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.
The 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?