A Cold Warrior Turns
As Albert Einstein said, with the unleashing of the power of the atom, humanity reached a new age. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima marked a crossroads: either we would end war or war would end us. In her reflections on Hiroshima in the September 1945 issue of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day wrote: “Mr. Truman was jubilant. President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant.”1
President Truman was aboard the cruiser Augusta, returning from the Potsdam conference, when he was informed of the United States’ incineration of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb. Truman was exultant. He declared, “This is the greatest thing in history!” He went from person to person on the ship, officers and crew alike, telling them the great news like a town crier.
Dorothy Day observed: “‘Jubilant’ the newspapers said. Jubilate Deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese.”
Seventeen years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, another president, John F. Kennedy, under enormous pressure, almost committed the United States to a nuclear holocaust that would have multiplied the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb thousands of times. Kennedy’s saving grace was that unlike Truman he recognized the evil of nuclear weapons. Kennedy resisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of his civilian advisers, who pressured him for a preemptive attack on Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Thanks to the sheer grace of God, to Kennedy’s resistance to his advisers, and to Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to retreat, humanity survived the crisis.
Kennedy, however, survived it for only a little more than a year. As we shall see, because of his continuing turn from nuclear war toward a vision of peace in the thirteen months remaining to him, he was executed by the powers that be.
Two critical questions converge at Kennedy’s assassination. The first is: Why did his assassins risk exposure and a shameful downfall by covertly murdering a beloved president? The second is: Why was John Kennedy prepared to give his life for peace, when he saw death coming?
The second question may be key to the first, because there is nothing so threatening to systemic evil as those willing to stand against it regardless of the consequences. So we will try to see this story initially through the life of John Kennedy, to understand why he became so threatening to the most powerful military-economic coalition in history that its wielders of power were willing to risk everything they had in order to kill him.
In assessing the formation of John Kennedy’s character, biographers have zeroed in on his upbringing as a rich young man in a dysfunctional marriage. Seen through that lens, Kennedy was a reckless playboy from youth to death, under the abiding influence of a domineering, womanizing father and an emotionally distant, strictly Catholic mother. These half-truths miss the mark. They do not explain the later fact of President Kennedy’s steely resistance to the pressures of a military-intelligence elite focused on waging war.
Kennedy’s life was formed, first of all, by death—the hovering angel of death reaching down for his life. He suffered long periods of illness. He saw death approach repeatedly—from scarlet fever when he was two and three years old, from a succession of childhood and teen illnesses, from a chronic blood condition in boarding school, from what doctors thought was a combination of colitis and ulcers, from intestinal ailments during his years at Harvard, from osteoporosis and crippling back problems intensified by war injuries that plagued him the rest of his life, from the adrenal insufficiency of Addison’s disease2 … To family and friends, Jack Kennedy always seemed to be sick and dying.
Yet he exuded an ironic joy in life. Both the weaknesses and strengths of his character drew on his deeply held belief that death would come soon. “The point is,” he told a friend during a long talk on death, “that you’ve got to live every day like it’s your last day on earth. That’s what I’m doing.”3 From that perspective, he could indeed be reckless, as he was in sexual escapades that after his death would become a media focus on his life. He could also be courageous to the point of heroism. Death was not to be feared. As president, he often joked about his death’s approach. The angel of death was his companion. By smiling at his own death, he was free to resist others’ deaths.
John Kennedy’s World War II experience was characterized by a willingness to give his life for his friends. Two years before the Hiroshima bombing, Kennedy was a PT boat commander in the South Pacific. On the night of August 1–2, 1943, he was at the wheel of his PT 109, patrolling Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands, a corridor of water used by Japanese destroyers. It was a moonless night. A ship suddenly broke through the black, headed for the 109. As a man forward shouted, “Ship at two o’clock!” Kennedy spun the wheel. The Japanese destroyer smashed into the 109 and cut a giant strip off its starboard side. “This is how it feels to be killed,” Kennedy thought, while being thrown through the cockpit. There was a terrific roar, as the gasoline aboard went up in flames.
The section of the boat Kennedy was on stayed afloat. He discovered four of his twelve crewmembers still on it. Two others were never seen or heard from again. Six more were scattered in the water but alive. Kennedy, who had been on the Harvard swimming team, swam through the dark to shouts, finding his badly burned engineer, McMahon. He coaxed and cajoled others not to give up, then towed McMahon a hundred yards back to the floating hulk identified by a crew member’s blinking light. All the survivors in the water reached the tilted deck and collapsed on it. They wondered how long it would take for them to be rescued by PTs from their base on Rendova Island, forty miles away.
When daylight and noon came with no rescue, the group abandoned the sinking hulk. They swam to a small, deserted island, in the midst of larger islands with Japanese soldiers. Nine of the crew held onto a two-by-six timber and kicked and paddled their way to the island. Kennedy again towed McMahon, holding a strap from McMahon’s life preserver in his teeth.
Kennedy would swim in ten-minute spurts, then pause to rest and check on McMahon. A chronicler of this episode described it from McMahon’s point of view:
“Being a sensitive person, McMahon would have found the swim unbearable if he had realized that Kennedy was hauling him through three miles or so of water with a bad back. He was miserable enough without knowing it. Floating on his back with his burned hands trailing at his sides, McMahon could see little but the sky and the flattened cone of [the volcanic island] Kolombangara. He could not see the other men, though while all of them were still together, he could hear them puffing and splashing. He could not see Kennedy but he could feel the tugs forward with each stretch of Kennedy’s shoulder muscles and could hear his labored breathing.
“McMahon tried kicking now and then but he was extremely weary. The swim seemed endless, and he doubted that it would lead to salvation. He was hungry and thirsty and fearful that they would be attacked by sharks. The awareness that he could do nothing to save himself from the currents, the sharks or the enemy oppressed him. His fate, he well knew, was at the end of a strap in Kennedy’s teeth.”4
With Kennedy and McMahon leading the way, it took the eleven men four hours to reach the little island. They staggered up the beach and ducked under trees, barely avoiding a Japanese barge that chugged by and failed to see them.
When early evening came with no sign of help, Kennedy told the crew he would swim from the island out into Ferguson Passage, a mile and a half away, where the PT boats usually patrolled after dark. He took the 109’s lantern, wrapped in a life jacket, to signal the boats. Kennedy swam for half an hour, forded a reef, then swam for another hour, reaching his intended point of interception. He treaded water, waiting in the darkness. After a while, he saw the flares of an action beyond the island of Gizo, ten miles away. The PT boats had taken a different route.
Kennedy tried to swim back to his men. He was very tired. The swift current carried him past the island, toward open water.
New Yorker writer John Hersey interviewed PT 109 crewmembers and wrote their story of survival. He described Kennedy’s hours of drifting toward almost certain death: “He thought he had never known such deep trouble, but something he did shows that unconsciously he had not given up hope. He dropped his shoes, but he held onto the heavy lantern, his symbol of contact with his fellows. He stopped trying to swim. He seemed to stop caring. His body drifted through the wet hours, and he was very cold. His mind was a jumble. A few hours before he had wanted desperately to get to the base at Rendova. Now he only wanted to get back to the little island he had left that night, but he didn’t try to get there; he just wanted to. His mind seemed to float away from his body. Darkness and time took the place of a mind in his skull. For a long time he slept, or was crazy, or floated in a chill trance.
“The currents of the Solomon Islands are queer. The tide shoves and sucks through the islands and makes the currents curl in odd patterns. It was a fateful pattern into which Jack Kennedy drifted. He drifted in it all night. His mind was blank, but his fist was tightly clenched on the kapok around the lantern. The current moved in a huge circle—west past Gizo, then north and east past Kolombangara, then south into Ferguson Passage. Early in the morning the sky turned from black to gray, and so did Kennedy’s mind. Light came to both at about six. Kennedy looked around and saw that he was exactly where he had been the night before when he saw the flares beyond Gizo.”5
Kennedy swam back to the island, stumbled up on the beach, and collapsed in the arms of his crew. He said later of the experience, “I never prayed so much in my life.”6
As is well known from the story of PT 109, eventually Melanesian natives came to the aid of the eleven Americans. The natives carried Kennedy’s SOS message, scratched on a coconut shell, to an Australian Navy coastwatcher, Reg Evans, who was working behind enemy lines. Evans radioed the U.S. Navy for assistance.
In the meantime, Kennedy and fellow officer Barney Ross, not realizing the nearness of their rescue, almost died in another failed effort to signal PTs at night in Ferguson Passage. They found a dugout canoe, and paddled it into high waves in the darkness. The canoe was swamped. The waves threw the two men against a reef, but they again survived.
Kennedy’s crew never forgot his commitment to their lives. They reunited with him periodically after the war. What Kennedy took first from his war experience was a heightened sense of the precious value of his friends’ lives. Among the wartime deaths he mourned besides the PT boat casualties were those of his brother Joe Kennedy, Jr., and brother-in-law Billy Hartington. He knew many others who died. He reflected, too, on the repeated nearness of his own death. As we have seen, since childhood chronically poor health had brought him near death many times. Illness, pain, and the process of almost dying came as a lifelong discipline.
After JFK’s assassination, Robert Kennedy wrote of his brother: “At least one half of the days that he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain. He had scarlet fever when he was very young, and serious back trouble when he was older. In between he had almost every other conceivable ailment. When we were growing up together we used to laugh about the great risk a mosquito took in biting Jack Kennedy—with some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die. He was in Chelsea Naval Hospital for an extended period of time after the war, had a major and painful operation on his back in 1955, campaigned on crutches in 1958. In 1951 on a trip we took around the world he became ill. We flew to the military hospital in Okinawa and he had a temperature of over 106 degrees. They didn’t think he would live.
“But during all this time, I never heard him complain. I never heard him say anything that would indicate that he felt God had dealt with him unjustly. Those who knew him well would know he was suffering only because his face was a little whiter, the lines around his eyes were a little deeper, his words a little sharper. Those who did not know him well detected nothing.”7
After the PT 109 crew’s rescue, Kennedy wondered at the purpose of a life that had been spared again, this time through the circular pattern of deep-running currents and the compassion of Melanesian natives.8
Preventing another war became John Kennedy’s main motivation for entering politics after the Second World War. When he announced his candidacy for Congress on April 22, 1946, in Boston, Kennedy sounded more like he was running for president on a peace ticket than for a first term as a Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts: “What we do now will shape the history of civilization for many years to come. We have a weary world trying to bind the wounds of a fierce struggle. That is dire enough. What is infinitely far worse is that we have a world which has unleashed the terrible powers of atomic energy. We have a world capable of destroying itself. The days which lie ahead are most difficult ones. Above all, day and night, with every ounce of ingenuity and industry we possess, we must work for peace. We must not have another war.”9
Where had this twenty-eight-year-old candidate for Congress forged such a vision of peace in the nuclear age?
After his bad back and colitis had forced his discharge from the Navy, Kennedy had attended the San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations in April-May 1945, as a journalist for the Hearst press. He later told friends it was his experience at the UN meeting and at the Potsdam conference in July that made him realize that the political arena, “whether you really liked it or not, was the place where you personally could do the most to prevent another war.”10
However, what he witnessed in San Francisco, even before the war was over, was an intense conflict between wartime allies. On April 30 he warned his readers that “this week at San Francisco” would be “the real test of whether the Russians and the Americans can get along.”11
The power struggle he saw at the UN moved Kennedy to write to a PT boat friend: “When I think of how much this war has cost us, of the deaths of Cy and Peter and Orv and Gil and Demi and Joe and Billy and all of those thousands and millions who have died with them—when I think of all those gallant acts that I have seen or anyone has seen who has been to the war—it would be a very easy thing to feel disappointed and somewhat betrayed … You have seen battlefields where sacrifice was the order of the day and to compare that sacrifice to the timidity and selfishness of the nations gathered at San Francisco must inevitably be disillusioning.”12
In a notebook, Kennedy identified an ultimate solution to the problem of war and the difficulty in realizing it: “Admittedly world organization with common obedience to law would be solution. Not that easy. If there is not the feeling that war is the ultimate evil, a feeling strong enough to drive them together, then you can’t work out this internationalist plan.”13
“Things cannot be forced from the top,” the future president wrote his PT boat friend. He then expressed a prophetic, long-range view: “The international relinquishing of sovereignty would have to spring from the people—it would have to be so strong that the elected delegates would be turned out of office if they failed to do it … War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”14
Kennedy had reason to refer again to that distant day of the conscientious objector while he was traveling through postwar Europe in the summer of 1945. On July 1 in London, he had dinner with William Douglas-Home, a former captain in the British army who had been sentenced to a year in jail for refusing an order to fire on civilians. Douglas-Home became his lifelong friend. Kennedy observed in his diary, “prowess in war is still deeply respected. The day of the conscientious objector is not yet at hand.”15
In the same diary, he anticipated the impact of world-destructive weapons. In the entry dated July 10, 1945, six days before the first atomic test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Kennedy envisioned such a terrible weapon and speculated on its meaning in relation to Russia: “The clash [with Russia] may be finally and indefinitely postponed by the eventual discovery of a weapon so horrible that it will truthfully mean the abolishment of all the nations employing it.”16
During his legislative career in the House and Senate, John Kennedy’s aspirations to be a post–World War II peacemaker were submerged beneath the seas of the Cold War. His more bellicose views in the fifties reflected the book he had written in 1940, Why England Slept, an expansion of his Harvard senior thesis. Kennedy’s book found Britain too slow in rearming to resist Nazi Germany. He applied the lesson uncritically to United States–Soviet policies. As a freshman senator in June 1954, he led a Democratic effort to add $350 million to the defense budget to restore two Army divisions that President Eisenhower had cut and thus guarantee “a clear margin of victory over our enemies.”17 Kennedy was challenging Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in his reliance on the massive threat of nuclear weapons. Kennedy’s amendment failed, but his commitment to a “flexible” Cold War strategy emphasizing conventional forces and “smaller” nuclear weapons would be carried over into his presidency. It was an illusory policy supported by Democrats that could easily have led to the same global destruction threatened by the Dulles doctrine.
In 1958, Senator John Kennedy delivered a major speech attacking the Eisenhower administration for allowing a “missile gap” to open up between allegedly superior Soviet forces and those of the United States. Kennedy repeated the charge of a missile gap in his successful 1960 presidential campaign, developing it into an argument for increased military spending. When he became president, his science adviser, Jerome Wiesner, informed him in February 1961 that “the missile gap was a fiction”—to which Kennedy replied with a single expletive, “delivered,” Wiesner said, “more in anger than in relief.”18 The United States in fact held an overwhelming strategic advantage over the Soviets’ missile force.19 Whether or not Kennedy already suspected the truth, he had taken a Cold War myth, had campaigned on it, and now partly on its basis, was engaged in a dangerous military buildup as president. Marcus Raskin, an early Kennedy administration analyst who left his access to power to become its critic, summarized the ominous direction in which the new president was headed: “The United States intended under Kennedy to develop a war-fighting capability on all levels of violence from thermonuclear war to counterinsurgency.”20
Yet, as we shall see, Raskin also observed a significant change in Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a development of more positive instincts in the president that were already in evidence. Even in his years espousing Cold War principles of defense, Senator Kennedy had occasionally broken ranks with the West on its colonial wars, particularly in Indochina and Algeria. Speaking in the Senate on April 6, 1954, Kennedy critiqued predictions of a U.S.-sponsored French victory in Vietnam over Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces. “No amount of American military assistance in Indochina,” Kennedy warned in words he would be forced to recall as president, “can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”21 In an exchange with Senator Everett Dirksen, Kennedy said he envisioned two peace treaties for Vietnam, “one granting the Vietnamese people complete independence,” the other “a tie binding them to the French Union on the basis of full equality.”22
In 1957 Kennedy came out in support of Algerian independence. That spring he talked with Algerians who were seeking a hearing at the United Nations for their national liberation movement. In July 1957, he gave a major Senate speech in their support, saying, “No amount of mutual politeness, wishful thinking, nostalgia, or regret should blind either France or the United States to the fact that, if France and the West at large are to have a continuing influence in North Africa … the essential first step is the independence of Algeria.”23 The speech created a furor. Kennedy was widely attacked for imperiling the unity of NATO. His biographer, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote of the episode, “Even Democrats drew back. Dean Acheson attacked him scornfully. Adlai Stevenson thought he had gone too far. For the next year or two, respectable people cited Kennedy’s Algerian speech as evidence of his irresponsibility in foreign affairs.”24 However, in Europe the speech provoked positive attention, and in Africa excitement.
When Kennedy then became chair of the African Subcommittee, he told the Senate in 1959: “Call it nationalism, call it anti-colonialism, call it what you will, Africa is going through a revolution … The word is out—and spreading like wildfire in nearly a thousand languages and dialects—that it is no longer necessary to remain forever poor or in bondage.” He therefore advocated “sympathy with the independence movement, programs of economic and educational assistance and, as the goal of American policy, ‘a strong Africa.’”25 Historians have scarcely noticed JFK’s continuing support for a free Africa during his 1960 presidential campaign and in the presidency itself, documented in Richard D. Mahoney’s comprehensive study JFK: Ordeal in Africa.26
Equally overlooked, and in tension with his campaign claim of a missile gap, was Kennedy’s renewal of his purpose in entering politics: the attainment of peace in the nuclear age. As the 1960 primaries increased his presidential prospects, Kennedy told a journalist visiting his Senate office that the most valuable resource he could bring to the presidency, based on personal experience, was his horror of war. Kennedy said he “had read the books of great military strategists—Carl Von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Basil Henry Liddell Hart—and he wondered if their theories of total violence made sense in the nuclear age. He expressed his contempt for the old military minds, exempting the U.S.’s big three, George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower … War with all of its modern horror would be his biggest concern if he got to the White House, Kennedy said.”27
The journalist who had listened to Senator Kennedy’s 1960 reflections on war, Hugh Sidey, wrote thirty-five years later in a retrospective essay: “If I had to single out one element in Kennedy’s life that more than anything else influenced his later leadership it would be a horror of war, a total revulsion over the terrible toll that modern war had taken on individuals, nations, and societies, and the even worse prospects in the nuclear age as noted earlier. It ran even deeper than his considerable public rhetoric on the issue.”28
In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, John Kennedy’s Cold War convictions were interlaced with statements of hope for people around the world who were unaccustomed to having a U.S. president address their concerns. He both inspired and warned them. For example, emerging nonaligned leaders, some of whom received Kennedy’s support in the Senate, heard this pledge:
“To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”29
The new president’s tiger parable could cut in opposite directions. What to an American audience was a cunning communist tiger was to nonaligned listeners at least as likely to have capitalist as communist stripes. That would prove to be the case in Kennedy’s presidency by his support of U.S. counterinsurgent warfare in South Vietnam, where a client government would then wind up inside the U.S. tiger it had been riding.
One of Kennedy’s worst decisions as president would be to develop the role of counterinsurgent warfare by enlarging the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, then re-baptizing them as the Green Berets. Kennedy promoted the Green Berets as a response to communist guerrillas, failing to recognize that counterinsurgent warfare would turn into a form of terrorism. The idea that the United States could deploy Green Beret forces in client states “to win the hearts and minds of the people” was a contradiction that would become a negative part of Kennedy’s legacy.
In his inaugural address, the new president recognized no such conflict. He combined his pledge to the world’s poor with a disclaimer of Cold War motives: “To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”
At the heart of his inaugural, Kennedy turned to the enemy and his own deepest preoccupation, peace: “Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
Again there was the warning: “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
And the hope: “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us …
“Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to ‘undo the heavy burdens … (and) let the oppressed go free.’”
What is noteworthy about John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address is that it reflects accurately the profound tensions of his political philosophy. In the nuclear age, how were his experience of the horror of war and his commitment to peacemaking to be reconciled with his passionate resistance to a totalitarian enemy? From the lives he had seen lost in World War II, Kennedy had envisioned in 1945 “the day of the conscientious objector,” with an international relinquishing of sovereignty and the abolition of war by popular demand. However, as he took his oath of office, no such day was at hand. Moreover, John Kennedy remained a Cold Warrior in his understanding of the means needed to resist tyranny—armaments that had now gone beyond all measure of destruction. For the sake of both peace and freedom, he therefore had no way out except to negotiate a just peace with the enemy, within the context of the most dangerous political conflict in world history. He would learn just how dangerous it was, from his own side of that conflict, to push through such negotiations.
As the reader knows from the introduction to this book, my perspective on the assassination of President Kennedy comes from the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, perhaps an unlikely source. The two men’s personal histories were worlds apart. While John Kennedy in 1943 was being carried by the movements of a Pacific current, Thomas Merton was a novice monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills of Kentucky. Yet one can discern a providential hand saving each of their lives for a further purpose. As readers of Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, know, the ex-Cambridge and Columbia University man-about-campus came to Gethsemani on currents as unpredictably merciful as those that brought John Kennedy around to his dawn awakening in Blackett Strait and through a series of life-threatening illnesses. What Kennedy half-dreamed that night in the Pacific in relation to the little island his men were on could be said also of Merton’s spiritual journey to Gethsemani. He didn’t try to get there. He just wanted to, in a heartfelt prayer that had no fixed attachment to its goal. Merton arriving at Gethsemani was like Kennedy stumbling up on the beach and collapsing in the arms of his crew.
In the early sixties, Thomas Merton began responding to the imminent threat of an inconceivable evil, total nuclear war. His writings on the nuclear crisis, which drew him into what he called “the Unspeakable,” are an illuminating context in which to view the presidential struggles and Cold War murder of John F. Kennedy. As Merton wrote impassioned articles protesting the nuclear buildup, he became a controversial figure. His alarmed monastic superiors ordered him to stop publishing on peace. Merton was obedient, yet deeply determined to keep articulating a gospel truth, if not in a forbidden format. Even before he experienced the inevitable crackdown on his published work, he had already found another way to follow his conscience—by writing a voluminous series of letters on peace.
For a year at the center of the Kennedy presidency, from October 1961 (shortly after the Berlin crisis) to October 1962 (just after the Cuban Missile Crisis), Merton wrote letters on war and peace to a wide circle of correspondents. They included psychologists Erich Fromm and Karl Stern, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Archbishop Thomas Roberts, Ethel Kennedy, Dorothy Day, Clare Boothe Luce, nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, novelist Henry Miller, Shinzo Hamai, the mayor of Hiroshima, and Evora Arca de Sardinia, the wife of a Cuban exile leader in the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion. Merton collected over a hundred of these letters, had them mimeographed and bound, and sent them out to friends in January 1963. He called this informal volume of reflections “The Cold War Letters.”
In his preface to the letters, Merton identified the forces in the United States that threatened a nuclear holocaust: “In actual fact it would seem that during the Cold War, if not during World War II, this country has become frankly a warfare state built on affluence, a power structure in which the interests of big business, the obsessions of the military, and the phobias of political extremists both dominate and dictate our national policy. It also seems that the people of the country are by and large reduced to passivity, confusion, resentment, frustration, thoughtlessness and ignorance, so that they blindly follow any line that is unraveled for them by the mass media.”30
Merton wrote that the protest in his letters was not only against the danger or horror of war. It was “not merely against physical destruction, still less against physical danger, but against a suicidal moral evil and a total lack of ethics and rationality with which international policies tend to be conducted. True,” he added, “President Kennedy is a shrewd and sometimes adventurous leader. He means well and has the highest motives, and he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd.”31
As we follow “a shrewd and sometimes adventurous leader” on his journey into a deeper darkness than he ever faced in the Pacific, the letters of an observer in a Kentucky monastery will serve as a commentary on a time that placed John Kennedy “in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd.”
Merton did not always feel such sympathy for President Kennedy. In a critical, prophetic letter a year earlier to his friend W. H. Ferry, he wrote: “I have little confidence in Kennedy, I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe,” Merton speculates in an inspired insight, “Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”32
Thomas Merton’s sense of what Kennedy needed to break through to, and the likely consequences if he did so, call to mind a scene early in Kennedy’s presidency. He had just met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Late at night on the June 5, 1961, flight back to Washington, the weary president asked his secretary Evelyn Lincoln if she would please file the documents he had been working on. As she started to clear the table, Lincoln noticed a little slip of paper that had fallen on the floor. On it were two lines in Kennedy’s handwriting, a favorite saying of his from 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.”33
The summit meeting with Khrushchev had deeply disturbed Kennedy. The revelation of a storm coming had occurred at the end of the meeting, as the two men faced each other across a table. Kennedy’s gift to Khrushchev, a model of the USS Constitution, lay between them. Kennedy pointed out that the ship’s cannons had been able to fire half a mile and kill a few people. But if he and Khrushchev failed to negotiate peace, the two of them could kill seventy million people in the opening exchange of a nuclear war. Kennedy looked at Khrushchev. Khrushchev gave him a blank stare, as if to say, “So what?” Kennedy was shocked at what he felt was his counterpart’s lack of response. “There was no area of accommodation with him,” he said later.34 Khrushchev may have felt the same way about Kennedy. The result of their unsuccessful meeting would be an ever more threatening conflict. As Evelyn Lincoln thought when she read what the president had written, “‘I see a storm coming’ was no idle phrase.”35
While reflecting that night on such a storm, John Kennedy echoing Lincoln had written first to himself, “I know there is a God.” Thomas Merton in his initial sense of Kennedy had doubted if JFK, by falling short of Lincoln’s character, was capable of weathering a storm. Kennedy, continuing Lincoln’s saying, prayed and hoped that he was: “If [God] has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”
Merton saw that if Kennedy became what he needed to be, he would be “marked out for assassination.” How clearly did Kennedy see the dangers to himself of meeting the coming storm as faithfully as he hoped to?
The president’s friend Paul Fay, Jr., told of an incident that showed JFK was keenly conscious of the peril of a military coup d’état. One summer weekend in 1962 while out sailing with friends, Kennedy was asked what he thought of Seven Days in May, a best-selling novel that described a military takeover in the United States. JFK said he would read the book. He did so that night. The next day Kennedy discussed with his friends the possibility of their seeing such a coup in the United States. Consider that he said these words after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and before the Cuban Missile Crisis:
“It’s possible. It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment.”
Pausing a moment, he went on, “Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen.” Waiting again until his listeners absorbed his meaning, he concluded with an old Navy phrase, “But it won’t happen on my watch.”36
On another occasion Kennedy said of the novel’s plot about a few military commanders taking over the country, “I know a couple who might wish they could.”37 The statement is cited by biographer Theodore Sorensen as a joke. However, John Kennedy used humor in pointed ways, and Sorensen’s preceding sentence is not a joke: “Communications between the Chiefs of Staff and their Commander in Chief remained unsatisfactory for a large part of his term.”38
Director John Frankenheimer was encouraged by President Kennedy to film Seven Days in May“as a warning to the republic.”39 Frankenheimer said, “The Pentagon didn’t want it done. Kennedy said that when we wanted to shoot at the White House he would conveniently go to Hyannis Port that weekend.”40
As we know, the young president John Kennedy did have a Bay of Pigs. It was a covert project initiated by his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.41 By late summer 1960, when Kennedy became the Democratic nominee for president, the CIA had already begun training fifteen hundred Cuban exile troops at a secret base in Guatemala for an invasion of Cuba.42 As the new president in March 1961, Kennedy rejected the CIA’s current Trinidad Plan for “an amphibious/airborne assault” on Cuba, favoring a quiet landing at night in which there would be “no basis for American military intervention.”43 When a skeptical Kennedy finally approved the CIA’s revised plan for the Bay of Pigs landing in April, he reemphasized that he would not intervene by introducing U.S. troops, even if the exile brigade faced defeat on the beachhead. The CIA’s covert-action chief, Richard Bissell, reassured him there would be only a minimum need for air strikes and that Cubans on the island would join the brigade in a successful revolt against Castro.44
At dawn on April 15, 1961, eight B-26 bombers of the Cuban Expeditionary Force carried out air strikes to destroy the Cuban Air Force on the ground, achieving only partial success. Premier Castro then ordered his pilots “to sleep under the wings of the planes,” ready to take off immediately.45 The next night, as the exile brigade prepared for its overnight landing at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, phoned CIA deputy director General Charles P. Cabell to say that “the dawn air strikes the following morning should not be launched until planes can conduct them from a strip within the beachhead.”46 Since no such opportunity came, this order in effect canceled the air strikes. Castro’s army surrounded the invading force in the following days. The exile brigade surrendered on April 19, 1961. More than one thousand members were taken prisoner.47
The new president had bitterly disappointed the CIA and the military by his decision to accept defeat at the Bay of Pigs rather than escalate the battle. Kennedy realized after the fact that he had been drawn into a CIA scenario that was a trap. Its authors assumed he would be forced by circumstances to drop his advance restrictions against the use of U.S. combat forces.
How else, he asked his friends Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell, could the Joint Chiefs have approved such a plan? “They were sure I’d give in to them and send the go-ahead order to the [Navy’s aircraft carrier] Essex,” he said. “They couldn’t believe that a new President like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well, they had me figured all wrong.”48
The major players in deceiving Kennedy were his CIA advisers, especially Director Allen Dulles. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., observed, “the Joint Chiefs of Staff had only approved the Bay of Pigs. The CIA had invented it.”49
At his death Allen Dulles left the unpublished drafts of an article that scholar Lucien S. Vandenbroucke has titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Allen Dulles.” In these handwritten, coffee-stained notes, Dulles explained how CIA advisers who knew better drew John Kennedy into a plan whose prerequisites for success contradicted the president’s own rules for engagement that precluded any combat action by U.S. military forces. Although Dulles and his associates knew this conditi
Why He Died and Why It Matters
JFK and the Unspeakable
Why He Died and Why It Matters
At the height of the Cold War, JFK risked committing the greatest crime in human history: starting a nuclear war. Horrified by the specter of nuclear annihilation, Kennedy gradually turned away from his long-held Cold Warrior beliefs and toward a policy of lasting peace. But to the military and intelligence agencies in the United States, who were committed to winning the Cold War at any cost, Kennedy’s change of heart was a direct threat to their power and influence. Once these dark “Unspeakable” forces recognized that Kennedy’s interests were in direct opposition to their own, they tagged him as a dangerous traitor, plotted his assassination, and orchestrated the subsequent cover-up.
Douglass takes readers into the Oval Office during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, along on the strange journey of Lee Harvey Oswald and his shadowy handlers, and to the winding road in Dallas where an ambush awaited the President’s motorcade. As Douglass convincingly documents, at every step along the way these forces of the Unspeakable were present, moving people like pawns on a chessboard to promote a dangerous and deadly agenda.
JFK and the Unspeakable shot up to the top of the bestseller charts when Oliver Stone first brought it to the world’s attention on Bill Maher’s show. Since then, it has been lauded by Mark Lane (author of Rush to Judgment, who calls it “an exciting work with the drama of a first-rate thriller”), John Perkins (author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, who proclaims it is “arguably the most important book yet written about an American president), and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who calls it “a very well-documented and convincing portrait…I urge all Americans to read this book and come to their own conclusions.”
- Touchstone |
- 560 pages |
- ISBN 9781439193884 |
- October 2010
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, myriad authors have written works attempting to uncover the reasons behind the loss that changed the American landscape.
With meticulous research, compelling arguments, and an expert sense of narrative, James W. Douglass boldly supplies fully formed answers to the “why” of JFK’s death. JFK and the Unspeakable offers a fresh perspective on one of America’s greatest leaders, as well as insight into the political events that have shaped the America we currently inhabit. By the book’s conclusion, we not only believe Douglass’s depiction of the unspeakable forces that led to Kennedy’s assassination; we yearn for the chance to advocate the vision of peace for which he gave his life.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In the book’s introduction, Douglass asserts that because John F. Kennedy was turning toward peace he was in deadly conflict with what Thomas Merton called “th see more
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Posted by Michelle Howry
The 2009 book JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE has become a classic among Kennedy fans, presidential historians, peace activists, and conspiracy buffs (an unlikely coalition of readers, to be sure!). In it, author Jim Douglass outlines, with meticulous...