The Hope of Confronting the Unspeakable; A speech by the Author of:
JFK and the Unspeakable
This book is the first volume of a projected trilogy. Orbis Books has
commissioned James W. Douglass to write three books on the
assassinations of the 1960's. The second will be on the murders of
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, while the third will be on the
assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
I want to speak tonight about the hope that comes from our
confronting the truth of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Concerned friends have asked me over the years if engaging in such a
probe into darkness hasn’t made me profoundly depressed. On the
contrary, it has given me great hope. As Martin Luther King said, the
truth crushed to earth will rise again. Gandhi spoke hopefully of
experiments in truth, because they take us into the most powerful force
on earth and in existence – truth-force, satyagraha. That is how I
think of this work, as an experiment in truth – one that will open us
up, both personally and as a country, to a process of nonviolent
transformation. I believe this experiment we are doing into the dark
truth of Dallas (and of Washington) can be the most hopeful experience
of our lives. But as you know, it does require patience and tenacity to
confront the unspeakable. We, first of all, need to take the time to
recognize the sources in our history for what happened in Dallas on
November 22, 1963.
The doctrine of “plausible deniability” in an old government document
provides us with a source of the assassination of President Kennedy.
The document was issued in 1948, one year after the CIA was
established, 15 years before JFK’s murder. That document, National
Security Council directive 10/2, on June 18, 1948, “gave the highest
sanction of the [U.S.] government to a broad range of covert
operations” – propaganda, sabotage, economic warfare, subversion of all
kinds – that were seen as necessary to “win” the Cold War against the
Communists. The government’s condition for those covert activities by
U.S. agencies, coordinated by the CIA, was that they be “so planned and
executed that…if uncovered the US government can plausibly disclaim any
responsibility for them.”
In the 1950’s, under the leadership of CIA Director Allen Dulles, the
doctrine of “plausible deniability” became the CIA’s green light to
assassinate national leaders, conduct secret military operations, and
overthrow governments that our government thought were on the wrong
side in the Cold War. “Plausible deniability” meant our intelligence
agencies, acting as paramilitary groups, had to lie and cover their
tracks so effectively that there would be no trace of U.S. government
responsibility for criminal activities on an ever-widening scale.
The man who proposed this secret, subversive process in 1948, diplomat
George Kennan, said later, in light of its consequences, that it was
“the greatest mistake I ever made.” President Harry Truman, under whom
the CIA was created, and during whose presidency the plausible
deniability doctrine was authorized, had deep regrets. He said in a
statement on December 22, 1963:
“For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been
diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and
at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble
and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.
“We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and
for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something
about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow
over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.”
Truman later remarked: “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose
of getting all the available information to the president. It was not
intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange
President Truman’s sharp warning about the CIA, and the fact that
warning was published one month to the day after JFK’s assassination,
should have given this country pause. However, his statement appeared
only in an early edition of The Washington Post, then vanished without
comment from public view.
What George Kennan and Harry Truman realized much too late was that, in
the name of national security, they had unwittingly allowed an alien
force to invade a democracy. As a result, we now had to deal with a
government agency authorized to carry out a broad range of criminal
activities on an international scale, theoretically accountable to the
president but with no genuine accountability to anyone. Plausible
deniability became a rationale for the CIA’s interpretation of what the
executive branch’s wishes might be. But for the Agency’s crimes to
remain plausibly deniable, the less said the better – to the point
where CIA leaders’ creative imaginations simply took over. It was all
for the sake of “winning” the Cold War by any means necessary and
without implicating the more visible heads of the government. One
assumption behind Kennan’s proposal unleashing the CIA for its war
against Communism was that the Agency’s criminal power could be
confined to covert action outside the borders of the United States,
with immunity from its lethal power granted to U.S. citizens. That
assumption proved to be wrong.
During the Cold War, the hidden growth of the CIA’s autonomous power
corresponded to the public growth of what was called a fortress state.
What had been a struggling post-war democracy in our country was
replaced by the institutions of a national security state. President
Truman had laid the foundations for that silent takeover by his
momentous decision to end the Second World War by a demonstration of
nuclear weapons on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to
stop a Soviet advance to Japan. Truman’s further, post-war decision for
U.S. nuclear dominance in the world rather than allowing for
international control of nuclear weapons was his second disastrous
mistake, in terms of initiating the nuclear arms race in the world and
subverting democracy in the U.S.A. A democracy within a national
security state cannot survive. The president’s decision to base our
security on nuclear weapons created the contradiction of a democracy
ruled by the dictates of the Pentagon. A democratic national security
state is a contradiction in terms.
The insecure basis of our security then became weapons that could
destroy the planet. To protect the security of that illusory means of
security, which was absolute destructive power, we now needed a ruling
elite of national security managers with an authority above that of our
elected representatives. So from that point on, our military-industrial
managers made the real decisions of state. President Truman simply
ratified their decisions and entrenched their power, as he did with the
establishment of the CIA, and as his National Security Council did with
its endorsement of plausible deniability. His successor, President
Eisenhower, also failed to challenge in his presidency what he warned
against at its end -- the military-industrial complex. He left the
critical task of resisting that anti-democratic power in the hands of
the next president, John Kennedy. When President Kennedy then stood up
to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the military-industrial complex, he was
treated as a traitor. His attempt to save the planet from the weapons
of his own state was regarded as treason. The doctrine of plausible
deniability allowed for the assassination of a president seen as a
national security risk himself.
The CIA’s “plausible deniability” for crimes of state, as exemplified
by JFK’s murder, corresponds in our politics to what the Trappist monk
and spiritual writer Thomas Merton called “the Unspeakable.” Merton
wrote about the unspeakable in the 1960’s, when an elusive, systemic
evil was running rampant through this country and the world. The
Vietnam War, the escalating nuclear arms race, and the interlocking
murders of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert
Kennedy were all signs of the unspeakable.
For Merton, the unspeakable was ultimately a void, an emptiness of any
meaning, an abyss of lies and deception. He wrote the following
description of the unspeakable shortly after the publication of The
Warren Report, which he could have been describing: “[The Unspeakable]
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.”
The void of the unspeakable is the dark abyss, the midnight reality of
plausible deniability, that we face when we peer into our national
security state’s murder of President Kennedy. And that is precisely
where hope begins.
Why President Kennedy was murdered can be, I believe, a profound source
of hope to us all, when we truly understand his story.
Now how can that possibly be? The why of his murder as a source of hope?
Let’s begin with the way Kennedy himself looked at the question.
One summer weekend in 1962 while out sailing with friends, President
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 U.S. These words were spoken by him after the Bay of Pigs 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.”
Let’s remember that JFK gave himself three strikes before he would be
out by a coup, although he bravely said it wouldn’t happen on his watch.
As we know, and as he knew, the young president John Kennedy did
have a Bay of Pigs. The president bitterly disappointed the CIA, the
military, and the CIA-trained Cuban exile brigade by deciding 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
whose authors assumed he would be forced by circumstances to drop his
advance restrictions against the use of U.S. combat forces. He had been
lied to in such a way that, in order to “win” at the Bay of Pigs, he
would be forced to send in U.S. troops. But JFK surprised the CIA and
the military by choosing instead to accept a loss. “They couldn’t
believe,” he said, “that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try
to save his own face. Well, they had me figured all wrong.”
We know how JFK reacted to the CIA’s setting him up. He was furious.
When the enormity of the Bay of Pigs disaster came home to him, he said
he wanted “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to
He ordered an investigation into the whole affair, under the very
watchful eyes of his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
He fired CIA Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director Richard Bissell,
Jr., and Deputy Director General Charles Cabell. That was a huge
decision – firing the top of the CIA’s hierarchy, including the
legendary leader who had come to personify the agency, Allen Dulles.
The president then took steps “to cut the CIA budget in 1962 and again
in 1963, aiming at a 20 per cent reduction by 1966.” John Kennedy was
cutting back the CIA’s power in very concrete ways, step by step.
We know how the CIA and the Cuban exile community regarded Kennedy in
turn because of his refusal to escalate the battle at the Bay of Pigs.
They hated him for it. They did not forget what they thought was
In terms of JFK’s own analysis of the threat of an overthrow of his
presidency, he saw the Bay of Pigs as the first strike against him. It
was the first big stand he took against his national security elite,
and therefore the first cause of a possible coup d’etat.
However, in terms of our constitution, our genuine security, and world
peace, the position Kennedy took in facing down the CIA and the
military at the Bay of Pigs, rather than surrendering to their will,
was in itself a source of hope. No previous post-war president had
shown such courage. Truman and Eisenhower had, in effect, turned over
the power of their office to their national security managers. Kennedy
was instead acting like he really was the president of this country –
by saying a strong no to the security elite on a critical issue. If we
the people had truly understood what he was doing then on our behalf,
we would have thought the president’s stand a deeply hopeful one.
In terms of his Seven Days in May analysis of a coming coup, John
Kennedy did have a second “Bay of Pigs.” The president alienated the
CIA and the military a second time by his decisions during the Cuban
JFK had to confront the unspeakable in the Missile Crisis in the form
of total nuclear war. At the height of that terrifying conflict, he
felt the situation spiraling out of control, especially because of the
actions of his generals. For example, with both sides on hair-trigger
alert, the U.S. Air Force test-fired missiles from California across
the Pacific, deliberately trying to provoke the Soviets in a way that
could justify our superior U.S. forces blanketing the USSR with an
all-out nuclear attack. As we know from Kennedy’s secretly taped
meeting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff on October 19, 1962, the Chiefs
were pushing him relentlessly to launch a pre-emptive strike on Cuba,
and ultimately the Soviet Union. In this encounter the Chiefs’ disdain
for their young commander-in-chief is summed up by Air Force Chief of
Staff General Curtis LeMay when he says:
LeMay: “This [blockade and political action] is almost as bad as the
appeasement [of Hitler] at Munich…I think that a blockade, and
political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and
neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of
our own citizens would feel that way too.
“In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”
President Kennedy responds: “What did you say?”
LeMay: “I say, you’re in a pretty bad fix.”
President Kennedy: [laughing] “You’re in with me, personally.”
As the meeting draws to a close, Kennedy rejects totally the Joint
Chiefs’ arguments for a quick, massive attack on Cuba. The president
then leaves the room but the tape keeps on recording. Two or three of
the generals remain, and one says to LeMay, “You pulled the rug right
out from under him.”
LeMay: “Jesus Christ. What the hell do you mean?”
General: “…He’s finally getting around to the word ‘escalation.’ If
somebody could keep ‘em from doing the goddamn thing piecemeal, that’s
The White House tapes show Kennedy questioning and resisting the
mounting pressure to bomb Cuba coming from both the Joint Chiefs and
the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. At the same
time, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the two men most responsible
for the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemed locked in a hopeless ideological
conflict. The U.S. and Soviet leaders had been following Cold War
policies that now seemed to be moving inexorably toward a war of
Yet, as we have since learned, Kennedy and Khrushchev had been engaged
in a secret correspondence for over a year that gave signs of hope.
Even as they moved publicly step by step toward a Cold War climax that
would almost take the world over the edge with them, they were at the
same time smuggling confidential letters back and forth that recognized
each other’s humanity and hoped for a solution. They were public
enemies who, in the midst of deepening turmoil, were secretly learning
something approaching trust in each other.
On what seemed the darkest day in the crisis, when a Soviet missile had
shot down a U2 spy plane over Cuba, intensifying the already
overwhelming pressures on Kennedy to bomb Cuba, the president sent his
brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, secretly to Soviet Ambassador
Anatoly Dobrynin. RFK told Dobrynin, as Dobrynin reported to
Khrushchev, that the president “didn’t know how to resolve the
situation. The military is putting great pressure on him…Even if he
doesn’t want or desire a war, something irreversible could occur
against his will. That is why the President is asking for help to solve
In his memoirs, Khrushchev recalled a further, chilling sentence from
Robert Kennedy’s appeal to Dobrynin: “If the situation continues much
longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow
him and seize power.”
Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita’s son, has described his father’s thoughts
when he read Dobrynin’s wired report relaying John Kennedy’s plea: “The
president was calling for help: that was how father interpreted Robert
Kennedy’s talk with our ambassador.”
At a moment when the world was falling into darkness, Kennedy did what
from his generals’ standpoint was intolerable and unforgivable. JFK not
only rejected his generals’ pressures for war. Even worse, the
president then reached out to their enemy, asking for help. That was
When Nikita Khrushchev had received Kennedy’s plea for help in Moscow,
he turned to his Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko and said, “We have to
let Kennedy know that we want to help him.”
Khrushchev stunned himself by what he had just said: Did he really want
to help his enemy, Kennedy? Yes, he did. He repeated the word to his
“Yes, help. We now have a common cause, to save the world from those
pushing us toward war.”
How do we understand that moment? The two most heavily armed leaders in
history, on the verge of total nuclear war, suddenly joined hands
against those on both sides pressuring them to attack. Khrushchev
ordered the immediate withdrawal of his missiles, in return for
Kennedy’s public pledge never to invade Cuba and his secret promise to
withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey – as he would in fact do. The two
Cold War enemies had turned, so that each now had more in common with
his opponent than either had with his own generals. As a result of that
turn toward peace, one leader would be assassinated thirteen months
later. The other, left without his peacemaking partner, would be
overthrown the following year. Yet because of their turn away from
nuclear war, today we are still living and struggling for peace on this
earth. Hope is alive. We still have a chance.
What can we call that transforming moment when Kennedy asked his enemy
for help and Khrushchev gave it?
From a Buddhist standpoint, it was enlightenment of a cosmic kind.
Others might call it a divine miracle. Readers of the Christian Gospels
could say that Kennedy and Khrushchev were only doing what Jesus said:
“Love your enemies.” That would be “love” as Gandhi understood it, love
as the other side of truth, a respect and understanding of our
opponents that goes far enough to integrate their truth into our own.
In the last few months of Kennedy’s life, he and Khrushchev were
walking that extra mile where each was beginning to see the other’s
Neither John Kennedy nor Nikita Khrushchev was a saint. Each was deeply
complicit in policies that brought humankind to the brink of nuclear
war. Yet, when they encountered the void, then by turning to each other
for help, they turned humanity toward the hope of a peaceful planet.
John Kennedy’s next “Bay of Pigs,” his next critical conflict with his
national security state, was his American University Address. Saturday
Review editor Norman Cousins summed up the significance of this
remarkable speech: “At American University on June 10, 1963, President
Kennedy proposed an end to the Cold War.”
I believe it is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of
President Kennedy’s American University address. It was a decisive
signal to both Nikita Khrushchev, on the one hand, and JFK’s national
security advisers, on the other, that he was serious about making peace
with the Communists. After he told the graduating class at American
University that the subject of his speech was “the most important topic
on earth: world peace,” he asked:
“What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek?”
He answered, “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American
weapons of war.”
Kennedy’s rejection of “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by
American weapons of war” was an act of resistance to the
military-industrial complex. The military-industrial complex was
totally dependent on “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American
weapons of war.” That Pax Americana policed by the Pentagon was
considered the system’s indispensable, hugely profitable means of
containing and defeating Communism. At his own risk Kennedy was
rejecting the foundation of the Cold War system.
In its place, as a foundation for peace, the president put a
compassionate description of the suffering of the Russian people. They
had been our allies during World War Two and had suffered mightily. Yet
even their World War Two devastation would be small compared to the
effects of a nuclear war on both their country and ours.
In his speech, Kennedy turned around the question that was always asked
when it came to prospects for peace – the question, “What about the
Russians?” It was assumed the Russians would take advantage of any move
we might make toward peace.
Kennedy asked instead, “What about us?” He said, “Our attitude [toward
peace] is as essential as theirs.” What about our attitude to the
nuclear arms race?
Within the overarching theology of our country, a theology of total
good versus total evil, that was a heretical question, coming
especially from the president of the United States.
Kennedy said he wanted to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the
Soviet Union in Moscow – in their capitol, not ours – as soon as
possible. To clear the way for such a treaty, he said he was suspending
U.S. atmospheric tests unilaterally.
John Kennedy’s strategy of peace penetrated the Soviet government’s
defenses far more effectively than any missile could have done. The
Soviet press, which was accustomed to censoring U.S. government
statements, published the entire speech all across the country. Soviet
radio stations broadcast and rebroadcast the speech to the Soviet
people. In response to Kennedy’s turn toward peace, the Soviet
government even stopped jamming all Western broadcasts into their
Nikita Khrushchev was deeply moved by the American University Address.
He said Kennedy had given “the greatest speech by any American
President since Roosevelt.”
JFK’s speech was received less favorably in his own country. The New
York Times reported his government’s skepticism: “Generally there was
not much optimism in official Washington that the President’s
conciliation address at American University would produce agreement on
a test ban treaty or anything else.” In contrast to the Soviet media
that were electrified by the speech, the U.S. media ignored or
downplayed it. For the first time, Americans had less opportunity to
read and hear their president’s words than did the Russian people. A
turn-around was occurring in the world on different levels. Whereas
nuclear disarmament had suddenly become feasible, Kennedy’s position in
his own government had become precarious.
President Kennedy’s next critical conflict with his national security
state, propelling him toward the coup d’etat he saw as possible, was
the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that he signed with Nikita
Khrushchev on July 25, 1963, six weeks after the American University
Address. The president had done an end run around the Joint Chiefs of
Staff. He negotiated the Test Ban Treaty without consulting them,
because they opposed it.
Kennedy was fiercely determined but not optimistic that the Test Ban
Treaty be ratified by the defense-conscious Senate. In early August, he
told his advisers that getting Senate ratification of the agreement
would be “almost in the nature of a miracle.” He said if a Senate vote
were held right then it would fall far short of the necessary
Kennedy initiated a whirlwind public education campaign on the treaty,
coordinated by Saturday Review editor Normal Cousins, who directed a
committee of activists. By the end of August, the tide of congressional
mail had gone from fifteen to one against a test ban to three to two
In September public opinion polls showed a turnaround. 80 percent of
the American people were now in favor of the Test Ban Treaty. On
September 24, 1963, the Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 80 to
19 – 14 more than the required two-thirds. No other single
accomplishment in the White House gave Kennedy greater satisfaction.
On September 20, Kennedy spoke to the United Nations. He suggested that
its members see the Test Ban Treaty as a beginning and engage together
in an experiment in peace:
“Two years ago I told this body that the United States had proposed,
and was willing to sign, a Limited Test Ban treaty. Today that treaty
has been signed. It will not put an end to war. It will not remove
basic conflicts. It will not secure freedom for all. But it can be a
lever, and Archimedes, in explaining the principles of the lever, was
said to have declared to his friends: ‘Give me a place where I can
stand – and I shall move the world.’
“My fellow inhabitant of this planet: Let us take our stand here in
this Assembly of nations. And let us see if we, in our own time, can
move the world to a just and lasting peace.”
When he said these words, John Kennedy was secretly engaging in another
risky experiment in peace. That same day at the United Nations, Kennedy
told UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson that his assistant William Attwood
should go ahead “to make discreet contact” with Cuba’s UN Ambassador
Carlos Lechuga. Was Fidel Castro interested in a dialogue with John
Kennedy? A strongly affirmative answer would come back from Castro, who
had been repeatedly urged by Khrushchev to begin trusting Kennedy.
Kennedy and Castro actually began that dialogue on normalizing
U.S.-Cuban relations, through the mediation of French journalist Jean
Daniel who personally visited both men in the month leading up to the
assassination. Daniel was actually eating lunch with Castro in his home
on November 22, conveying Kennedy’s hopeful words, when the Cuban
premier was phoned with the news of Kennedy’s death. Castro’s somber
comment to Daniel was: “Everything is changed. Everything is going to
On October 11, 1963, President Kennedy issued a top-secret order to
begin withdrawing the U.S. military from Vietnam. In National Security
Action memorandum 263, he ordered that 1,000 U.S. military personnel be
withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1963, and that the bulk of U.S.
personnel be taken out by the end of 1965.
Kennedy decided on his withdrawal policy, against the arguments of most
of his advisers, at a contentious October 2 National Security Council
meeting. When Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was leaving the meeting
to announce the withdrawal to the White House reporters, “the President
called to him, ‘And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots,
In fact, it would not mean that at all. After JFK’s assassination, his
withdrawal policy was quietly voided. In light of the future
consequences of Dallas, it was not only John Kennedy who was murdered
on November 22, 1963, but 58,000 other Americans and over three million
Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.
In his reflections on Seven Days in May, John Kennedy had given himself
three Bay-of-Pigs-type conflicts with his national security state
before a possible coup. What about six?
(1) The Bay of Pigs.
(2) The Cuban Missile Crisis.
(3) The American University Address.
(4) The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
(5) The beginning of a back-channel dialogue with Fidel Castro.
(6) JFK’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam.
This, however, is a short list of the increasing conflicts between Kennedy
and his national security state.
We can add to the list a seventh Bay of Pigs – the steel crisis,
in which he profoundly alienated the military industrial complex before
the Cuban Missile Crisis even took place. The steel crisis was a
showdown the president had with U.S. Steel and seven other steel
companies over their price-fixing violations of an agreement he had
negotiated between U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers’ union. In a
head-on confrontation with the ruling elite of Big Steel, JFK ordered
the Defense Department to switch huge military contracts away from the
major steel companies to the smaller, more loyal contractors that had
not defied him. After the big steel companies bitterly backed down from
their price raises, JFK and his brother, Robert, were denounced as
symbols of “ruthless power” by the Wall Street power brokers at the
center of the military industrial complex.
By an editorial titled, “Steel: The Ides of April” (the month in which
Kennedy faced down the steel executives), Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine
called to readers’ minds the soothsayer’s warning in Shakespeare of the
assassination of Julius Caesar. Fortune was warning Kennedy that his
actions had confirmed the worst fears of corporate America about his
presidency, and would have dire consequences. As interpreted by the
most powerful people in the nation, the steel crisis was a logical
prelude to Dallas. It was a seventh Bay of Pigs.
An eighth Bay of Pigs was Kennedy’s diplomatic opening to the fiery
third-world leadership of President Sukarno of Indonesia. Sukarno was
“the most outspoken proponent of Third World neutralism in the Cold
War.” He had actually coined the term “Third World.” The CIA wanted
Sukarno dead. It wanted what it saw as his pro-communist “global
orientation” obliterated. During Eisenhower’s presidency, the CIA
repeatedly tried to kill and overthrow Sukarno but failed.
JFK, however, chose to work with Sukarno, hoping to win him over as an
ally, which he did. Sukarno came to love Kennedy. The U.S. president
resolved what seemed a hopeless conflict between Indonesia and its
former colonial master, the Netherlands, averting a war. To the CIA’s
dismay, in 1961 Kennedy welcomed Sukarno to the White House. Most
significantly, three days before his assassination, President Kennedy
said he was willing to accept Sukarno’s invitation to visit Indonesia
the following spring. His visit to Indonesia would have dramatized in a
very visible way Kennedy’s support of Third World nationalism, a sea
change in U.S. government policy. That decision to visit Sukarno was an
eighth Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy’s Indonesian policy was also killed in Dallas, with horrendous
consequences. After Lyndon Johnson became president, the CIA finally
succeeded in overthrowing Sukarno in a massive purge of suspected
Communists that ended up killing 500,000 to one million Indonesians.
Last Sunday I interviewed Sergei Khrushchev about an important
late development in the relationship between his father and President
Kennedy. In his interview, Mr. Khrushchev confirmed that his father had
decided in November 1963 to accept President Kennedy’s repeated
proposal that the U.S. and the Soviet Union fly to the moon together.
In Kennedy’s September 20, 1963, speech to the United Nations, he had
once again stated his hope for such a joint expedition to the moon.
However, neither American nor Soviet military leaders, jealous of their
rocket secrets, were ready to accept his initiative. Nikita Khrushchev,
siding with his own rocket experts, felt that he was still forced to
decline Kennedy’s proposal.
JFK was looking beyond the myopia of the generals and scientists on
both sides of the East-West struggle. He knew that merging their
missile technologies in a peaceful project would also help defuse the
Cold War. It was part of his day-by-day strategy of peace.
Sergei Khrushchev said his father talked to him about a week before
Kennedy’s death on the president’s idea for a joint lunar mission.
Nikita Khrushchev had broken ranks with his rocket scientists. He now
thought he and the Soviet Union should accept Kennedy’s invitation to
go to the moon together, as a further step in peaceful cooperation.
In Washington, Kennedy acted as if he already knew about Khrushchev’s
hopeful change of heart on that critical issue. JFK was already telling
NASA to begin work on a joint U.S.-Soviet lunar mission. On November
12, 1963, JFK issued his National Security Action Memorandum 271,
ordering NASA to implement his “September 20 proposal for broader
cooperation between the United States and the USSR in outer space,
including cooperation in lunar landing programs.”
That further visionary step to end the Cold War also died with
President Kennedy. The U.S. went to the moon alone. U.S. and Soviet
rockets continued to be pointed at their opposite countries rather than
being joined in a project for a more hopeful future. Sergei Khrushchev
said, “I think if Kennedy had lived, we would be living in a completely
In the final weeks of his presidency, President Kennedy took one
more risky step toward peace. It can be seen in relation to a meeting
he had the year before with six Quakers who visited him in his office.
One thousand members of the Society of Friends had been vigiling for
peace and world order outside the White House. President Kennedy agreed
to meet with six of their leaders. I have interviewed all three
survivors of that meeting with the president 47 years ago. They remain
uniformly amazed at the open way in which President Kennedy listened
and responded to their radical Quaker critique of his foreign policy.
Among their challenges to him was a recommendation that the United
States offer its surplus food to the People’s Republic of China. China
was considered an enemy nation. Yet it was also one whose people were
beset by a famine.
Kennedy said to the Quakers, “Do you mean you would feed your enemy when
he has his hands on your throat?”
The Quakers said they meant exactly that. They reminded him it was what
Jesus had said should be done. Kennedy said he knew that, and knew that
it was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t overcome the China lobby
in Washington to accomplish it.
Nevertheless, a year and a half later in the fall of 1963, against
overwhelming opposition, Kennedy decided to sell wheat to the Russians,
who had a severe grain shortage. His outraged critics said in effect to
him what he had said to the Quakers: Would you feed an enemy who has
his hands on your throat?
Vice President Lyndon Johnson said he thought Kennedy’s decision to
sell wheat to Russia would turn out to be the worst political mistake
he ever made. Today JFK’s controversial decision “to feed the enemy”
has been forgotten. In 1963, the wheat sale was seen as a threat to our
security – feeding the enemy to kill us. Yet JFK went ahead with it, as
one more initiative for peace.
The violent reaction to his decision was represented on Friday morning,
November 22, 1963, by a threatening, full-page advertisement addressed
to him in the Dallas Morning News. The ad was bordered in black, like a
Among the charges of disloyalty to the nation that the ad made against
the president was the question: “Why have you approved the sale of
wheat and corn to our enemies when you know the Communist soldiers
‘travel on their stomach’ just as ours do?” JFK read the ad before the
flight from Fort Worth to Dallas, pointed it out to Jacqueline Kennedy,
and talked about the possibility of his being assassinated that day.
“But, Jackie,” he said, “if somebody wants to shoot me from a window
with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”
President Kennedy’s courageous turn from war to a strategy of
peace provided many more than three Bay-of-Pigs-type causes for his
assassination. Because he turned toward peace with our enemies, the
Communists, he was continually at odds with his own national security
state. Peacemaking was at the top of his agenda as president. That was
not the kind of leadership the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the
military industrial complex wanted in the White House. Given the Cold
War dogmas that gripped those dominant powers, and given Kennedy’s turn
toward peace, his assassination followed as a matter of course.
That is how he seemed to regard the situation – that it would soon lead
to his own death. JFK was not afraid of death. As a biographer
observed, “Kennedy talked a great deal about death, and about the
assassination of Lincoln.” His conscious model for struggling
truthfully through conflict, and being ready to die as a consequence,
was Abraham Lincoln. On the day when Kennedy and Khrushchev resolved
the missile crisis, JFK told his brother, Robert, referring to the
assassination of Lincoln, “This is the night I should go to the
theater.” Robert replied, “If you go, I want to go with you.”
Kennedy prepared himself for the same end Lincoln met during his night
at the theater. Late at night on the June 5, 1961, plane flight back to
Washington from his Vienna meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, a weary
President Kennedy wrote down on a slip of paper, as he was about to
fall asleep, a favorite saying of his from Abraham Lincoln – really a
prayer. Presidential secretary Evelyn Lincoln discovered the slip of
paper on the floor. On it she read the words: “I know there is a God –
and I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe that I am
Kennedy loved that prayer. He cited it repeatedly. More important, he
made the prayer his own. In his conflicts with Khrushchev, then more
profoundly with the CIA and the military, he had seen a storm coming.
If God had a place for him, he believed that he was ready.
For at least a decade, JFK’s favorite poem had been Rendezvous, a
celebration of death. Rendezvous was by Alan Seeger, an American poet
killed in World War One. The poem was Seeger’s affirmation of his own
The refrain of Rendezvous, “I have a rendezvous with Death,”
articulated John Kennedy’s deep sense of his own mortality. Kennedy had
experienced a continuous rendezvous with death in anticipation of his
actual death: from the deaths of his PT boat crew members, from
drifting alone in the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean, from the early
deaths of his brother Joe and sister Kathleen, and from the recurring
near-death experiences of his almost constant illnesses.
He recited Rendezvous to his wife, Jacqueline, in 1953 on their first
night home in Hyannis after their honeymoon. She memorized the poem,
and recited it back to him over the years. In the fall of 1963, Jackie
taught the words of the poem to their five-year-old daughter, Caroline.
I have thought many times about what then took place in the White House
Rose Garden one beautiful fall day.
On the morning of October 5, 1963, President Kennedy met with his
National Security Council in the Rose Garden. Caroline suddenly
appeared at her father’s side. She said she wanted to tell him
something. He tried to divert her attention while the meeting
continued. Caroline persisted. The president smiled and turned his full
attention to his daughter. He told her to go ahead. While the members
of the National Security Council sat and watched, Caroline looked into
her father’s eyes and said:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air –
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath –
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear….
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
After Caroline said the poem’s final word, “rendezvous,” Kennedy’s
national security advisers sat in stunned silence. One of them said
later the bond between father and daughter was so deep “it was as if
there was ‘an inner music’ he was trying to teach her.”
JFK had heard his own acceptance of death from the lips of his
daughter. While surrounded by a National Security Council that opposed
his breakthrough to peace, the president once again deepened his pledge
not to fail that rendezvous. If God had a place for him, he believed
that he was ready.
So how can the why of his murder give us hope?
Where do we find hope when a peacemaking president is assassinated by
his own national security state?
The why of the event that brings us together tonight encircles the
earth. Because John Kennedy chose peace on earth at the height of the
Cold War, he was executed. But because he turned toward peace, in spite
of the consequences to himself, humanity is still alive and struggling.
That is hopeful, especially if we understand what he went through and
what he has given to us as his vision.
At a certain point in his presidency, John Kennedy turned a corner and
didn’t look back. I believe that decisive turn toward his final purpose
in life, resulting in his death, happened in the darkness of the Cuban
Missile Crisis. Although Kennedy was already in conflict with his
national security managers, the missile crisis was the breaking point.
At that most critical moment for us all, he turned from any remaining
control his security managers had over him toward a deeper ethic, a
deeper vision in which the fate of the earth became his priority.
Without losing sight of our own best hopes in this country, he began to
home in, with his new partner, Nikita Khrushchev, on the hope of peace
for everyone on this earth – Russians, Americans, Cubans, Vietnamese,
Indonesians, everyone – no exceptions. He made that commitment to life
at the cost of his own.
What a transforming story that is.
And what a propaganda campaign has been waged to keep us Americans from
understanding that story, from telling it, and from re-telling it to
our children and grandchildren.
Because that’s a story whose telling can transform a nation. But when a
nation is under the continuing domination of an idol, namely war, it is
a story that will be covered up. When the story can liberate us from
our idolatry of war, then the worshippers of the idol are going to do
everything they can to keep the story from being told. From the
standpoint of a belief that war is the ultimate power, that’s too
dangerous a story. It’s a subversive story. It shows a different kind
of security than always being ready to go to war. It’s unbelievable –
or we’re supposed to think it is -- that a president was murdered by
our own government agencies because he was seeking a more stable peace
than relying on nuclear weapons. It’s unspeakable. For the sake of a
nation that must always be preparing for war, that story must not be
told. If it were, we might learn that peace is possible without making
war. We might even learn there is a force more powerful than war. How
unthinkable! But how necessary if life on earth is to continue.
That is why it is so hopeful for us to confront the unspeakable and to
tell the transforming story of a man of courage, President John F.
Kennedy. It is a story ultimately not of death but of life – all our
lives. In the end, it is not so much a story of one man as it is a
story of peacemaking when the chips are down. That story is our story,
a story of hope.
I believe it is a providential fact that the anniversary of President
Kennedy’s assassination always falls around Thanksgiving, and
periodically on that very day. This year the anniversary of his death,
two days from now, will begin Thanksgiving week.
Thanksgiving is a beautiful time of year, with autumn leaves falling to
create new life. Creation is alive, as the season turns. The earth is
alive. It is not a radioactive wasteland. We can give special thanks
for that. The fact that we are still living – that the human family is
still alive with a fighting chance for survival, and for much more than
that – is reason for gratitude to a peacemaking president, and to the
unlikely alliance he forged with his enemy. So let us give thanks this
Thanksgiving for John F. Kennedy, and for his partner in peacemaking,
Their story is our story, a story of the courage to turn toward the
truth. Remember what Gandhi said that turned theology on its head. He
said truth is God. That is the truth: Truth is God. We can discover the
truth and live it out. There is nothing more powerful than the truth.
The truth will set us free.
Peter Grose, Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles (New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 293.
Cited by Grose, ibid.
Cited by Raymond Marcus, “Truman’s Warning,” in E. Martin Schotz,
History Will Not Absolve Us: Orwellian Control, Public Denial, and the
Murder of President Kennedy (Brookline, Mass.: Kurtz, Ulmer &
DeLucia, 1996), pp. 237-38.
Letter from Harry S. Truman to William B. Arthur, June 10, 1964. Off
the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, edited by Robert H.
Ferrell (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 408.
Pioneer assassination critic Raymond Marcus has written of the lack of
response to Truman’s remarkable December 22, 1963, article: “According
to my information, it was not carried in later editions that day, not
commented on editorially, nor picked up by any other major newspaper,
or mentioned on any national radio or TV broadcast.” Raymond Marcus,
Addendum B (published by the author, 1995), p. 75.
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions,
1966), p. 4.
Paul B. Fay, Jr., The Pleasure of His Company (New York: Dell, 1966),
Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), p. 274.
Tom Wicker, John W. Finney, Max Frankel, E. W. Kenworthy, “C.I.A.:
Maker of Policy, or Tool?” New York Times (April 25, 1966), p. 20.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1965), p. 428.
Sheldon M Stern, Averting “The Final Failure” (Stanford, Calif.:
Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 126, 129.
Sergei N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a
Superpower (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University, 2000),
Khrushchev Remembers, ed. Edward Crankshaw (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970),
S. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev, p. 622.
Ibid., p. 630.
Norman Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972),
Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1963, p. 460.
Schlesinger, Thousand Days, p. 904.
Max Frankel, “Harriman to Lead Test-Ban Mission to Soviet [Union] in July,”
New York Times (June 12, 1963), p. 1.
Cousins, Improbable Triumvirate, p. 128.
Jean Daniel, “When Castro Heard the News,” New Republic (December 7, 1963),
O’Donnell and Powers, p. 17.
James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), p. 324.
O’Donnell and Powers, p. 25.
Ralph G. Martin, A Hero for our Time: An Intimate Story of the Kennedy Years
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), p. 500.
Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
(New York: Signet, 1969), p. 110.
Evelyn Lincoln, My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy (New York: Bantam Books,
1966), p. 230.
Richard D. Mahoney interview of Samuel E. Belk III. Richard D. Mahoney,
Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy (New York:
Arcade, 1999), p. 281.