The Saddest Story

By David Swanson

One of the most unusual books and far-and-away the saddest I have ever read is James Douglass’s “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.” This is the best documented account ever produced of why and how the CIA assassinated John F. Kennedy. That the CIA did this is beyond dispute, and that the first President Bush was involved is well established by Russ Baker’s book “Family of Secrets.” What separates Douglass’s book from the pack is his account of how Kennedy lived his final months, the actions he took that turned the CIA against him but saved the world from a nuclear holocaust and — had he lived — would probably have avoided the Vietnam War and brought the Cold War to a swift and peaceful conclusion.

Kennedy was a cold warrior who turned away from orthodoxy and became a heretic to those within the military industrial spook complex. He defied the demands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA on the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, on Laos and Congo, on Berlin and Indonesia and — above all — on Vietnam, in opening up a dialogue with Khrushchev and with Castro, by creating a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, by taking on the steel corporations, by firing the director of the CIA and other top officials, by planting a false story that his military advisors opposed escalation in Vietnam, by ordering a withdrawal from Vietnam, by selling wheat to the Soviet Union, by publicly and privately setting an agenda for peace and complete disarmament and world law, and by making plans to visit the Kremlin and declare the Cold War over.

This is not the Kennedy we think we know. It is certainly not the Kennedy the History Channel claims to document. But this is a Kennedy thoroughly researched and documented by the author. And if the History Channel’s portrait of a sex-obsessed president has any relevance to how Kennedy acted on the large issues of war and peace, then we have an absolute moral duty to get President Obama some girlfriends fast!

Douglass has been a religious writer on the topic of religion, and that background shows up in this book, especially in the opening pages, but this atheist did not find that framing of the story distracting or troubling in the least. This is a history text and a dramatic tale by a talented researcher and summarizer of facts and their broader import.

Kennedy was the president of a nation that had already — long before the Bush-Cheney age — transferred tremendous power from the legislative branch to the president. This was not government of the people, but government of the person. But it was a person under the threat of death if he stepped too far out of line, a person unable to control his own military and CIA, a person able to make progress toward world peace only once Khrushchev and Castro understood that Kennedy’s greatest impediment was his own bureaucracy.

Douglass shows us that Kennedy knew he was risking assassination but chose to take that risk, and that Johnson and later presidents knew what had transpired and chose not to put their necks on the line. The fear that presidents, congress members, and millions of other Americans have lived with — allowed themselves to live with, CHOSEN to live with — since the Kennedy assassination is the unspeakable weight dragging our republic and the world back to the abyss that Kennedy so narrowly avoided during the missile crisis, and which the powers behind the US throne would have plunged the world into could they have had their way.

Last year, Congressman Barney Frank, whose every utterance is usually televised, held a press conference to propose cutting 25% from the military budget. Not a single reporter came. This is also the story of President Kennedy’s greatest and least known speech, a commencement address he gave at American University on June 10, 1963 — a thing of beauty that no politician in Washington, outside of Dennis Kucinich, would ever come close to uttering today. Kennedy spoke of complete disarmament and world government, and announced the unilateral cessation of nuclear testing. He was urging the public toward peace, reversing the relationship the public has had with politicians ever since. In private Kennedy wrote:

“Things cannot be forced from the top. The international relinquishing of sovereignty would have to spring from the people — it would have to be so strong that the elected delegates would be turned out of office if they failed to do it. . . . War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

Kennedy, like any president or member of Congress, knew that decisions he made risked many other people’s lives, including those of soldiers in the U.S. military. He found the courage to risk his own life in order to save those of many others. We must demand that our elected officials today, in an era of greatly expanded power for the CIA, act on the same courage. To do so, we must find that courage ourselves.

Sometimes a sad story can be a beautiful guide forward.

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