My essay on James Douglass' JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE is out now in the current issue of Lobster (number 56) which is published bi-annually. It's the most important book about the JFK assassination since the LaFontaines' OSWALD TALKED, and already one of the key texts for those dissenting from the mainstream's one crazed assassin myth. The review isn't available online, but editor Robin Ramsey has kindly allowed me to post it here. Lobster is a valuable magazine; the current issue includes a fascinating update on the Cecil King 'coup' against Harold Wilson in 1968, an important look at UK connections growing out of the revelations from FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds, Colin Challen MP on crony capitalism, and some curious facts about New Labour networking. The back issue catalogue is full of important material. You can order the magazine (one year, two issues, £8 UK, £9 Europe, £10 ROW) from 214 Westbourne Avenue, Hull HU5 3JB. Its website, which does include some useful older articles, can be found here.
I am writing this immediately after Barack Obama’s victory in the US Presidential election, almost half a century after John Kennedy became the first, and thus far only, Roman Catholic to capture the office. The 1960 election is the first I remember clearly, and the issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism, while perhaps not as dramatic as that of Obama’s race, was a contentious one, and not just in my school-yard. It was presented more along the lines of Obama’s alleged hidden loyalty to Islam: a Catholic president, it was argued, would be subservient to his master in Rome. That Kennedy’s own political strategists brought the issue into play, in order to appeal more to fair-minded Americans, reminds us that Kennedy was first and foremost a creature of politics, of power, and never a creature of religion. Yet when it comes to discussing his assassination, the most striking feature of those who propagate the official ‘lone, crazed assassin’ line is their omission of the crucial, wider issue of political motive.
The logical first question that should be asked, when seeking motive in a murder, is who benefits? In JFK’s case, the answers to that question have sometimes led researchers down blind alleys. While Douglas may not ‘solve’ the assassination, his book’s focus is the careful consideration of motive, which he approaches from a starting point of Catholic theology, specifically that of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose devotion to peace and liberation was often at odds with his own church, not to mention the so-called American religious mainstream. Far from leading Douglas down blind alleys, this approach opens doors for him, because if you can demonstrate clearly, as he does, that Kennedy had made a conscious decision to end the Cold War, the whole issue of Cui bono? becomes much more sharply focused, and the enemies of Kennedy’s policy turnaround step to the fore.
The argument about a conversion of Kennedy the cold-warrior has often been a key point of contention, not least from those on the left, who dismissed John Newman, or Oliver Stone and their insistence on JFK’s desire to pull out of Vietnam as the root cause of his killing. What Douglass has done is take that argument far deeper, by establishing Kennedy’s real desire to move to a more peaceful world, and by detailing the depth of the establishment’s resistance to those ideas.
His centrepiece and starting point is the famous speech at American University in June of 1963, where Kennedy stepped back publicly from his position as a reckless cold warrior who had marched the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Douglass goes from there into great detail, not only on negotiations with the Russians, and the test-ban treaty, or on opening a back-channel of communication with Cuba, but also lesser-known steps toward peace in Africa and southeast Asia, most notably the negotiated settlement with the Pathet Lao. Douglass spends a great deal of time presenting convincing evidence not only of Kennedy’s building of ‘back-channels’ for negotiation with the Soviets and with the Cubans, but that these channels were becoming effective, with the potential to allow Kennedy to by-pass the cold warriors who wanted no dealings with Kruschev or Castro. Douglass’s contention that Kennedy did this out of a real interest in making peace may at first seem naïve, or even sentimental, but as he stacks up the evidence it becomes convincing.
While establishing his thesis of a Kennedy newly devoted to the cause of peace, he also stakes his ground quickly on Oswald, establishing his credentials in intelligence – a familiar argument to anyone who knows the JFK case – but also showing that, far from hating Kennedy or seeing him as a target to propel him to fame, Oswald had been studying the President, reading his books, and admired him. What Douglass does, in constructing these parallel journeys, is establish both men as victims.
But if they were victims, victims of whom? Here it is harder to be specific, but what Douglass establishes beyond any doubt is the pattern of betrayal of Kennedy within the military, intelligence, and even diplomatic corps. In this sense, the real villain of the piece may be Henry Cabot Lodge, loser to Kennedy in the 1952 Senate race, Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960, and appointed by Kennedy as Ambassador to Vietnam, possibly to keep him out of the running for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. Lodge would drag his heels at reaching any accommodation with Vietnam’s President Diem, while the CIA’s Lucien Conein was busy organising the coup against him, just as the generals dragged their feet on troop withdrawal. With the CIA engineering ‘Quiet American’ style terrorism, bombing a Buddhist monastery in Hue to make it look like the Catholic Diem was responsible, they could back Kennedy into a position from which he could not escape, exactly as they had hoped to do with the Bay of Pigs, and create a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Cuba.
Having set out both Kennedy’s vulnerability, and the desirability of his removal within large portions of the ‘military-industrial complex’, Douglass also sets out the nature of the assassination plot. He draws strands together that become virtually unimpeachable once he’s put them into context. Unlike his secondary research into the politics of Kennedy’s administration, here he draws on his own research, along with some others whose work has been marginalised outside the specialist field. His advantage is that he is looking for a much different sort of proof: simply to show the reach of the plot to kill Kennedy, and again he does it with a parallel construction.
Oswald’s mysterious phone call to Raleigh, North Carolina, while in custody, becomes evidence that he was still involved in intelligence work, since Naval Intelligence maintained a training school there, for false defectors to the Soviet Union. An Oswald still enmeshed in intelligence made the perfect patsy; but Douglass goes a step further, detailing the story of Thomas Vallee, the designated scapegoat for an aborted attempt on Kennedy’s life, had he attended the Army-Air Force football game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Vallee (whose background was similar to Oswald’s, including work at U2 bases in Japan) while driving a car whose registration was closed off by the FBI, was arrested by Chicago police who had strong intelligence connections. After Kennedy’s trip was cancelled, U.S. Treasury agent Abraham Bolden, who questioned the parallels with the situation in Dallas, was persecuted and eventually jailed. Meanwhile, two snipers had been arrested, and three more sought, in Chicago; but no mention was made of this plot in the aftermath of the Dallas investigation.
Similarly, Douglass’s book is particularly convincing on the existence of the second Oswald(s). Ralph Yates picked up an Oswald lookalike hitchhiker carrying ‘curtain rods’ to the Texas School Book Depository –- but two days before the assassination. Yates would wind up being given 40 shock treatments in a state mental hospital. Even better, Douglass builds a convincing case that there was a second Oswald at the Texas Theatre at the time of Oswald’s arrest, and that he was taken out the theatre’s back door as Oswald was led out the front. About ten minutes later, this man was seen nearby, in a car whose plates had been switched, but which traced to a man who was both a friend of J. D. Tippit’s and a contractor for CIA boats smuggling guns into Cuba.
And, in what may be the most fascinating story of all, Douglass traces the intelligence connections of the Paine family, with whom Marina Oswald stayed, and their efforts in keeping Oswald in his dead-end job at the Texas School Book Depository. The simple conclusion, of these and dozens of other facts which Douglass has pieced together, is that there was an operation going on in Dallas, far too complicated to be a simple act by one or even a handful of crazed nuts, and that there had been duplicate plans in place as contingencies. The discarded testimonies of other witnesses take on new and powerful validity when the strength of this hypothesis is accepted.
When news of Kennedy’s death reached Castro he said ‘everything is going to change’. Had he not felt progress was being made with Kennedy, this would make no sense. Douglass will probably be accused of painting a romantic picture of Kennedy as Galahad, but the reality is that his Kennedy is operating not from heroic delusion but from cold reality, in the self-interest of himself, his country and humanity. One cannot escape the sense that he felt himself invulnerable, as a Kennedy, as President of the United States, even if he sought to pursue policies completely counter to the vested interests who had put him where he was.
In contrast, those interests had motive, opportunity, means, and certainly the ruthlessness to proceed with getting him out of the way. They had their patsies ready and waiting; and that is perhaps the most chilling part of Douglass’s analysis: the realisation that these assets were in place for just this sort of eventuality. They had,in Lyndon Johnson, a president they knew would take no steps to upset the Cold War status quo. These are the forces which Merton called ‘the unspeakable’, and they remain with us today.
Toward the end of Kennedy’s 1963 American University speech he reminded the world that ‘the United States will never start a war’. Forty years later, one of the results of his assassination was that the United States proved him wrong. In many ways, James Douglass has produced a book on the Kennedy assassination which ought to serve as a corrective for those not interested in conspiracy theory. It ought to be set against the Posners and Bugliosis who have had mainstream attention lavished on their lawyerly fabrications. It’s one of the most important books on the subject in the past decade, and it’s the one you would give to anyone for whom you wanted to set a starting point of scepticism about the official story.
Watching Barack Obama speak, with the bullet-proof plinths at each side, I was reminded by this just how compelling the interests of those who propagate war can be.
JFK And The Unspeakable: Why he died and why it matters
James W. Douglass, Orbis Books, 2008, $30.00 ISBN 9781570757556