Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why the CIA Killed JFK
A Book Report

“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’
when after all it was you and me.”
                                       —The Rolling Stones

I’ve occasionally reflected on what it means that I was born in 1940—the cusp of the great darkness of World War II—to a mother of heretical views in an Anabaptist agricultural community just above the Mason-Dixon line in the Pennsylvania-Dutch country of Lancaster County.

My mother’s milk was a not-altogether-coherent philosophical compound of transcendentalism, pacifism, Vedantism, L. Ron Hubbard, Dorothy Day, Edgar Cayce, and populist liberalism. During my formative years right up into the 1960s, very few in my hometown were similarly schooled. None, in fact, it’s probably safe to say—other than my two sisters, who came along later.

Why me, Lord?

Well, never mind. Blaming my mother for my social maladjustments, especially at this late date, is retarded, to say the least.

But in such a climate, after the dreary militaristic conformity of the Eisenhower-Nixon years of asexual repression—particularly observed, saluted, and sanctified in Lancaster County—is it any wonder that the appearance on the national political scene of the youthful, vibrant, sophisticated and urbane John F. Kennedy as a candidate for U.S. President seemed to me like a providentially timed geyser of hope?

I was a year shy of voting age in 1960 when Kennedy ran, but I was an uncritical supporter. And in the end even my mother, who held out almost to election day against the talking points my father and I pressed upon her, voted grudgingly for him—after he extended his support to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement.

But as election-year excitement faded into post-inaugural routine, I became disillusioned with JFK. It seemed to me so little had really changed. The Cold War dragged on. The nuclear arms race continued. The Civil Rights struggle seemed stalled. Ignorance and prejudice all around me continued unabated.

After a visit to my college by Dr. Henry Kissinger, the hot-shot Cold-War scholar from Harvard who Kennedy brought to Washington as a top foreign-policy consultant, I complained in the student newspaper that Kissinger, as a representative voice of American foreign policy, displayed “an attitude of short-sightedness and, in effect, fear.”

“Perhaps what is needed,” I suggested, “is new blood, newer than Dr. Kissinger and his stuffy, Harvard analysis, newer than John F. Kennedy and his careful, guarded diplomacy. There is a new frontier, but the wagons have not yet begun to roll.”

That was in November, 1961. Two years later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and though my opinion of his “careful, guarded diplomacy” had not much changed—having seemingly fulfilled so little of his inaugural promise as one of “a new generation of Americans” taking charge—I felt a crushing sense of loss at his sudden demise. The assassination sank what hope remained in my spirit from 1960. I had no enthusiasm for our national future in the hands of Lyndon Johnson, who, I instinctively believed, would take the country back to provincial nationalism, both politically and culturally.

I was, of course, not too far wrong about the latter. But I was wrong about JFK, as I’ve just learned from a most enlightening book that providentially came into my hands through my friend Tom Palumbo at Norfolk OffBase, a local gathering place for progressive political discussion and social networking here in Hampton Roads, VA.

(Thank you, Tom, you’ve illuminated my existence!)

The book is JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, by James W. Douglass, published in 2008 by Orbis Books.

Douglass’ background is in radical Catholic social philosophy and theology. Among his major influences are Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk silenced by the Vatican for his 1960-era writings on peace and social justice, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker peace-and-social-justice movement. Within such an intellectual and moral frame of reference, then, readers may immediately recognize they’re venturing outside the mainstream of historical analysis. The book’s title alone, with the word “Unspeakable,” gives fair warning.

Douglass borrows the word from Thomas Merton, who, he says, uses it to describe “an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.” Then Douglass goes on to associate it specifically to another term, “plausible deniability,” coined by U.S. military and civilian intelligence to refer to strategies which cover up culpability for such dirty tricks as assassination of prominent (or not so prominent) opponents of certain favored, secret agendas.

In this Merton-Douglass context, the Unspeakable, which dares not be spoken, is the dark truth behind these dirty tricks—that they are intricately plotted and executed by CIA, FBI, and military “special forces” which operate as laws unto themselves out of the offices of unelected bureaucratic chiefs using unlimited funds in off-the-books budgets and which, through various means which include assassination, silence any who offer serious resistance to their unspoken agenda.

This Unspeakable is so far removed from the accepted American public’s image of democracy, decency, and the nearly bullet-proof facade of our wholesome, cheerful, good-life culture which advertising pummels into our collectice psyche 24/7 that we are willing to accept “plausible deniability” rather than face a devastating truth and its consequences.

What’s required, then, is a carefully crafted plot, cleverly manipulated evidence, and effective controls over witnesses to make it quite plausible for the American public to deny that a movement is afoot to achieve total, ruthless, militarized domination of the planet in the interests of maximum corporate profits.

For example, with even an imperfect facsimile of “plausible deniability” in place, the Warren Commission could be counted on to establish that a lone, fanatical gunman murdered JFK for no coherent reason, even if Commission members knew or strongly suspected that agents of the CIA, on behalf of a multiple-agency conspiracy, actually did the deed in order to disrupt Kennedy’s escalating efforts to end the Cold War.

That latter proposition is exactly what Douglass sets out to prove in his detailed, exhaustively researched, copiously referenced, 510-page review of Kennedy’s three short years as President, 1961-1963.


Now, frankly, before I read Douglass, successive floods of official disinformation over the decades had worked on me. I thought everything that could be said about the JFK assassination had been said and that we would probably never know the truth of what had happened. Maybe, I allowed, it really was Oswald acting alone who pulled the trigger.

But Douglass’ work, which puts anything less in investigative journalism to shame, not only has changed my opinion on that. It has also justified my youthful hope in the Presidency of JFK.

I realize I’m probably behind the curve here. I’m not even an amateur scholar on the subject of the Kennedy Presidency or the assassination, and I expect there is much in Douglass’ book that will come as no surprise to many more informed than I. But from what I do know, having followed some of the apocryphal literature as well as having lived through those wrenching times with some measure of healthy alertness, I suspect that Douglass has probably got it right.

Kennedy’s assassination was a coup d’etat by hard-line, anti-communist ideologues well established within our government and operating through the Central Intelligence Agency—and not as a rogue element, either, as some have suggested. It came from the top.

By 2010, of course, the anti-communist ideologues have morphed into a right-wing establishment so nearly in full control of our government that there is no point looking to government to reverse itself. It’s up to us, and hope is futile. Only purely sacrificial acts of conscience, without hope, will suffice. Douglass makes this point in the last sentence of his book: “John F. Kennedy is dead. Now peace is up to us.”

But I get ahead of myself.

Revealed in this riveting book, which I couldn’t have known in 1963—or in 1961, when I wrote of my disappointment with Kennedy’s “new frontier”—is how wide a rift had developed by the time he was shot between him and his own administration, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence agencies, the Cabinet, and most of the members of Congress.

This rift developed slowly, for, as Douglass is careful to point out, Kennedy did not come into office with a specific agenda for peace. He was, rather, a committed Cold-War warrior who “turned,” undergoing a kind of conversion as a logical result of certain experiences which began to coalesce with the Bay-of-Pigs fiasco.

In April, 1961, having naively accepted a plan already developed under President Eisenhower, Kennedy faced a critical decision when Cuban exiles, secretly trained in Central America by CIA and U.S. military personnel, invaded Cuba but failed to overthrow the two-year-old communist government of Fidel Castro. American military chiefs counted on Kennedy to order U.S. Marines into Cuba to salvage the floundering mission. This Kennedy refused to do. Instead, he publicly admitted defeat and accepted full responsibility for the caper.

After that humiliation Kennedy undertook the daunting task of getting control of his government, at least so far as he could, given that many in the military, the CIA, the FBI, the diplomatic corps, and even his own Cabinet, if they didn’t actively work against his directives, simply ignored them, a pattern which continued with ever-increasing belligerence right through to the end.

Therefore, what appeared to my unenlightened student’s eyes as Kennedy’s “careful, guarded diplomacy” was deliberately crafted to keep what he was really doing hidden behind the scenes, though, to be fair to myself, that didn’t take definitive shape until the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. Then, according to media legend, having learned that the Russians were assembling missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba, Kennedy engaged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a battle of nerves over which man would dare be the first to begin a nuclear war of potentially apocalyptic proportions.

Characterized most famously by Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s observation that, in this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, “the other fellow just blinked”—as if “our fellow” won the battle of nerves—what is not widely known is how, at that point and through back diplomatic channels, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to cool out, step back, and start a serious effort to make peace with one another.

Douglass lays all this out in detail in his book, quoting from lengthy, secret correspondences between the two leaders, who over time were coming to trust each other. Soon Fidel Castro would accept an invitation to join this secret circle of peaceful warriors, which also included Pope John XXIII.

But despite Kennedy’s efforts to keep his international contacts discreetly hidden, his own spies were aware of most if not all of what he was up to. And they had near-zero tolerance for a boss who was “soft on communism.”

It’s not possible for me to go into the exhaustive detail Douglass presents in his review of the history of that brief period between 1961 and 1963, when the world took its first and only deep breath in my lifetime of the promising fresh air of peace. But even a partial list of the initiatives Douglass discusses, which JFK put into motion and for which he was eliminated, should be enough to stun anyone who thinks peace on Earth is an easily attained ideal.
  • When the invasion of the Cuban exiles failed, rather than ordering U.S. Marines into Cuba as the CIA and the military Joint Chiefs of Staff expected, Kennedy admitted and took responsibility for a humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs.

(The military/CIA position was that the U.S. must never accept defeat.)
  • He categorically and consistently refused to consider plans drawn up by the Joint Chiefs for preemptive nuclear strikes against the USSR and Cuba.

 (The military/CIA wanted to attack the communists before they attacked the U.S.)
  • He entered into a secret correspondence with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in which they discussed ways to reduce cold-war tensions, including reduction of nuclear weapons, ceasing nuclear testing, and fostering cooperative ventures in scientific and cultural projects. He also authorized secret talks between U.S. and Cuban representatives, which were underway when he was killed.
 (The military/CIA considered conciliatory outreach to communist leaders a sign of weakness.) 
  • He ceased U.S. backing of anti-communist rule in Laos, supporting instead a coalition government. He then ordered the beginning of American troop reductions in Vietnam and intended to order withdrawal of all American forces after his increasingly likely reelection in 1964.

 (The military/CIA thought this was the same as handing the communists a victory.)
  • He sought to strengthen the United Nations as a global governing body capable of legislating and enforcing world peace.

 (The military/CIA thought this was a blue print for giving away U.S. autonomy.)
  •  At a graduation address at American University, June 10, 1963, he made clear his intention to negotiate an end to the Cold War.
 (The military/CIA could not be satisfied with anything less than winning the Cold War.)
  • He shepherded through the U.S. Senate the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the USSR, outlawing all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space, or under water.

(The military/CIA wanted to develop nuclear-weapons technology, not curtail it.)

As Douglass explains, because of these and other, similar executive actions and policies, by the fall of 1963 Kennedy had became so isolated in his own government that his closest political allies, who he couldn’t acknowledge in public, were Nikita Khrushchev and Pope John XXIII, whose ground-breaking encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), influenced both leaders in their outreach toward each other.

 (It’s irresistible to note the intriguing similarity between Kennedy’s brand of clandestine peace politics and his corresponding pattern of secret trysts with women—a point Douglass does not mention.)
Douglass goes into much detail concerning the assassination plot itself, revealing that its “success” on Nov. 22 was most probably the third planned attempt, two others earlier that fall having failed. Kennedy was in his assassins’ sights for many months before he was finally shot.

But more stunning than that is how far the conspiracy reached, enlisting, for example, the cooperation of the Secret Service, who, Douglass finds, apparently relaxed security on Kennedy as his motorcade approached Dealey Plaza; pressuring emergency-room doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and autopsy physicians at Bethesda, MD, Naval Hospital to conform their reports to the official theory of the lone assassin, which the CIA, ever-mindful of “plausible deniability,” had carefully fabricated in advance; silencing for decades if not forever any number of witnesses—ordinary citizens who saw, heard, or otherwise encountered suspicious activity surrounding the assassination, at the crime scene and elsewhere.
These and other deceptive tamperings all point to a much wider and more convoluted scenario than was ever satisfactorily addressed in the officially sanctioned Warren Commission Report and its later revisions. You have to read this book to comprehend the full Kafkaesque horror of it.
Yet impressing us that way is not Douglass’ ultimate intent.

 As a peacemaker himself, Douglass wants us to understand that, in a world where waging war—though in reality a crime and a sin against the creation—is at least as popular as professional sports, peace-making may cost you your life.
At least three times in his book Douglass quotes from a letter JFK wrote to a friend in 1945, when, as a young journalist working for the Hearst newspaper chain after his discharge from the Navy, he covered an international conference in San Francisco where plans were formulated for the establishment of the United Nations.
“War will exist,” he wrote then, “until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”
It’s almost unimaginable that any American politician, let alone a future President, could have entertained such a thought in 1945. But that’s just Douglass’ point. Kennedy was way ahead of his time, in 1945, in 1963, and—let’s face it—in 2010 as well.

Before I read this book, I, for one, did not fully appreciate that.

But, though I couldn’t have said why, I did appreciate what we lost when JFK was murdered. I sensed the unseen forces at work, the clandestine rot eating away at the roots of our American right to free inquiry and expression, of our freedom to explore new frontiers rather than submit to enforced participation in a competitive conformist paradigm.
World peace, Douglass shows, was the ultimate new frontier JFK sought to explore. He was killed for trying. That matters because, for reasons too numerous or obvious to mention, world peace is the only option we have if we are to continue to evolve, rather than devolve, as a race on this planet.

As Douglass repeatedly shows, Kennedy believed that. And, as I learned from his book—justifying in my own mind the path along the social fringes my own life has taken since 1963, when my faith in the viability of the American way of life died—I believe that, too. I was taught to believe it by my radical mother.

But I also learned from this book how entrenched are the institutions of war in our society, going back far more years than I imagined, and I plainly see what the stakes are for any politician, not to mention a conscientious objector, who sets out to reform or abolish them.
No one wants to be killed. Yet it’s a predictable outcome, if one is to confront the Unspeakable fact that amoral killers are in charge of our collective governance, retaining control through a “plausible deniability” fortified by our inattention. Thus we allow ourselves to be manipulated into complicity with moral and civil crimes of epic proportions.
To dare to speak the Unspeakable and act to dismantle it, especially from positions of public leadership, is to invite martyrdom. From his monk’s cell, Douglass says, Thomas Merton predicted as much—that Kennedy would be “marked out for assassination” if he were to transcend ordinary political consciousness to think in terms of humanity as a whole.
Merton was right. That fate befell not only JFK but Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and many others not widely known to the public. But for Douglass, a deeply faithful Christian attempting to set a deliberately scrambled historical record straight, martyrdom is an act of redemption, necessary in a culture which rests upon the operational reality of the Unspeakable.

For as flip side to the Unspeakable evil which Douglass documents is the Unspeakable good attainable when men and women put their bodies on the line for peace. Just as we frown on public discussion of the former, so we denigrate those who practice the latter. In our public life, we prefer the comfortable middle, which President Obama recently defined for us in his State of the Union address.

 The one thing both Democrats and Republicans can agree on, he said, is the need to stay armed for war. Tragically, the Unspeakable, cloaked in “plausible deniability,” has become the official face of America in the world. Barack Obama, apparently, is no John F. Kennedy.

How many more martyrs will it take before peace on Earth becomes a reality rather than a seasonal slogan? It may depend on how many of us are willing to risk paying that price.

For an in-depth interview with Douglass on JFK and the Unspeakable, click here.


At 5:37 PM , Blogger debrobbsellers said...

While I am a bit younger than you (was told about JFK's assassination during 8th grade shop class) I share many of the thoughts you've expressed, in both 63' and now.
Based on my interest in the subject and your review I will get a copy of the book and will get back to you after I've read it.
My one concern is that exposure to this book will shake me out of my growing sense of a total inability to make a difference. Obama's actions (and lack there of) have only strengthened this feeling.
This could lead me to protesting and joining up for a repeat of the Moratoriums of 69' & 70' - only this time we'd better be ready to die because THEY certinally will want us dead.


At 12:21 PM , Blogger Delaney said...

I think the lesson here is that we must act without regard to any outcome, for I have to agree with you that it doesn't seem as if anything we can do will make a difference in the course of the state. Yet not to act will certainly make a difference in the health of our souls.

At 12:14 PM , Blogger Star Womanspirit said...

Delaney...I think you might like Russ Bakers Family of Secrets--the Bush Dynasty, the powerful forces that put it in the white house and what their influence means for america. He has presented a convincing case that the CIA (with George Herbert Walker Bush and the smack dab in the middle of it all) ended the Kennedy AND Nixon Presidencies. (Appears that Nixon's paranoia was valid and the man was set up for taking on the CIA.) I have revised my opinions of Nixon, Carl Woodward, and John Dean after reading this book.

It also gives a whole new meaning to the Wall Street has been described by some DC folks as having been run like an intelligence operation...and viola all that money left our treasury and was emptied into the pocket of the economic elites.

I'm also wondering if ANY US President will be able to survive any conflict with the CIA and our Military Industrial Complex.

Chavez had a strong foundation behind his question to Obama..are you a prisoner?

I look to the people of South America for my inspiration...they are definitely taking a strong stand against the US Corporate Powers that be.

In the meantime I'm simplifying and evolving up here in Floyd....come visit sometime late summer or early fall and re-charge your batteries.

At 2:17 PM , Blogger Delaney said...

Actually, I have read Family of Secrets, a most explosive and convincing book. Your question whether any President can challenge the national security establishment and survive is very germaine--with scary implications. I, too, am encouraged by the news out of Latin America. Maybe they can get it right! Your nest in Floyd sounds like a dream. Best to you, thanks for reading.--D


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