Among the vast number of books that have been written about the death of JFK, perhaps none has been as successful at explaining why he was taken out as James Douglass, JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE (2008). This superb volume traces JFK’s evolution from a cold warrior to a man of peace in a gripping, effortlessly readable study of admirable scholarship. In my estimation, this is the single best volume to understand why he died and why it matters. A review of the book that has appeared in Global Research Canada was included in my blog “Dealey Plaza Revisited: What Happened to JFK?” Another excellent review–this time, by James DiEugenio–can be found here. James Douglass, incidentally, was my guest on “The Real Deal” on 15 April 2009, just as Jim DiEugenio was my guest on 16 December 2009. The archives for these interviews on this internet radio program may be found at radiofetzer.blogspot.com.

JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE – James Douglass interviewed on “The Real Deal” with Jim Fetzer (15 April 2009)

Jim Garrison and Vincent Bugliosi on JFK – Jim DiEugenio interviewed on “The Real Deal” with Jim Fetzer (16 December 2009)

Interview with Jim Douglass recorded in early 2000 while
researching his current book “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He
Died and Why It Matters”

JFK and the Unspeakable
James W. Douglass


When John F. Kennedy was president, I was a graduate student struggling with the theological dimensions of the same question he grappled with more concretely in the White House: How could we survive our weapons of war, given the Cold War attitudes behind them? At the time I wrote articles seeking a way out of an apocalyptic war, without realizing that Kennedy–at great risk–was as president seeking a genuine way out for us all.

At that critical moment in history, Thomas Merton was the greatest spiritual writer of his generation. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was seen as the post-World War II equivalent of The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Merton had gone on to write a series of classic works on prayer. However, when he turned his discerning writer’s eye in the early sixties to such issues as nuclear war and racism, his readers were shocked–and in some cases, energized.

I first wrote Thomas Merton in 1961, at his monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, after reading a poem he had published in the Catholic Worker. Merton’s poem was really an anti-poem, spoken by the commandant of a Nazi death camp. It was titled: “Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces.” Merton’s “Chant” proceeded matter-of-factly through the speaker’s daily routine of genocide to these concluding lines: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”[1]

When I read those words, I was living in the spiritual silence that in 1961 surrounded the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The reality underlying Cold War rhetoric was unspeakable. Merton’s “Chant” broke the silence. The Unspeakable had been spoken–by the greatest spiritual writer of our time. I wrote him immediately.

He answered my letter quickly. We corresponded on nonviolence and the nuclear threat. The next year Merton sent me a copy of a manuscript he had written, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. Because his superiors had forbidden him to publish a book on war and peace that they felt “falsifies the monastic message,” Merton mimeographed the text and mailed it to friends. Peace in the Post-Christian Era was a prophetic work responding to the spiritual climate that was pushing the United States government toward nuclear war. One of its recurring themes was Merton’s fear that the United States would launch a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. He wrote, “There can be no question that at the time of writing what seems to be the most serious and crucial development in the policy of the United States is this indefinite but growing assumption of the necessity of a first strike.”[2]

Thomas Merton was acutely aware that the president who might take such a fateful step was his fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy. Among Merton’s many correspondents at the time and another recipient of Peace in the Post­Christian Era was the president’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy. Merton shared his fear of war with Ethel Kennedy and his hope that John Kennedy would have the vision and courage to turn the country in a peaceful direction. In the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Merton agonized, prayed, and felt impotent, as he continued to write passionate antiwar letters to scores of other friends.

During the thirteen fearful days of October 16-28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy did, as Thomas Merton feared, take the world to the brink of nuclear war, with the collaboration of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Through the grace of God, however, Kennedy resisted the pressures for pre­emptive war. He instead negotiated a resolution of the missile crisis with his communist enemy by their making mutual concessions, some without the knowledge of JFK’s national security advisers. Kennedy thereby turned away from a terrible evil and began a thirteen-month spiritual journey toward world peace. That journey, marked by contradictions, would result in his assassination by what Thomas Merton would identify later, in a broader context, as the Unspeakable.

In 1962-64, I was living in Rome, studying theology and lobbying Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council for a statement condemning total war and supporting conscientious objection. I knew little of John Kennedy’s halting spiritual journey toward peace. I did feel there was a harmony between him and Pope John XXIII, as would be confirmed later by journalist Norman Cousins. When I met Cousins in Rome, I learned of his shuttle diplomacy as a secret messenger between the president, the pope, and the premier. I had no sense in those years that there may have been forces lining up to murder Kennedy. Thomas Merton did, as shown by a strange prophecy he made.

In a letter written to his friend W. H. Ferry in January 1962, Merton assessed Kennedy’s character at that point in a negative, insightful way: “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 Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”[3]

Merton’s skeptical view of Kennedy allowed for a grain of hope and a contingent prophecy. As the United States moved closer to nuclear war, the monk undoubtedly prayed for the president’s unlikely but necessary (for us all) conversion to a deeper, wider humanity–which, if it happened, would before long mark him out for assassination. As measured by the world, it was a dead-end prayer. But in terms of faith, such a sequence and consequence could be seen as cause for celebration.

In the next twenty-two months, did Kennedy break through by miracle to a deeper humanity?

Was he then marked out for assassination?

The Men Who Killed Kennedy 7 of 9 – The Smoking Guns

John F. Kennedy was no saint. Nor was he any apostle of nonviolence. However, as we are all called to do, he was turning. Teshuvah, “turning,” the rabbinic word for repentance, is the explanation for Kennedy’s short-lived, contradictory journey toward peace. He was turning from what would have been the worst violence in history toward a new, more peaceful possibility in his and our lives.

He was therefore in deadly conflict with the Unspeakable.

“The Unspeakable” is a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination–in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.

“One of the awful facts of our age,” Merton wrote in 1965, “is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable.” The Vietnam War, the race to a global war, and the interlocking murders of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were all signs of the Unspeakable. It remains deeply present in our world. As Merton warned, “Those who are at present so eager to be reconciled with the world at any price must take care not to be reconciled with it under this particular aspect: as the nest of the Unspeakable. This is what too few are willing to see.”[4]

When we become more deeply human, as Merton understood the process, the wellspring of our compassion moves us to confront the Unspeakable. Merton was pointing to a kind of systemic evil that defies speech. For Merton, the Unspeakable was, at bottom, a void: “It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience . . .”[5]

In our Cold War history, the Unspeakable was the void in our government’s covert-action doctrine of “plausible deniability,” sanctioned by the June 18, 1948, National Security Council directive NSC 10/2.[6] Under the direction of Allen Dulles, the CIA interpreted “plausible deniability” as a green light to assassinate national leaders, overthrow governments, and lie to cover up any trace of accountability-all for the sake of promoting U.S. interests and maintaining our nuclear-backed dominance over the Soviet Union and other nations.[7]

I was slow to see the Unspeakable in the assassination of John Kennedy. After JFK was killed, for more than three decades I saw no connection between his assassination and the theology of peace I was pursuing. Although I treasured Merton’s insight into the Unspeakable, I did not explore its implications in the national security state whose nuclear policies I rejected. I knew nothing of “plausible deniability,” the unspeakable void of responsibility in our own national security state. That void of accountability for the CIA and our other security agencies, seen as necessary for covert crimes to protect our nuclear weapons primacy, made possible the JFK assassination and cover­up. While I wrote and acted in resistance to nuclear weapons that could kill millions, I remained oblivious of the fact that their existence at the heart of our national security state underlay the assassination of a president turning toward disarmament.

By overlooking the deep changes in Kennedy’s life and the forces behind his death, I contributed to a national climate of denial. Our collective denial of the obvious, in the setting up of Oswald and his transparent silencing by Ruby, made possible the Dallas cover-up. The success of the cover-up was the indispensable foundation for the subsequent murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy by the same forces at work in our government–and in ourselves. Hope for change in the world was targeted and killed four times over. The cover-up of all four murders, each leading into the next, was based, first of all, on denial–not the government’s but our own. The unspeakable is not far away.

Martin Luther King’s assassination awakened me. When King was murdered, I was a thirty-year-old professor of religion at the University of Hawaii. I had a seminar entitled “The Theology of Peace” with a dozen students. At our first class after Dr. King was killed, several of the students failed to show up on time. When they came in, they made an announcement to the class. They said that in response to the assassination of King, who had given his life for peace and justice, they had held an impromptu rally on campus. They had burned their draft cards, thereby becoming liable to years in prison. They said they were now forming the Hawaii Resistance. They asked if I would like to join their group. It was a friendly invitation, but it bore the implication: ” Put up or shut up, Mr. Professor of Nonviolence.” A month later, we sat in front of a convoy of trucks taking the members of the Hawaii National Guard to Oahu’s Jungle Warfare Training Center, on their way to the jungles of Vietnam. I went to jail for two weeks–the beginning of the end of my academic career. Members of the Hawaii Resistance served from six months to two years in prison for their draft resistance or wound up going into exile in Sweden or Canada.

Thirty-one years later I learned much more about King’s murder. I attended the only trial ever held for it. The trial took place in Memphis, only a few blocks from the Lorraine Motel where King was killed. In a wrongful death lawsuit initiated by the King family, seventy witnesses testified over a six-week period. They described a sophisticated government plot that involved the FBI, the CIA, the Memphis Police, Mafia intermediaries, and an Army Special Forces sniper team. The twelve jurors, six black and six white, returned after two and one-half hours of deliberation with a verdict that King had been assassinated by a conspiracy that included agencies of his own government.[8]

In the course of my journey into Martin Luther King’s martyrdom, my eyes were opened to parallel questions in the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy. I went to Dallas, Chicago, New York, and other sites to interview witnesses. I studied critical government documents in each of their cases. Eventually I came to see all four of them together as four versions of the same story. JFK, Malcolm, Martin, and RFK were four proponents of change who were murdered by shadowy intelligence agencies using intermediaries and scapegoats under the cover of “plausible deniability.” Beneath their assassinations lay the evil void of responsibility that Merton identified as the unspeakable.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves. Our citizen denial provides the ground for the government’s doctrine of “plausible deniability.” John F. Kennedy’s assassination is rooted in our denial of our nation’s crimes in World War II that began the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. As a growing precedent to JFK’s assassination by his own national security state, we U.S. citizens supported our government when it destroyed whole cities (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki), when it protected our Cold War security by world-destructive weapons, and when it carried out the covert murders of foreign leaders with “plausible deniability” in a way that was obvious to critical observers. By avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of state done for our security, we who failed to confront the Unspeakable opened the door to JFK’s assassination and its cover-up. The unspeakable is not far away.

It was Thomas Merton’s compassion as a human being that drew him into his own encounter with the Unspeakable. I love what Merton wrote about compassion in The Sign of Jonas: “It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things.”[9]

Compassion is our source of nonviolent social transformation. A profoundly human compassion was Merton’s wellspring for his encounter with the Unspeakable in the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and nuclear annihilation. Merton’s understanding and encouragement sustained many of us through those years, especially in our resistance to the Vietnam War. As Merton’s own opposition deepened to the evil of that war, he went on a pilgrimage to the East for a more profound encounter. He was electrocuted by a fan at a conference center in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the conclusion of his journey into a deeper, more compassionate humanity.

“The human being” was Jesus’ name for himself, literally “the son of the man,” in Greek ho huios tou anthropou.[10] Jesus’ self-identification signified a new, compassionate humanity willing to love our enemies and walk the way of the cross. Jesus told his disciples again and again about “the human being,” meaning a personal and collective humanity that he identified with himself. Against his followers’ protests, he told them repeatedly that the human being must suffer. The human being must be rejected by the ruling powers, must be killed, and will rise again.[11] This is the glory of humanity. As he put it in John’s Gospel, “The hour has come for the human being to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 ).

What Jesus was all about, what we as human beings are all about in our deepest nature, is giving our lives for one another. By bearing that witness of martyrdom, he taught, we will come to know what humanity really is in its glory, on earth as it is in heaven. A martyr is therefore a living witness to our new humanity.

Was John F. Kennedy a martyr, one who in spite of contradictions gave his life as witness to a new, more peaceful humanity?

That question never occurred to me when Kennedy died. Nor did it arise in my mind until more than three decades later. Now that I know more about JFK’s journey, the question is there: Did a president of the United States, while in command of total nuclear war, detach himself enough from its power to give his life for peace?

From researching JFK’s story, I know much more today than I did during his life about his struggle to find a more hopeful way than the Cold War policies that were about to incinerate the United States, the Soviet Union, and much of the world. I know now why he became so dangerous to those who believed in and profited from those policies.

But how much of his future was John Kennedy willing to risk?

Kennedy was not naive. He knew the forces he was up against. Is it even conceivable that a man with such power in his hands could have laid it down and turned toward an end to the Cold War, in the knowledge he would then be, in Merton’s phrase, marked out for assassination?

Let the reader decide.

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 twenty­first 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.

Whether or not JFK was a martyr, his story could never have been told without the testimony of risk-taking witnesses to the truth. Even if their lives were not taken–and some were–they were all martyrs in the root meaning of the word, witnesses to the truth.

The belief behind this book is that truth is the most powerful force on earth, what Gandhi called satyagraha, “truth-force” or “soul-force.” By his experiments in truth Gandhi turned theology on its head, saying “truth is God.” We all see a part of the truth and can seek it more deeply. Its other side is compassion, our response to suffering.

The story of JFK and the Unspeakable is drawn from the suffering and compassion of many witnesses who saw the truth and spoke it. In living out the truth, we are liberated from the Unspeakable.

[1] Thomas Merton, “Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces,” in The Nonviolent Alternative, edited by Gordon C. Zahn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), p. 262.

[2] Thomas Merton, Peace in the Post-Christian Era (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004 ), p. 119. Merton’s forbidden book was finally published by Orbis Books forty-two years after it was written. If we simply substitute “terrorist” for “communist” in Merton’s text, Peace in the Post-Christian Era is as relevant today as when it was written.

[3] From Thomas Merton’s January 18, 1962, letter to W. H. Ferry, in Letters from Tom: A Selection of Letters from Father Thomas Merton, Monk of Gethsemani, to W. H. Ferry, 1961-1968, edited by W. H. Ferry ( Scarsdale, N.Y.: Fort Hill Press, 1983), p. 15.

[4] Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 5 (Merton’s emphasis).

[5] Ibid., p. 4.

[6] Peter Grose, Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994) p. 293.

[7] William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1995).

[8] James W. Douglass, “The King Conspiracy Exposed in Memphis,” in The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003 ), pp. 492-509. Also available at Probe magazine Web site. The trial transcript for the wrongful death lawsuit of the Martin Luther King Jr. family versus Loyd Jowers “and other unknown co-conspirators,” held in Memphis, November 15-December 8 , 1999, is online at www.thekingcenter.com.

[9] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1953), p. 334.

[10] As biblical scholars John L. McKenzie and Walter Wink have pointed out, the excessively literal translation “the son of the man” for Jesus’ Aramaic phrase was as meaningless in Greek as it is in English. The Aramaic idiom Jesus uses eighty-two times in the Gospels to identify himself, bar nasha, means humanity, personally and collectively. What he says about himself as “the human being,” he says also about humanity. His story is meant to be our story. See John L. McKenzie, The New Testament without Illusion (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1980), pp. 114-24; James W. Douglass, The Nonviolent Coming of God (Mary­knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 29-59; and Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

[11] Mark 9:31; 10:32-34; Matthew 17:22-23; 20: 17-19; Luke 9:22; 9:44; 18:31-33.

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    1. Linked article seems to have vanished? At https://deeppoliticsforum.com/forums/sendmessage.php I asked "What happened to "The anti-James-Douglass appears" at http://www.deeppoliticsforum.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-781.html ?" When I 'googled' "anti-James Douglass", only two links appeared, a link to this article and a link to the now-vanished article refered to. James Douglass is the athor of the towering JFK and the unspeakable -Why he died and why it mattes of 2008- JS, 19 Jan 11

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