For those of us who remember, it’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since that black Friday in November when John F. Kennedy was shot.
I was a 17-year-old freshman at Brooklyn College, a political science major who could feel the world opening up to new ideas after the stodgy Eisenhower years. When I heard the news, my entire world was turned upside down, and bright hopes shattered into a million pieces. That night, I saw my father crying. I had only seen him cry once before, when his sister passed away.
My best friend and I spent the next two days walking, walking, walking, trying to make some kind of sense of the act and trying to imagine a future. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan and back. I missed the broadcast of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby, because I was still out there, trying to walk off the massive hurt.
America hasn’t ever really recovered from that day.
In 1958, when the Pew Foundation began doing its polling on the topic, 73 percent of Americans polled trusted their government. At the time Kennedy was in office, that figure had spiked to nearly 80 percent. Today? The 2013 Pew poll reports that just 19 percent say they trust the government. Is that an amazing coincidence? Or did what so many Americans perceive as a betrayal at the highest levels turn us inexorably down a road of despair, denial, apathy and cynicism?
In the 50 years since the assassination, there have been some 2,000 books written on the subject. The books tend to fall into several categories: one, that there was no conspiracy and the official story stands (not many, but some books proclaim this); two, that there was a plot, which points to the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba; three, that the Mafia did it; and four, that the CIA and the Mafia did it.
I certainly haven’t read all of those books, but I did at least come to the conversation early. As a freshman teacher in Washington, D.C., in 1967 as part of the Urban Teaching Corps, I was given the material to teach a unit on alternative views of the Kennedy assassination. As I delved into a mystery I’d never examined before, two red flags jumped out at me. One was the Zapruder film showing the back of Kennedy’s head as he was shot and how it indicated that a bullet came from the front and not from the Texas School Book Depository building, where Oswald supposedly carried out his deed. The other red flag was the surprising number of witnesses to the assassination who met unfortunate and untimely ends.
Seeds of doubt were planted in me, and the one thing that I knew to be true about the Kennedy assassination is that the official story was not true.
Apparently, I’m not alone. According to a recent AP poll, just 24 percent of Americans believe in the official “Oswald acted alone” story, and some 59 percent are convinced there was indeed a conspiracy. But you will never see these alternative stories aired on mainstream media, and if mentioned, they are quickly dismissed as “conspiracy theories.” So if you’ve read extensively on the subject and believe the official story is a pack of lies, you are never to say so publicly lest you lose credibility and find yourself classified as one of those “conspiracy nuts.”
You are being asked to deny, and then deny you are denying. Perhaps this central disconnection from authenticity and integrity is why there is such seething and misdirected anger in this country, and political discourse has devolved into “detestimonials and insinuendos.” It might also explain why we are a country at war with itself, and our government is watching us—instead of the other way around.
The body politic is most certainly in need of healing, and of all those 2,000 books that have been written about the Kennedy assassination, there is one book that stands out as a potential pathway to metabolizing our huge political toxin.
JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters is authored by James W. Douglass, a progressive Catholic deeply influenced by the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968). Though Merton lived a monastic life and rarely traveled, he was influential as a religious philosopher whose correspondents included well-known Catholics of all political persuasions, from Clare Boothe Luce to Ethel Kennedy.
Because of his fierce inner convictions and willingness to stand for these convictions, Merton was able to gaze unflinchingly into the heart of darkness. He used the word “unspeakable” to describe “a suicidal moral evil and total lack of ethics and rationality with which international politics tend to be conducted.”
It’s hard to imagine a book about the death of a beloved president at the hands of “the unspeakable” as inspiring, but Douglass’ book courageously acknowledges the likeliest scenario, and by facing the dark implications, shows us a way toward redemption. In many ways, JFK and the Unspeakable is a spiritual book. It seems so old-fashioned to speak about “evil,” and yet it may be that our unwillingness to use this term and face the darkness head-on is why evil seems to have snuggled up with us and moved in next door.
Douglass introduces three main “characters” in this book: John F. Kennedy, the Unspeakable and you, the reader.
Kennedy’s story in this book is a tale of transformation, from cold warrior to peacemaker. His moment of epiphany came during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. The transcripts of Kennedy’s interactions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the book is over 500 pages, 100 of which are footnotes and references) show how he resisted war and how angry the generals were—even after he dodged the bullet and the missiles were removed from Cuba.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian foreign ministry released documents showing the cables between Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during the crisis. A message sent by the president’s brother Robert F. Kennedy to Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin put it bluntly: “If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power.”
Premier Khrushchev, having similar misgivings about plunging the world into nuclear holocaust, agreed to pull the missiles out of Cuba, and the crisis evaporated. In exchange, President Kennedy made a verbal promise to remove our missiles from Turkey within six months, which came to pass.
In a significant sense, both Kennedy and Khrushchev had what we might term today near-death experiences. In returning from the brink of massive destruction, both of them dedicated themselves to doing whatever they could to end the Cold War. For Kennedy, it was the thought of all those children who would never grow up to live a full life had he pushed the button. His generals, on the other hand, were perfectly willing to gamble the lives of millions of Americans and millions more Russians on a first strike that they believed would immobilize the Soviet Union.
Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated often during the last year of Kennedy’s life. They often spoke about having more in common with one another than with their generals. Kennedy initiated three policy changes that put him at odds with his generals, with most of his party leaders and most definitely with the military industrial complex. He sought a nuclear test ban treaty as a way to slow, if not stop, the Cold War escalation; he opened secret lines of communication to Fidel Castro, with an eye toward rapprochement with the Cuban communist regime; and he made firm plans to end the Vietnam War before it started.
All of this—and the resistance Kennedy got from nearly all quarters—is well-documented in Douglass’ book. It may well be that had Kennedy lived, the Vietnam War Memorial we are all so familiar with wouldn’t exist today, and those who died would have lived full and fulfilling lives. Those who still suffer from PTSD would likewise have been able to focus on healthier pursuits. And the culture wars that have divided America might never have happened. Take, for example, when Kennedy appeared in Salt Lake City—even then a conservative bastion—and proposed a nuclear test ban. The audience, largely Mormon, gave him a standing ovation that lasted for minutes.
Enter the other main character in this immorality play: the Unspeakable. If Douglass is right, and elements in our own government were responsible for the assassination—you will have to read the book to make your own conclusions—John F. Kennedy’s transformation from war maker to peacemaker was stopped dead in its tracks. In regards to Vietnam, according to Stanley Karnow’s 1983 book Vietnam: A History, Lyndon Johnson reassured the Joint Chiefs in December 1963, a month after succeeding to the office, “Just let me get elected, then you can have your war.”
And so it was. And here we are today, armed to the teeth, as dangerous as any rogue state, gazillions in debt and mired in despair, decay and dysfunction.
So who or what is this Unspeakable?
When he first used the term, Thomas Merton was referring to the secret and silent power that gave itself dominion some 15 years before Kennedy was killed. The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, and officially renamed the Department of War the Department of Defense. Not content to leave Orwell-enough alone, in 1948 President Harry Truman’s National Security Council approved the top secret direction NSC 10/2 that would empower the CIA to carry out covert acts under the veil of secrecy. Truman’s original understanding of the CIA was as an intelligence-gathering (i.e., spying) organization, but under this new mandate, the CIA became another arm of warfare-waging propaganda campaigns, sabotage, and “executive action” (their own benign term for assassination).
It was another seemingly innocent phrase, “plausible deniability,” that gave this secret government carte blanche. Because NSC 10/2 blatantly violated international law, it required some form of “lie-ability” insurance. The directive stated that all such activities were to be “so planned and executed that any U.S. government responsibility is not evident to unauthorized persons, and if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly deny any responsibility for them.”
So did elements from our secret government have anything to do with a plot to kill John F. Kennedy? Douglass presents no definitive proof of any particular higher-up calling the shots, although the circumstantial evidence—if one is willing to see the patterns—is overwhelming. Again, you will have to read the book and make your own conclusions.
And this is where the third character in the story enters: the American people.
Several years ago, I read an article by journalist Doug Thompson published by OpEdNews.com. In it, Thompson recalls a 1981 encounter with the late John Connally, the former governor of Texas who was wounded in the Kennedy assassination. In an unguarded moment, Thompson asked Connally, “Do you think Lee Harvey Oswald fired the gun that killed Kennedy?” “Absolutely not,” Connally said. “I do not, for one second, believe the conclusions of the Warren Commission.” “So why not speak out?” Thompson asked. “I will never speak out publicly about what I believe,” Connally replied, “because I love this country and we needed closure at the time.” Now, half a century after that devastating perpetration, a dozen years since 9-11 and months after revelations that, via the NSA, the government is indeed “listening to the people,” we might want to ask, how well did “closure” serve us?
As I read the story of how Kennedy and Khrushchev and Pope John XXIII were secretly plotting for peace during that year following the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Nothing is impossible,” wrote the pope shortly before he died), I see a dream interrupted. And only by immersing ourselves in this dark history and shining the light of awareness, love and understanding can we pick up the pieces and renew this journey, with greater unity, wisdom and resolve. Read this book. Speak about the unspeakable. It may well be America’s pathway to redemption.
Steve Bhaerman, aka Swami Beyondananda, is a humorist, political ‘uncommontator’ and author. He can be found at www.wakeuplaughing.com.