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George M. AndersonNovember 17, 2008
JFK and the Unspeakableby By James W. DouglassOrbis Books. 544p $30

With the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of this year, James W. Douglass’s book serves as a timely and disturbing reminder of the dark forces that lay behind the president’s death in Dallas in 1963. As JFK and the Unspeakable reveals, not only the author but many others believe these dark forces emanated from the C.I.A. and the military-industrial complex—powers that could not bear to see the president turning more and more toward a vision of total nuclear disarmament, as well as possible rapprochement with Fidel Castro and a desire to withdraw from Vietnam because of what Kennedy believed was an unwinnable war. But Douglass’s book, as the subtitle reveals, is not so much about how Kennedy died as it is about why he died; and in entering this “pilgrimage of truth”—the why of the Kennedy assassination—Douglass invokes Thomas Merton as his guide and “Virgil.”

This is indeed a strange and interesting way to begin yet another history on the Kennedy assassination. “While Kennedy is the subject of this story,” Douglass explains, “Merton is its first witness and chorus.” Douglass provides detailed history and biography, but Merton fulfills the book’s ultimate purpose: “to see more deeply into history than we are accustomed.” In 1962, Merton wrote to a friend expressing “little confidence” in Kennedy’s ability to escape the nuclear crisis in an ethically acceptable way:

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.

The miracle happened, as did the assassination. The latter, according to Douglass, was a consequence of Kennedy’s turn toward peace. This is the story that emerges in Douglass’s re-telling of Kennedy’s conversion and assassination.

The very group charged with investigating the assassination, the Warren Commission, Douglass contends, quietly went along with the now largely discredited theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin, rather than a scapegoat to provide cover for the real killers, whose real identity remains unknown. What is known, however, is that President Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had—through secret correspondence—begun to work together to stave off nuclear disaster. The Soviet leader agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba, even at a time when the U.S. military was pressing Kennedy to take military action there. As the author—a theologian and peace activist who has written four books on nonviolence—puts it, “half a world apart, in radical ideological conflict, both...recognized their interdependence with each other and the world. They suddenly joined hands...chose, in Khrushchev’s words, ‘a common cause to save the world from those pushing us toward war.’” Kennedy in turn, as the author goes on to say, implicitly helped the Soviet leader in a June 1963 peace-based commencement address at American University, which “led in turn to their signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” But in the eyes of the U.S. powerbrokers, the president had shown himself to be a traitor. His assassination thereby became all but foreordained in his “turning”—Kennedy’s “short-lived, contradictory journey toward peace,” Douglass calls it.

Even afterward, the reader learns, the C.I.A pursued those familiar with circumstances that could have exposed the truth. Douglass makes much of the fact that the fatal bullet that killed the president entered not from the rear—as it would have if Oswald were the killer firing from a building by the parade route—but from the front, piercing the forehead and emerging at the rear of the skull. The sharpshooter killers were not even in the building where Oswald was arrested after the assassination, but at a spot farther along the parade route. A forensic physician who much later examined slide photos of the body, Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Pitzer, realized that the official Warren Report was erroneous in this regard. It was perilous knowledge: Dr. Pitzer was found shot to death in his working area in the National Naval Center near Washington, D.C., in 1966. The Navy ruled his death a suicide, but Douglass presents credible reasons to doubt that conclusion.

Dr. Pitzer’s death was just one of several post-assassination deaths and suspicious events that suggest the dark forces at work would stop at nothing to disguise the carefully planned work of “the unspeakable”—a phrase coined by Thomas Merton in reference not only to the president’s death, but to other tragic events of the 1960s as well.

Another person who died years after the assassination under mysterious circumstances was Richard Case Nagell. A U.S. counterintelligence agent, he was in possession of a secretly recorded audiotape of a conversation among several men involved in the conspiracy. Once aware of the plot and unwilling to enter into it, he walked into an El Paso bank one day and fired two shots into the wall in order to ensure his speedy arrest. Questioned by the authorities, he said: “I would rather be arrested than commit murder and treason.”

Released from prison after five years, Nagell survived three attempts on his life. Finally, in 1995, he felt he could finally tell his story under oath to the Assassinations Record Review Board. But in November of that year, he was found dead in the bathroom of his Los Angeles home. An autopsy cited the cause of death as a heart attack, despite the fact that he had recently told his niece that he had been in good health. When Nagell’s son searched for the trunk with the secretly recorded audiotape, he found it missing from the storage facility where his father had placed it. The theft of the trunk suggests to Douglass that even three decades after the assassination, Nagell’s “turn to the truth seems to threaten the security of the covert action agencies he had once served.” Sensing their importance, he devotes several pages to the deaths of both men and to similarly strange circumstances surrounding the post-assassination lives of others.

The very concept of a government-directed conspiracy may come as a shock to those who have trouble believing their country could ever be involved in “the unspeakable.” Yet JFK and the Unspeakable is a compelling book, a thoroughly researched account of Kennedy’s turn toward peace, the consequent assassination and its aftermath. By capturing the essence of John F. Kennedy’s vision, it is also a reminder of the urgency of the struggle for peace in our world.

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