The assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 continues to haunt the collective psyche of America. Thousands of books and articles have been written and numerous films and documentaries have been made about that horrific event. Now the noted Catholic peace activist and theologian James W. Douglass has contributed his own extraordinary work: JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he died and why it matters (Orbis Books, 2008). Some consider it to be the best book ever written about the subject.
Douglass makes a cogent argument as to why JFK was killed. With meticulous care and thorough documentation, he describes Kennedy's growing suspicion of Cold War attitudes that threatened to precipitate a nuclear exchange. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a remarkable dialogue between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev emerged. Both had been severely shaken by the narrow avoidance of nuclear war. As the determined president explored concrete options for peace, disarmament, and coexistence with his ideological enemy, JFK became more isolated from the myriad and virulent Cold Warriors in his administration, the military, and, most of all, the CIA. With impressive clarity, Douglass demonstrates how the president's course of action was deemed intolerable, an outrageous deviation from the fundamental credos of the Cold War. And it resulted in JFK's brutal execution on the streets of a major American city.
Douglass was in town recently for a series of presentations here and around the Puget Sound.
You've just written what some have called the best book ever written on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. What brought you to this subject?
The assassination of Martin Luther King changed my life. I was a professor of theology at the University of Hawaii. I taught a course on the theology of peace. When MLK was assassinated, several students burned their draft cards and formed the Hawaii Resistance. I joined their group. We sat in front of a National Guard troop convoy on its way to jungle warfare training for Vietnam. I went to jail for the first time. That was my baptism into nonviolence and the beginning of the end of my academic career, and the initiation into the question of the assassinations of the 60s. Thirty-one years later I began to understand MLK's assassination in detail. I attended the only trial ever held for his assassination, in Memphis. MLK's family had initiated a wrongful death lawsuit against one confessed assassin and other unnamed parties. I attended every session of the trial. After three weeks and 70 witnesses, the jury concluded that U.S. government agencies were involved in MLK's assassination. The witnesses testified to the involvement of the CIA, FBI, an Army Special Forces sniper team, Mafia intermediaries, and members of the Memphis Police Department. Even before that trial, I had begun working on the other three interconnected assassinations of the 60s [of Malcolm X, JFK, and Robert F. Kennedy]. They were four versions of the same story.
You put the JFK assassination into an historical context.
Before he became president, Kennedy had a profound skepticism of military authority. Manipulated at the Bay of Pigs by the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JFK understood that he was up against a kind of power he was already suspicious of. At the Bay of Pigs, the CIA lied to him. He was told that the Cuban people would rise up after the landing of the anti-Castro Cubans. The CIA was putting JFK into a position that would require that he send in U.S. combat troops. He had refused beforehand to such a deployment. He kept to his word. After he had become aware of how he had been manipulated by the CIA, Kennedy said that he wanted to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds. He then fired the CIA's director Allen Dulles; Richard Bissell, the director for plans, and Deputy Director General Charles Cabell.
The Cuban Missile Crisis confirmed JFK's refusal to obey the dogmas of the National Security State and the Cold War. Instead of invading Cuba, he appealed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Every one of his advisors with the exception of Robert Kennedy was pushing him to attack Cuba. The situation was such that the U.S. military might initiate a war that JFK didn't want. Khrushchev made the decision to help JFK. It was an astonishing moment. From that moment on, Kennedy and Khrushchev had more compatibility with each other than either had with his own national security state.
Vietnam continues to reverberate in American society. JFK didn't want a land war in Asia.
In October, 1963, JFK signed National Security Action Memorandum 263, which called for all troops to be out of Vietnam by the end of 1965. That was quickly revoked after his assassination in November.
What about the actual assassination itself?
The president's security was completely withdrawn before he was driven into Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. An hour and a half before that, snipers had positioned themselves in various areas of the plaza. Some people who had gathered to see the president saw a number of men with rifles in different windows of the Texas School Book Depository. In the midst of the shooting, the president's limousine had been brought to a virtual stop on Elm Street. The Secret Service and police escort had been called off from around the limousine. The Secret Service was carrying out orders that came from above. When Allen Dulles was head of the CIA, he created a network of CIA operatives in every branch of the U.S. government. So there were people whose primary allegiance was to the CIA in key positions of the Secret Service, the White House, and the armed services. This was a "secret team" that possessed a theology of absolute good versus absolute evil, the Free World versus the Communists. From their perspective, JFK was proving incapable of adhering to that Cold War theology. He had become a heretic, a traitor. He had to go.
The assassination was obviously carried out by people who knew how to execute such an operation.
We know from the doctors at Parkland Hospital who first examined JFK minutes after the shooting that the president was shot from both the front and the rear. He had a massive wound in the back of his head which showed that he was shot from the front. A wound in his back showed a shot from behind, so there had to be a conspiracy. The nature of the conspiracy was sophisticated. Those assassins on the Grassy Knoll immediately displayed Secret Service credentials as they walked away from the crime. Abraham Bolden, the first Black Secret Service agent assigned to White House detail, had blown the whistle on the earlier plot to kill JFK in Chicago on November 2, 1963. Bolden revealed that after the assassination the Secret Service had to replace all their passbooks because the assassins on the knoll showed Secret Service credentials, and there were no Secret Service personnel on that site. Recently, just within this last year, it was revealed that the Secret Service passbooks were made at that time not by the Treasury Department -- the Secret Service is part of the Treasury Department -- but by the CIA itself. So it was simple for the CIA to give its own agents these pass books in order to protect them and their operatives after they had killed the president.
What about Lee Harvey Oswald?
Lee Harvey Oswald was part of the conspiracy in that he met with low-level agents involved in the assassination. In his capacity as an FBI informant he may well have been a whistleblower on the assassination, although that can't be established conclusively. On the day of the assassination, Oswald was not in the window where the so-called sniper's nest has been established, on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. When the assassination occurred he was standing in the doorway of that building watching the motorcade. Minutes before, he had been eating lunch on the second floor. He returned there after the shots were fired. Oswald could not possibly have been where the Warren Commission placed him. It was a grotesque indictment of a man who was not involved in the shooting and who very possibly may have been trying to save the president's life.
Why was the Warren Commission an elaborate cover-up?
The Warren Commission should be called the Dulles Commission after Allen Dulles, the former head of the CIA who had been fired by JFK. When Dulles was appointed to the Warren Commission it was a case of the fox being asked to investigate the murder in the hen house. Nobody in the American media or in government noted the irony of this appointment, although people outside of the U.S. did so. Throughout the Warren Commission discussions, Dulles said nothing about the secret collusion of the Mafia with the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. Some have tried to argue that the Mafia was the force behind JFK's assassination, but that is wrong. The Mafia does not control the CIA; the CIA tells the Mafia what to do.
Neither the Warren Commission nor the second investigation conducted by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s have resolved the persistent questions in this case. Currently there is a lawsuit concerning a deceased CIA agent named George Joannides related to the assassination.
He was an intermediary between the CIA and Oswald. Before the assassination he was trying to paint Oswald as a Marxist, a pro-Castro activist. But I think that we already have massive amounts of evidence that indicates what actually transpired in the assassination and who was responsible for it. JFK was murdered by his own National Security State.
As a result of reading your book, Daniel Ellsberg has said that there should be a new criminal investigation in this case.
If we have a nonviolent revolution and dismantle our National Security State, such a new investigation might work. Until we do, I think that such a move would be a repetition of the previous investigations, which were controlled and manipulated by the CIA. It is fruitless to have the fox investigate the murder in the henhouse.
Today, what do we gain by deepening our understanding of JFK's assassination?
JFK was willing to negotiate with the enemy. He was committed to peace-making rather than war-making. We now have a presidential candidate, Barack Obama, who was endorsed by Ted and Caroline Kennedy at the site where JFK gave his electrifying American University address in June 1963, in which he outlined his hopes for peace and disarmament. If Obama is willing to carry out the promise of JFK's legacy, he could face the same consequences that JFK did. As a people we must be prepared for the possibility of attempted assassination, of election fraud, of an invasion of Iran. We must be organized and prepared.