t have the “skills” necessary to do so. In this sense, Douglass does more to support critical thinking than what a lot of journalists have done.

    At the same time, his focus on JFK carries the assumption of its own relevance, to bastardize part of Wilson and Sperber’s Relevance Theory. A bit like journalists’ agenda-setting, it’s less about “making people think a certain way” and more about “making people think about a certain issue”. This is how the fascination with JFK sustains itself. This is where the mystery of the Cold War gets most entangled in its own context. This is partly how certain people start forgetting “the Rest of the World”. And this is where we become tempocentric, if not ethnocentric.

  • Murray Reiss

    I don’t know. A lot of this strikes me as yet another version of a particularly American mythology going back to the frontier sheriff who takes on the bad guys all by himself. I mean, Kennedy was president. If he was so determined to bring peace to the world did he have no institutional levers at his disposal? Which raises a second point of mythology: the black and white conversion narrative. I just don’t see the evidence for the conversion Douglass insists on. Confronted with things Kennedy did that contradict his vision, Douglass is reduced to saying, Yeah, but he had to say that, it wasn’t what he really believed or was working towards. None of which is to say the US system isn’t, by default, an imperialist warmongering machine. Of course it is. I just don’t buy this version of JFK as the lone crusader against it. Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex. Surely the omniscient CIA knew he was going to say that. Why didn’t they off him?

    • That is a good question, but Eisenhower just said some words he didn’t directly work against them in a key issue like this. Not to mention Eisenhower didn’t fire Allen Dulles he often submitted to Dulles requests to protect the CIA?

      • Michael Jankanish

        Sir; The question about Ike is better than you think because it is only one among many along these lines that totally undercuts the national security state assassination thesis. What about Nixon? Nixon created detente with the Soviets’ went to China; created the situation to turn South Vietnam over to the Communists. Let’s see; 5-7 years after having Kennedy killed, they leave untouched Nixon; then Ford. Jim Douglas, like many have a preconceived notion of what they want to believe, then they set out to arrange the facts to support their pre-conceptions.

        • Gog

          They left Nixon untouched? Well, they didn’t off him if that is what you mean, but he did leave the White House earlier than expected… The role of the security state in the Watergate scandal was anything but helpful towards Nixon.

  • Potter

    Why would the CIA/FBI want to prevent peacemaking? Did I miss that? The list of his most compelling evidence still does not necessarily add up, or is not conclusive. I know no one is saying that it is, but just that this all seemed and still seems fishy. That does not mean that the “lone gunman” answer is unquestionable. I have believed all these years, because I wanted to lay it to rest in my mind, that Oswald was crazed- he looked crazed! Gosh we went over this so much at the time and now to resurrect it?

    Of course it would be very dark indeed for us to know it if the answer really was that the CIA/FBI conspired to kill Kennedy. It’s a very dark feeling now to read about the NSA and be suspicious of how these organizations can become Frankensteins. Do I want to go there? Must I?

    What is important and heartbreaking, and over the years I feel it moreso, is that we lost and extraordinary person at the helm way too soon. I think we dared to believe Obama was his incarnation. We keep looking for him again. Or are we imagining?

    What I do like very much in this interview is Douglas’s characterization of Kennedy’s spiritual growth, how he broke through into another realm (so to speak) because of how close he was to pain and death. I believe that and it is well said, well analyzed in this interview. But it’s more than that. It has to be more than that because others are and have been close to pain and death and it does not make this kind of breakthrough, this bearing of the burden so deeply that we see in Kennedy. He had the upbringing, the education, the vision, and the courage. Then too, he the delivery and the speechwriter putting his words in shape to live on. Not long ago the Newshour had a clip of Kennedy and it riveted me, not surface but depth.

    • Which Oswald looked crazied? There are eyewitnesses of at least 3 Oswalds (including this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pRyvd2A7lg).

      CIA is a need to know business. So did the CIA as an entity not want peace, is debateable, but some entities including the pentagon didn’t want peace through diplomacy. Not to mention Kennedy negotiated peace without their blessing or knowledge — they saw this as treason. JFK and the Unspeakable goes into possible “why” scenarios, but there are probably a few and all interconnected.

      • Potter

        Ryan,

        I spent 20 minutes listening to this fellow being interviewed you link and longer reading comments. The subject is a magnet. I have listened to stories before but this is so many years after the fact. Vinson seemed fuzzy minded but he raised my eyebrows especially when he mentioned that one of the guys that entered the plane in Dallas (getting off in Roswell) looked like a Cuban and the other looked like Oswald. I am supposed to believe this WAS Oswald and WAS a Cuban? I wonder was this fellow ever promoted? People believe what they want to believe and in this case JFK’s murder is an industry. Just look at the comments trails on the video. Someone asked why this fellow is still alive.

        Lee Harvey Oswald looked crazed to me, mad. This is pure gut feeling but it was enough after the trauma to set my mind at the time, to stop it from thinking about conspiracy theories which abounded and still abound. After 50 years the likelihood of anything definitive arising other than what appears to be the case is low in my opinion. We should concentrate on what Kennedy left, and who he was and the response to him, his legacy and not the nefarious.

        That said if the issue is whether a president has to fight for control of his agencies or has to fear that they have their own will and that his life and therefore national security may be endangered, or that he may lose control- then that is a different and very serious matter. That is what Douglas seems to be suggesting by “unspeakable”. I worry that the NSA is rogue and Obama is not strong enough. I don’t know.

        The military industrial complex survives with or without actual war.

  • Sean McElroy

    OK, or maybe a mentally unstable person with access to firearms and sufficient training in the use of such firearns, shot and killed President Kennedy.

    • Potter

      And yes, Jack Ruby was so angry about it……

      Occam’s Razor applies until further notice.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor

      • Sean McElroy

        You do me too much justice. To put it differently, maybe, Jeffrey Sachs’ reading is keener to this writer’s ear.

        The access to firearms assertion still stands, including Jack Ruby’s, Occam or not.

  • People will probably argue forever about whether JFK was “marked for death” by his own “national security state” or not. The meticulously researched evidence brought to us by Jim Douglass’ book, “JKF and the Unspeakable,” has completely persuaded me that he was. But the more important question, which Chris Lydon insightfully brings out in his interview of Douglass, has to do with the nature of what Douglass calls (and the late Thomas Merton called) “the unspeakable” and our own surrender to it, our own not wanting to seek and/or speak or even know the truth when we fear that the truth might be upsetting or get us in trouble. This question could be relegated to “interesting psycho-social research” were it not for the fact that our continuing avoidance of “the unspeakable,” our unwillingness or inability to demand the truth from our government, to demand that its dealings be genuinely open, transparent, and democratically accountable, has a great deal to do with the multiple political, social, and environmental crises we face today. “in war, truth is the first casualty,” Aeschylus wisely opined a couple millennia ago. If we hope to end wars — including our current and very successful war on Mother Earth and its human and other inhabitants who are least able to protect themselves — we’d better start seeking, speaking, and acting on the truth rather than hiding from it. And we’d better start pretty quickly.

  • Bruce McHenry

    A key part of any police investigation is the examination of motives and means. The motives of the self-styled “patriots” of the covert and rogue parts of the CIA are clear, but the means are not. The evidence that Oswald was the lone shooter is very strong but apart from his strong desire for fame, we do not know exactly what happened around the decision points that led him to a sniper’s perch in the School Book Depository.

    Although little is known in the public sphere, psychological operations have long been in the CIA’s arsenal. Having been a Marine but also a communist sympathizer who had been intensively minded while living in the USSR, Oswald almost certainly had minders in the US as well. Minders can do much more than watch. They can create opportunities, and they can influence and direct their subjects to seize them.

    We hardly know anything about this.

    I think the public needs to know much more, and not least because the techniques for personalized, targeted forms of mind control are going to be more and more automated and applied to large numbers of people.

    • aporter0509

      Oswald was without a doubt a patsy. The rest of the world knows this unequivacably. All one needs to do is read the wealth of the information available from dedicated, knowledgable researchers many of whom are besmirched as conspiracy theorists, a term that was coined by personnel in the CIA and taken up by the co-opted U.S. Media. The perpetrators of this Coup D’Etat did’t even try to hide the facts of their involvement. They made it obvious so future leaders would understand what will happen to them if they step out of line as JFK did. Wake up people, your President was taken out by a criminal Cabal, no better than a mod rub out.

  • Forton Twelve

    Douglass’ ‘story’ is more valuable than the ‘history’ he offers: a comprehensive review of the facts does not reflect positively on his narrative. But there’s a compelling sort of theology here…

  • Hally

    Jackie knew. Wasn’t she the one who said, “They’re killing Kennedys” as she ran off to marry Onasis and took her kids out of the country? Makes me wonder what kind of contacts Onasis had that she felt could protect her and the kids from the unspeakable.

  • David Eberhardt

    i share some of douglass’s peace positions- people should protest the violence we have now- nra- etc- douglass’s view is not “unthinkable”- it’ flies in the face of reality- conspiracy theorists like d detract from the peace movement w zany theories- yes- oswald got lucky BUT he trained at rifle ranges- let douglas protest mannlicher carcano- but no – he wants to go to mesico- it’s tragic bs- is he trying to make money?
    o ….shooters in front- Jim- get down into that manhole