TORONTO REFLECTION: JFK and the Unspeakable

15 May 2008
TORONTO REFLECTION: JFK and the Unspeakable

by Doug Pritchard

[Note: Jim Douglass, whose book CPT Co-Director Doug Pritchard reviews in this piece, participated in the Christian Peacemaker Team delegation to Iraq that entered the country in late March 2003, after the bombing of Baghdad had begun.]

I remember the terrifying photos of missile-laden Soviet ships steaming toward a U.S. naval blockade off the shores of Cuba in 1962. As U.S. President Kennedy (JFK) and Soviet Premier Khrushchev faced each other in a global game of chicken, the world held its breath and prayed for deliverance. The crisis confirmed my impression of Kennedy as a Cold Warrior who invented a nonexistent "missile gap" to justify the nuclear arms race, took us to the eve of destruction over Cuba, and sent the U.S. into the morass of the Vietnam War.

In a new book, JFK and the Unspeakable, Catholic theologian and peace activist Jim Douglass shows us a different Kennedy, born of the Cold War, but reborn and turning toward peace. For that, Douglass contends, he was killed by the powers that be.

With painstaking care and 2,000 footnotes, Douglass describes Kennedy’s life-long sense of his own mortality and the folly of war. A correspondence initiated by Khrushchev—that continued through twenty-one letters exchanged outside diplomatic channels— influenced Kennedy. In his first letter in 1961, the Communist Khrushchev appealed to the Catholic Kennedy as a fellow passenger on Noah’s Ark, saying that both the clean and the unclean find sanctuary there, and all are determined to keep the Ark afloat. Two years later, Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated the Limited [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty, despite the fear mongering and opposition from within their own military and government circles.

The trust built during this correspondence was also key to the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy’s first Cuban crisis had come three months after he took office in 1961, when CIA-backed Cuban exiles attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy refused to send U.S. military forces and the invasion failed. Douglass says that this refusal marked the beginning of the alienation between Kennedy, the CIA, and the U.S. military. After the invasion, and even more so after the missile crisis, Kennedy was determined to open a back channel to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, despite the political risks. At the moment of Kennedy's assassination, his envoy Jean Daniel was sitting with Castro, preparing plans for a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders.

Regarding Vietnam, Kennedy initially acquiesced to U.S. military requests to increase the U.S. presence there. By 1962, the number of U.S. military advisors in Vietnam had grown from 700 to 12,000. Then Kennedy began to ask his generals for plans to phase out U.S. military involvement. A month before he was killed, Kennedy announced the withdrawal of the first 1,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam.

In his concluding chapter, Douglass tracks the details of Kennedy’s death, and contends that the CIA, and perhaps others disgruntled with Kennedy’s moves toward peace, engineered his assassination. He concludes his book by describing Jacqueline Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev’s envoy at JFK’s funeral, where she told him, "My husband’s dead. Now peace is up to you." Douglass adds, "Her message is appropriate to us all. JFK is dead. Now peace is up to us."