James W. DOUGLASS, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008. pp. 544. $30.00. ISBN 978-57075-755-6.
Reviewed by Dennis HAMM, S.J., Creighton University, Omaha, NE 68178

If the title of this book makes you suspect that it is another in a long line of mind-numbing conspiracy scenarios regarding the events of November 22nd 1963 in Dallas, go to your nearest vendor of Orbis books and read the six-page introduction and the 10-page chronology in the early pages of this hefty volume. That will be enough to hook you into reading the rest.

The author is, after all, the James Douglass who gave us The Nonviolent Cross in 1968 and several more thoughtful books since. Douglass’ interest is not first of all the immediate scenario of the events of JFK’s death but Kennedy’s remarkable “turn to peace” during his final months, a turn that made likely, if not inevitable, his being “marked for assassination” (to use Thomas Merton’s phrase). Douglass’ meticulous research illuminates JFK’s remarkable—and little noted—transition from Cold Warrior to proponent of “complete and general disarmament,” a phrase he used in several public addresses to describe his ultimate goal as President.

Drawing upon the research of others, upon recently declassified federal records, and upon his own interviews of witnesses, Douglass provides a detailed narrative of the key events that occasioned Kennedy’s turn to active peacemaking—his refusal to provide military support for the CIA-initiated Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, and the growing alienation with his military advisors as he proceeded to secretly explore peacemaking initiatives with both Castro and Khrushchev.

Following the Cuban missile crisis, both JFK and Khrushchev admitted to one another that they were terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Kennedy began to resist further U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. In July of 1963 U.S. and Soviet negotiators agree on the Limited Test Ban Treaty, outlawing nuclear tests “in the atmosphere, beyond its limits, including outer space, or under water, including territorial waters or high seas.” The Senate approves the treaty, 80 to 19, September 24th.

Having begun his research mainly focused on Kennedy’s turn to peacemaking, and discovering the enormous resistance to those efforts on the part of JFK’s military advisors, and all of this in the light of new information and his own interviews, when Douglass comes to the events immediately surrounding the president’s death, he understands them with fresh eyes. He lays out the results of that research by giving the back-story of a number of eye-witnesses—some familiar, others relatively unknown (in some cases because their stories were official discounted, in other cases because it took years for them to overcome governmental intimidation).

Douglass’ narrative is full of surprises:
* The extent to which both Khrushchev and JFK had to work against their own generals
* The fact the Khruschev studied and was moved by Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris
* The key role of Norman Cousins in all this
* The (foiled) attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago just three weeks before the Dallas assassination, entailing a pattern remarkably similar to that of the Dallas event—a set of assassins, a carefully cultivated patsy positioned in a window overlooking the presidential motorcade moving through a dogleg in the route.
* Strong evidence for the presence and activities of a Lee Oswald look-alike, which accounts for the phenomenon of “too many Oswalds” sighted at certain stages of the narrative
* The significance of a crucial speech—little noted at the time and less remembered since—that JFK gave as a commencement address at American University in Washington, five months before his death. In it he issues an urgent call for peace— “Not, he insisted, “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” He commits himself to work for “complete and general disarmament.”

The whole book could be read as a commentary on that speech, whose full text is included as an appendix. Douglass’ account shows how JFK got to this point and why public expression of his purpose could be seen as treasonous by those who saw U.S. domination supported by preemptive strikes as absolutely necessary to our security.

In the end, Douglass does in fact provide another conspiracy theory. But the motives, methods and the rich nature of the fresh data he gives make this work necessary reading for anyone who cares about the security of the United States, and the rest of the world.

The seriousness of Douglass’ purpose is expressed eloquently in a paragraph from his Introduction: “I will tell the story as truthfully as I can. I have come to see it as a transforming story, one that can help move our own collective story in the twenty-first century from a spiral of violence to a way of peace. My methodology is from Gandhi. This is an experiment in truth. Its particular truth is a journey into darkness. If we go as far as we can into the darkness, regardless of the consequences, I believe a midnight truth will free us from our bondage to violence and bring us to the light of peace” (pp. xviii-xix).


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