JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he Died and Why it Matters

Written by James Douglass, Published by Orbis Press 

Reviewed by Jack Neworth 

This past November 22nd marked the 45th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Despite all that has been written about Kennedy and the circumstances surrounding his death, for many historians the truth has been obscured behind the twin myths of Camelot and the Warren Report. 

Through various biographies and magazine exposes we’ve learned about Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner and other Kennedy’s infidelities. We’ve learned of his crippling illness that was carefully covered up. And, of course, we’ve been inundated with theories as to how he was killed and why. 

What James Douglass has managed to accomplish in his new book “JFK and the Unspeakable” is to bring to light probably the most important facet of Kennedy somehow others have missed. Douglass is almost alone in focusing on the amazing transformation of JFK from an aggressive Cold Warrior to an apostle for Peace. Twelve years in the making, Douglass’s book provides compelling evidence that it was this very transformation that cost JFK his life.

Douglass is a longtime peace activist and theologian. The title of his book comes from the work of the late spiritual writer Thomas Merton (1915-1968) who defined unspeakable as “an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.” JFK’s horrific death, seen over and over on national television, and its likely cause, certainly would seem to fit the definition.

Within the Cold War atmosphere, Douglass artfully interweaves Kennedy’s increasing moves toward peace with the conspiracy that was out to stop him. Kennedy’s peace initiatives brought him into conflict with the hawks in his administration over Vietnam and especially with the Joint Chiefs who pushed for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. 

The Joint Chiefs knew that we had a temporary advantage in nuclear weapons over the Soviets and wanted to attack before they could catch up. They were bolstered in their arguments by experts like Hermann Kahn who were convinced that a nuclear war was a winnable option for America. Kennedy successfully resisted them and, it could be argued, saved civilization in the process. Research has demonstrated that even a modest nuclear exchange could cause a “nuclear winter” destroying all life on earth. 

Douglass outlines the relationship between JFK’s policies and his murder. Each step he made toward peace angered his enemies who would ultimately betray him. Heretofore, almost unpublicized, were JFK’s back channel attempts at securing that peace. JFK and Khrushchev exchanged twenty-six lengthy and highly personal letters, the revelation of, which are fascinating. Douglass contends that each leader, having seen the world come to the brink of nuclear annihilation, desperately wanted a lasting peace. But each was saddled with enemies within their bureaucracies that had a vested interest in the maintenance of a war machine. 

Douglass traces the conflict between a president and the war machine back to the Eisenhower era. Despite having led the Allied forces to victory in WW2, Ike fell seriously out of favor with the CIA when he planned a summit meeting with Khrushchev. (Cancelled after a U.S. spy plane crashed in Russia.) Eisenhower’s Farewell Address was shocking to many when he warned the nation of the perils of the military industrial complex, forces that would soon be in conflict with Kennedy.

Kennedy’s first major impasse with the CIA followed the Bay of Pigs invasion which had been designed to take back control of Cuba and re-open gambling casinos to benefit organized crime JFK felt so betrayed by the agency and the Joint Chief that he told an aide he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the wind.’’ 

In Douglass’ book we learn that Kennedy and Castro appeared dedicated to a normalization of relations. At American University on June 10, 1963, JFK spoke about a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and his resolve to form a new relationship with Khrushchev. Many at the CIA and Pentagon, however, repeatedly subverted JFK’s policies. He became isolated, unable to trust high-ranking officials such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Curtis LeMay and Allen Dulles. Ironically, JFK had more faith in Khrushchev than people within his own government.

“JFK and the Unspeakable” is published by Orbis Press. The publisher and editor is Robert Ellsberg, the son of Daniel Ellsberg of the “Pentagon Papers” fame. 

“JFK and the Unspeakable” is a compelling read with remarkable relevance to today, especially in light of his daughter Caroline, possibly becoming the U.S. Senator from New York. Douglass illustrates that we have tragically overlooked diplomacy to embrace preemptive war and endless militarism. His book is a must for the student of the Kennedy era and the pursuit of peace.

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