JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters
By James W. Douglass
Orbis Books. 510 pp. $30
By John McAdams
James Douglass treads a familiar path in JFK and the Unspeakable. It is yet another book that claims John Kennedy was killed because he had decided to withdraw from Vietnam. Kennedy’s “rejection of Cold War politics was considered treasonous by forces in his own government,” according to Douglass, and supposedly made JFK’s violent removal an urgent necessity.
What makes Douglass’s volume unique is that his argument is dressed up in verbiage unfamiliar to JFK assassination buffs. Most authors of books on the assassination attempt to cloak their political views, and pretend to arrive at the truth about the assassination after a supposedly objective analysis of the facts. Douglass wears his politics on his sleeve. He is a Catholic “peace activist” and disciple of Thomas Merton, whose observations infuse the book. Self-styled activists like Douglass have a long history of being opposed to the use of military power by the United States, although they don’t seem to mind as much when military power is used by America’s adversaries. And while they employ religious rhetoric to justify and rationalize their unilateral pacifism, their worldview, ultimately, is indistinguishable from that of secular leftists like Oliver Stone (who, not surprisingly, is a big fan of Douglass’s book).
Douglass’s key villain—the “Unspeakable” of his title—turns out to be the same kind of opaque nemesis that Stone is fond of conjuring up. The best identification Douglass can offer is “shadowy intelligence agencies using intermediaries and scapegoats under the cover of ‘plausible deniability,’” and even more vaguely, “an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.” How convenient: a culprit who is indescribable. In essence, though, Douglass’s evil-doer is indistinguishable from that bogeyman of vulgar, atheistic, and leftist radicals from the ‘60s: the “military-industrial complex,” except that he adds to the stew the Central Intelligence Agency.
JFK and the Unspeakable is structured so that it develops two parallel but supposedly complementary narratives: Kennedy’s statements and actions regarding Vietnam (in public, private, and in policy-making circles), and, simultaneously, the machinations of those who are conspiring to kill Kennedy. Both story lines are chock full of problems and cannot withstand elementary scrutiny. Long before Kennedy ever arrives in Dallas, Texas, and the strands finally come together, the book ceases to be non-fiction and enters the realm of a self-indulgent political fantasy.
The first narrative tries to portray Kennedy as a politician who started out a Cold Warrior, but broke through to a “deeper, more universal humanity” during his brief time in office. This is not as easy to pull off as it might sound, because Douglass knows full well that many of Kennedy’s statements, as late as the morning of his death, were anti-Communist in thrust and substance. Accordingly, Douglass has to fudge and equivocate constantly, as he tries to depict Kennedy as “trapped in the contradiction between the mandate of peace . . . and the continuing Cold War dogmas of his national security state.”
One particular trick Douglass uses is to conceal sources that show Kennedy to be a Cold War liberal. Douglass devotes page after page of analysis to Kennedy’s American University commencement address from June 1963, and the president’s admonition in this speech that “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Coming eight months after the Cuban missile crisis, the address was an inspiring call for keeping the peace in the hair-trigger nuclear age. But Douglass conspicuously fails to mention some other remarks Kennedy made in the same breath. “It is discouraging to think that [the Soviet Union’s] leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write,” Kennedy noted; moreover, the “Communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today.”
There is none of the moral equivalence here, in short, that suffuses Douglass’s view of the Cold War, nor any hint of the idea that America’s military-industrial-intelligence complex was primarily responsible for the superpowers’ nuclear brinksmanship. Indeed, on the morning of November 22, during his breakfast address in Fort Worth, Kennedy hailed that city’s role as an arsenal in the Cold War, though one would not know that from reading Douglass’s book.
Douglass’s attempts to deal with President Kennedy’s contradictory public statements on Vietnam are no less feeble and ahistorical. Douglass grudgingly admits that Kennedy told CBS’s Walter Cronkite, during a nationally-televised interview in September 1963, that it would be a great mistake for America to withdraw from Vietnam. And Douglass reluctantly concedes that the president told NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, in another nationally-televised interview a week later, that “I think we should stay [in Vietnam]. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.” But then Douglass breezily dismisses both public statements with a wave of his hand because he knows Kennedy’s true intention was to pull out unilaterally. JFK’s comment to Cronkite was “defensive and deceptive, if not an outright lie,” Douglass wishfully asserts. And in response to the NBC anchormen, Kennedy was inexplicably “digging himself into a hole” when his real intention was to withdraw US forces. Again and again, Douglass presents Kennedy as either lying, or ineptly making statements that would undermine his supposed secret Vietnam policy.
The portrait of Kennedy that Douglass leaves is that of a president who was either an inveterate liar, feckless, or inept at controlling the government, and possibly all three. His JFK is constantly yielding to pressure, playing into the hands of his enemies, approving a “criminal action” because the Pentagon wants it, allowing his staff to sabotage his policies, and incapable of managing the national security bureaucracy. The examples abound:
- In 1962, Kennedy decided to send military and CIA advisers into Laos and enlist Hmong tribesmen to resist Communism. By doing so, Douglass declares, JFK was “working within Cold War assumptions and playing into the hands of his own worst enemy, the CIA.”
- In October 1962, JFK approved a plan to destroy crops in South Vietnam with herbicides, for the purpose of denying food to the Viet Cong. As Douglass puts it, “Kennedy had yielded to the pressures of McNamara, [Maxwell] Taylor and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and approved a criminal action.” Michael Forrestal, an NSC aide, is quoted as saying, “I believe [Kennedy’s] main train of thinking was that you cannot say no to your military advisers all the time.”
- On June 19, 1963, Kennedy approved a CIA-directed sabotage program against Cuba that targeted manufacturing, electric, transportation, and oil facilities. Why? Because he “succumbed to Cold War pressures . . . ”
This depiction of a spineless chief executive is all the more jarring because Douglass obviously intended to produce a glowing portrait of Kennedy’s 1,000 days. Authors of assassination-related books that misuse sources are a dime a dozen. But those that believe they are writing a hagiography while actually damning their subject are a rare breed indeed.
Yet for Douglass, it has to be this way because the alternative—admitting that Kennedy was a Cold War liberal—is a truth to be avoided at all costs.
Besides the public record, Douglass mines the rich repository of private statements to bolster his theory about Kennedy being dead-set on a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam.
The difficulty here is that nearly all these claims were made after the Zeitgeist had shifted decisively. They are invariably found in works written years after the assassination, when the Vietnam war had become unpopular and Cold War liberalism had ceased to exist, indeed, had become a term of opprobrium and an invective. Moreover, these claims were almost always made by the president’s friends, aides, and loyal retainers—or what Victor Navasky once called “honorary Kennedys.” As Gary Wills further defined the term, “honorary Kennedys . . . without being fully admitted to the family [are] friends and allies [who] rotate loyally and lend their skills.” And one of their most important contributions over the decades has been to adjust JFK in light of subsequent historical events, most prominently, the Vietnam war.
Douglass approvingly cites Kenny O’Donnell’s suspect claim that Kennedy was going to get out of Vietnam as soon as he won the 1964 election. Douglass quotes an “old friend” of Kennedy, Washington columnist Charles Bartlett, as having been told by Kennedy that “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam.” JFK also supposedly told an “old friend” and neighbor, Larry Newman, that “The first thing I [will] do when I’m re-elected . . . I’m going to get the Americans out of Vietnam.” All these friends knew something, apparently, that no member of the president’s national security team—not Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, or John McCone—ever knew. Moreover, Douglass glides over the fact that it would have been grossly immoral and cynical for a president to let scores or even hundreds of Americans die for no reason except to help ensure his re-election.
Another private source Douglass misuses is former Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), the majority leader during the Kennedy years. Unlike “honorary Kennedys,” Mansfield had an impeccable reputation for being honest and no motive to burnish JFK’s reputation posthumously. What he recollected about Kennedy’s Vietnam policy must be taken seriously. And Douglass enthusiastically quotes Mansfield as saying, “there is no doubt that [JFK] had shifted definitely and unequivocally on Vietnam . . . . ”
But in fact, Mansfield recalled different things at different times. In 1969, he reported that “[Kennedy] was seriously contemplating a withdrawal of all US troops from Vietnam if he was elected to a second term.” In the wake of a 1970 Life magazine article, Mansfield responded with two letters, the first of which said he understood that Kennedy was considering “withdrawal” of troops, without mentioning “all” or anything about the extent. Then, in a second letter, Mansfield denied that Kennedy “even mentioned the thought” of the 1964 presidential election. Subsequently, in 1975, Mansfield wrote to a professor and said that Kennedy had resolved “to withdraw our forces from Vietnam.” Yet, in a 1989 letter to another author, Mansfield wrote that Kennedy only planned to withdraw “some troops” following the ’64 election. In a June 1998 interview with his biographer, Don Oberdorfer, Mansfield stated that Kennedy planned to withdraw troops at the rate of 1,000 or so per month after 1964. Finally, in an October 1999 discussion with Oberdorfer, Mansfield said that Kennedy planned to make perhaps “some minor withdrawals” after the election.
Which nuanced statement should be believed? Douglass uses only the one he finds attractive. Besides illustrating the vagaries of memory, it would seem more than likely that Kennedy—knowing full well that Mansfield was a strong opponent of direct US intervention—told the Montana senator what he thought Mansfield wanted to hear. That would not be unusual for a politician.
Finally, Douglass also employs a supposedly unimpeachable source: Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother. RFK reportedly told Daniel Ellsberg that JFK would never have sent US ground troops into South East Asia, even if the stark alternative was total withdrawal and collapse of the South Vietnamese government. “We would have handled it like Laos,” Kennedy allegedly said.
Unfortunately for Douglass, and every other conspiracy theorist who has ever tried to link the assassination with Vietnam, when it really counted—that is, before the war became contentious and unpopular—RFK said something quite different. On April 30, 1964, he was interviewed by John Bartlow Martin as part of the John F. Kennedy Library’s official oral history project. The date is important because the introduction of ground combat troops was more than a year away, and neither elite nor mass opinion had turned against US intervention. In fact, the overweening concern in Washington was doing everything necessary to save the Saigon government, as it was teetering badly in the wake of President Ngo Dinh Diem’s November 1963 assassination.
The clear thrust of RFK’s recollection was that if Lyndon Johnson failed to hold onto South Vietnam, he would be diverging from JFK’s true policy.
Kennedy: [The president] had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam.
Martin: What was the overwhelming reason?
Kennedy: Just the loss of all of Southeast Asia if you lost Vietnam. I think everybody was quite clear that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall.
Martin: What if it did?
Kennedy: Just have profound effects as far as our position throughout the world, and our position in a rather vital part of the world. Also, it would affect what happened in India, of course, which in turn has an effect on the Middle East. Just, it would have, everybody felt, a very adverse effect. It would have an effect on Indonesia, hundred million population. All of these countries would be affected by the fall of Vietnam to the Communists, particularly as we had made such a fuss in the United States both under President Eisenhower and President Kennedy about the preservation of the integrity of Vietnam.
Martin: There was never any consideration given to pulling out?
Martin: But the same time, no disposition to go in all . . .
Kennedy: No . . .
Martin: . . . in an all out way as we went into Korea. We were trying to avoid a Korea, is that correct?
Kennedy: Yes, because I, everybody including General MacArthur felt that land conflict between our troops, white troops and Asian, would only lead to, end in disaster. So it was. . . . We went in as advisers, but to try to get the Vietnamese to fight themselves, because we couldn’t win the war for them. They had to win the war for themselves.
Martin: It’s generally true all over the world, whether it’s in a shooting war or a different kind of a war. But the president was convinced that we had to keep, had to stay in there . . .
Martin: . . . and couldn’t lose it.
Martin: And if Vietnamese were about to lose it, would he propose to go in on land if he had to?
Kennedy: Well, we’d face that when we came to it.
Truer words about JFK’s policy toward Vietnam, if not US foreign policy in general, have never been spoken. All presidents tend to put off difficult decisions for as long as they are permitted to, and Robert Kennedy, to his credit, was being completely honest about that. The administration’s earnest hope was that the South Vietnamese, with American help, could fight their own war. And the choice between withdrawal and direct intervention had not been made solely because the grim choice had yet to present itself. JFK was temporizing, hoping against hope the problem would diminish.
New evidence about the extent of JFK’s commitment to South Vietnam recently became available, and it ought to settle the debate—if only because the source is the president himself, speaking on secretly-recorded White House tapes. In August 1963, while deliberating over whether to support a coup d’etat against Diem, Kennedy came down on the side of staying involved in the fight. “We’re up to our hips in mud out there,” Kennedy acknowledged to his national security advisers. But while the Congress might get “mad” at the administration for taking the generals’ side against Diem, “they’ll be madder if Vietnam goes down the drain.” According to John Prados, a historian of the Vietnam war, “President Kennedy’s emphasis indicated his determination to fight the war, not abandon it.” The tape recorded discussion, taken as a whole, “weakens claims by some that President Kennedy all along intended to get out of the conflict.” Indeed, far from being manipulated by his advisers, Kennedy and his national security team were pretty much on the same page, with, of course, the normal tactical disagreements here and there.
The Conspiracy to Assassinate
As bad as Douglass’s account of Kennedy’s foreign policy is, his depiction of a plot to murder JFK is worse—unspeakably bad, in fact. To paraphrase Thomas Merton, Douglass’s muse and inspiration, the bunk and nonsense Douglass recycles goes beyond the capacity of words to describe. He is utterly uncritical of any theory, any witness, and any factoid, as long as it implies conspiracy.
He buys into John Armstrong’s theory about “two Oswalds”: one being the Oswald who was arrested for shooting Kennedy, and the other an imposter who was tasked to run around and leave a trail of witnesses to “Oswald” saying violent and threatening things about Kennedy. Armstrong reports so many alleged sightings that half-a-dozen imposters would have been necessary, rather than just one doppelgänger. Even Douglass has to admit there were “too many Oswalds in view, with too many smuggled rifles, retelling a familiar story to too many witnesses.” But instead of becoming skeptical about this discredited theory, or leaving it out altogether, Douglass attributes “the bungling redundancy of cover stories” to an “overambitious plot, [where] the scapegoat wound up being in too many places at the same time.” In fact, had there been a conspiracy it would have been the height of foolishness to send out even one fake Oswald. Having him show up at a place or time when the real Lee Oswald had an iron-clad alibi would have been certain proof of a plot.
John Armstrong’s bogus theory is just one of a huge number of fairy tales that Douglass accepts as true. To wit:
• Douglass claims that Oswald had “crypto clearance” in the military, a level supposedly higher than “top secret.” Oswald’s military records show only “confidential” clearance. Douglass’s source is Gerald McKnight’s book, Breach of Trust, but that work cites no evidence to support the claim. When queried via e-mail, Knight responded, “ . . . all the Marines assigned to guard the crypto van had to have ‘crypto’ clearance. I believe that Oswald was attached to the security detail for the crypto van when it was loaded on a warship in one of the US’s harassment/provocations against the Sukarno government.” Douglass’s flat assertion, in other words, which contravenes a documented fact, comes down to what McKnight believes.
• Douglass is certain that New Orleans detective Guy Banister was a CIA agent, and that Oswald worked in his office during the summer of 1963; thus, Oswald was “in the company of the Company [CIA].” But a secret internal CIA memo states that the Agency “. . . considered contacting [Banister] for use as a foreign intelligence source and for possible use of his firm for cover purposes. However, [a] security investigation revealed derogatory information about his professional conduct, and he was not contacted.”
• Douglass embraces Jim Garrison’s “guiding hands” theory of how Oswald got a job at the Texas School Book Depository. Supposedly, Ruth Paine (whom Douglass thinks was a CIA spook) manipulated Oswald into taking that job. But as author Gerald Posner pointed out, 10 or 12 people would have had to be in on such a plot for it to work, including clerks at the Texas Employment Commission; Roy Truly, a supervisor at the Depository, and several women in Ruth Paine’s coffee klatsch. Surely one of these God-fearing Texans would have spoken up after the heinous crime.
• Douglass seems to doubt Lee Oswald really went to Mexico City, and implies that he was impersonated. He conceals these facts: Oswald’s handwriting was on the register of the Hotel del Comercio in Mexico City; the visa application submitted to the Cuban consulate under his name had his authenticated signature; and the phone number of Silvia Duran, a Mexican national who worked for Cuba, was later found in Oswald’s personal address book.
Oswald also wrote a signed letter to the Soviet embassy in Washington, complaining about his treatment at the Soviet mission in Mexico City. Douglass proclaims the letter was “probably fraudulent” and “CIA planted,” which, interestingly enough, is what Soviet authorities thought about alleging in the wake of the assassination until wiser heads prevailed.
• Douglass endorses Gary Aguilar’s tendentious treatment of eyewitness testimony in an effort to impeach basic forensic findings, such as conclusion that the third and final shot that struck President Kennedy’s head entered from the rear. Conspiracists have long tried to use eyewitness testimony to impeach the authenticity of the medical photographs and x-rays, but a painstaking scientific analysis by the House Select Committee on Assassinations showed them to be authentic.
• James Willcott, who worked in the CIA’s Tokyo station in the finance branch, once claimed to have issued payments to Oswald, who had allegedly been assigned a CIA cryptonym. The House Select Committee thoroughly investigated Willcott’s allegations and decided they were “not worthy of belief.”
• Roger Craig, a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy, once insisted that Oswald left the vicinity of the Depository in a Rambler station wagon. Later, during an alleged confrontation between Craig and Oswald at police headquarters, the accused assassin supposedly admitted the automobile was Ruth Paine’s. Unfortunately for Craig, she drove a Chevrolet, Oswald left the Depository on foot, and the “confrontation” never happened. That didn’t stop Craig from radically revising his stories over the years; they have gotten better and better with time.
• Abraham Bolden, a disgraced Secret Service agent, claimed there had been a plot to kill Kennedy during a presidential trip to Chicago. Supposedly, a patsy was set up to “take the fall.” When Kennedy’s Chicago trip was canceled, the scenario was allegedly adapted to Dallas and Oswald became the designated patsy. The House Select Committee thoroughly investigated this supposed plot, found no evidence it actually existed, and said Bolden’s account was of “questionable authenticity.”
• Dr. Charles Crenshaw played a minor role in the futile attempts at Parkland Hospital to save the lives of John Kennedy and, two days later, Lee Oswald. Crenshaw’s most infamous claim was that Lyndon Johnson called the Parkland operating room while doctors were trying to save Oswald’s life and demanded that a confession be wrung from the accused killer. The original version of his story, which never appeared in print because no publisher would buy it, was even worse. Crenshaw claimed LBJ called Parkland to demand that Oswald be over-infused and drowned in his own blood. Yet Douglass, either out of gullibility, cynicism, or outright indifference, buys Crenshaw’s account hook, line, and sinker.
Douglass, fundamentally, doesn’t care about what really occurred.
John McAdams is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University and webmaster of the Kennedy Assassination Home Page. He received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1981.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, 46.
 Ibid., xv.
 Ibid., 94. Douglass is using a phrase from Thomas Merton here.
 Ibid., 95.
 “Commencement Address at American University in Washington,” 10 June 1963, in Public
Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, January 1 to November 22, 1963 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964), 459-464.
 “Remarks at the Breakfast of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce,” 22 November 1963, in Public
Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 888-890. Fort Worth had one of the largest concentrations of defense plants in the country dating back to World War II. During the 1960s, its products included the B-58 intercontinental bomber; the Iroquois helicopter, which was a mainstay in the “fight against the guerrillas in South Vietnam,” as Kennedy noted; and the controversial TFX tactical fighter.
 “Transcript of Broadcast with Walter Cronkite Inaugurating a CBS Television News Program,” 2 September 1963, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 650-653; “Transcript of Broadcast on NBC’s ‘Huntley-Brinkley Report,’” 9 September 1963, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 658-661.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, 190.
 Ibid., 122.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 122.
Victor S. Navasky, Kennedy Justice (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 372-373.
 Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), 84.
Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, 125-126.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 182.
 Ibid., 124.
Don Oberdorfer, Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003), 196.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, 108.
National Security Archive, “Kennedy Considered Supporting Coup in South Vietnam, August 1963,” 11 December 2009.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, 356.
 Email from Gerald McKnight to McAdams, 28 August 2009.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, 62.
 Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Random House, 1993), 197-205.
 Oswald needed a visa to the Soviet Union as a condition of getting a visa to enter Cuba.
 Email from Gus Russo to McAdams, 25 August 2003. Dr. Crenshaw reiterated to Russo directly that LBJ ordered Oswald killed.
© 2009 by John McAdams