and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters) 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
This is one
of the few books on the Kennedy case that I actually wished was
longer. In the purest sense, Jim Douglass is not a natural writer.
But it seems to me he has labored meticulously to fashion a well
organized, thoroughly documented, and felicitously composed piece
of workmanship that is both comprehensible and easy to read. These
attributes do not extend from simplicity of design or lack of ambition.
This book takes in quite a lot of territory. In some ways it actually
extends the frontier. In others it actually opens new paths. To
achieve that kind of scope with a relative economy of means, and
to make the experience both fast and pleasant, is quite an achievement.
I should inform
the reader at the outset: this is not just a book about JFK’s assassination.
I would estimate that the book is 2/3 about Kennedy’s presidency
and 1/3 about his assassination. And I didn’t mind that at all,
because Douglass almost seamlessly knits together descriptions of
several of Kennedy’s policies with an analysis of how those policies
were both monitored and resisted, most significantly in Cuba and
Vietnam. This is one of the things that makes the book enlightening
and worthy of understanding.
One point of
worthwhile comparison would be to David Talbot’s previous volume
In my view, Douglass’ book is better. One of my criticisms of Talbot’s
book was that I didn’t think his analysis of certain foreign policy
areas was rigorous or comprehensive enough. You can’t say that about
Douglass. I also criticized Talbot for using questionable witnesses
like Angelo Murgado and Timothy Leary to further certain dubious
episodes about Kennedy’s life and/or programs. Douglass avoided
One way that
Douglass achieves this textured effect is in his quest for new sources.
One of the problems I had with many Kennedy assassination books
for a long time is their insularity. That is, they all relied on
pretty much the same general established bibliography. In my first
Betrayed, I tried to break out of that mildewed and restrictive
mold. I wanted to widen the lens in order to place the man and the
crime in a larger perspective. Douglass picks up that ball and runs
with it. There are sources he utilizes here that have been terribly
underused, and some that haven’t been used before. For instance,
unlike Talbot, Douglass sources Richard Mahoney’s extraordinary
Ordeal in Africa, one of the finest books ever written on
President Kennedy’s foreign policy. To fill in the Kennedy-Castro
back channel of 1963 he uses In
the Eye of the Storm by Carlos Lechuga and William Attwood’s
Twilight Struggle. On Kennedy and Vietnam the author utilizes
Anne Blair’s Lodge
in Vietnam, Ellen Hammer’s A
Death in November, and Zalin Grant’s Facing
the Phoenix. And these works allow Douglass to show us how
men like Henry Cabot Lodge and Lucien Conein did not just obstruct,
but actually subverted President Kennedy’s wishes in Saigon. On
the assassination side, Douglass makes good use of that extraordinary
feat of research Harvey
and Lee by John Armstrong, the difficult-to-get manuscript
by Roger Craig, When
They Kill a President, plus the work of little known authors
in the field like Bruce Adamson and hard to get manuscripts like
Edwin Black’s exceptional essay on the Chicago plot. Further, he
interviewed relatively new witnesses like Butch Burroughs and the
survivors of deceased witnesses like Thomas Vallee, Bill Pitzer
and Ralph Yates. In the use of these persons and sources, Douglass
has pushed the envelope forward.
But it’s not
just what is in the book. It is how it is molded together that deserves
attention. For instance, in the first chapter, Douglass is describing
the Cuban Missile Crisis at length (using the newest transcription
of the secretly recorded tapes by Sheldon Stern.) He then segues
to Kennedy’s American University speech. At this point, Douglass
then introduces the figure of Lee Harvey Oswald and his relation
to the U-2 (p. 37). This is beautifully done because he has been
specifically discussing the U-2 flights over Cuba during the Missile
Crisis, and he subliminally matches both Kennedy and Oswald in their
most extreme Cold War backdrops. He then switches back to the American
University speech, contrasting its rather non-descript reception
in the New York Times with its joyous welcome in Russia,
thus showing that Kennedy’s efforts for détente were more
appreciated by his presumed enemy than by the domestic pundit class.
movements would be good enough. But the design of the book goes
further. As mentioned above, in his first introduction of Oswald
Douglass mentions the Nags Head, North Carolina military program
which launched American soldiers into Russia as infiltrators. Near
the end of the book (p. 365), with Oswald in jail about to be killed
by Jack Ruby, Douglass returns to that military program with Oswald’s
famous thwarted phone call to Raleigh, North Carolina: the spy left
out in the cold attempting to contact his handlers for information
as how to proceed. But not realizing that his attempted call will
now guarantee his execution. Thus the author closes a previously
prepared arc. It isn’t easy to do things like that. And it doesn’t
really take talent. One just has to be something of a literary craftsman:
bending over the table, honing and refining. But it’s the kind of
detail work that pays off. It maintains the reader’s attention along
the way and increases his understanding by the end.
One of the
book’s most notable achievements is the 3-D picture of the Castro-Kennedy
back channel of 1963. Douglass’ work on this episode is detailed,
complete, and illuminating in more ways than one. From a multiplicity
of books, periodicals, and interviews, the author produces not opinions
or spin on what happened. And not after the fact, wishy-washy post-mortems.
But actual first-hand knowledge of the negotiations by the people
involved in them.
in January of 1963. Attorney John Donovan had been negotiating the
release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners when Castro’s physician and
aide Rene Vallejo broached the subject of normalizing relations
with the USA (p. 56). Right here, Douglass subtly tells us something
important. For Vallejo would not have broached such a subject without
Castro’s permission. In approaching these talks, Dean Rusk and the
State Department wanted to establish preconditions. Namely that
Cuba would have to break its Sino/Soviet ties. Kennedy overruled
this qualification with the following: "We don’t want to present
Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill."
NSC assistant Gordon Chase explained Kennedy’s intercession, "The
President himself is very interested in this one." (pgs. 57–58)
State Department was cut in at the start, the CIA got wind of the
opening. Douglass makes the case that David Phillips and the Cuban
exiles reacted by having the militant group Alpha 66 begin to raid
Russian ships sailing toward Cuba. Antonio Veciana later stated
that Phillips had arranged the raids because, "Kennedy would
have to be forced to make a decision and the only way was to put
him up against the wall." (p. 57) The initial raid was followed
by another a week later.
indeed force Kennedy into making a decision. At the end of March,
the Justice Department began to stop Cuban exiles from performing
these raids off of American territory. This resulted in crackdowns
and arrests in Florida and Louisiana. And it was this crackdown
that provoked a bitter falling out between the leaders of the CIA-created
Cuban Revolutionary Council and President Kennedy. Dr. Jose Miro
Cardona stated that the "struggle for Cuba was in the process
of being liquidated" for "every refugee has received his
last allotment this month, forcing them to relocate." (p. 59)
The CRC had been a special project of both Phillips and Howard Hunt.
As the Associated Press further reported in April, "The dispute
between the Cuban exile leaders and the Kennedy administration was
symbolized here today by black crepe hung from the doors of exiles’
was changing both speeds and direction. At this time, Donovan visited
Castro and raised the point of Kennedy clamping down on the exile
groups. Castro replied to this with the provocative statement that
his "ideal government was not to be Soviet oriented."
(p. 60) When newscaster Lisa Howard visited Castro in late April,
she asked how a rapprochement between the USA and Cuba could be
achieved. Castro replied that the "Steps were already being
taken" and Kennedy’s limitations on the exile raids was the
first one. (p. 61)
observes, every Castro overture for normalization up to that point
had been noted by the CIA. And CIA Director John McCone urged "that
no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time."
(p. 61) Deftly, the author points out that – almost simultaneous
with this – Oswald inexplicably moves from Dallas to New Orleans
to begin his high profile pro-Castro activities. And later that
summer, CIA case officers will secretly meet with Rolando Cubela
to begin another attempt on Castro’s life.
this, the back channel was now picked up and furthered by Howard
and William Attwood. Howard reported that Castro was even more explicit
now about dealing with Kennedy over the Russian influence in Cuba.
He was willing to discuss Soviet personnel and military hardware
on the island and even compensation for American lands and investments.
The article she wrote at this time concluded with a request that
a government official be sent to negotiate these matters with Fidel.
(p. 70) This is where former journalist and then diplomat Attwood
stepped in. Knowing that Attwood had talked with Castro before,
Kennedy instructed him to make contact with Carlos Lechuga. Lechuga
was Cuba’s ambassador at the United Nations, and Kennedy felt this
would be a logical next step to continue the dialogue and perhaps
set some kind of agenda and parameters. Howard arranged the meeting
between the two opposing diplomats. Attwood told Lechuga that Kennedy
felt relations could not be changed overnight, but something "had
to be done about it and a start had to be made." (p. 71) Lechuga
replied that Castro had liked Kennedy’s American University speech
and he felt that Castro might OK a visit by Attwood to Cuba. This,
of course, would have been a significant milestone.
A funny and
revealing thing happened next. Both sides alerted the other that
they would be making boilerplate anti-Cuba and anti-America speeches.
(Adlai Stevenson would be doing the anti-Cuba one at the UN.) This
clearly implies that the players understood that while relations
were warming in private, motions had to be gone through in public
to please the pundit class.
requested that Vallejo ask Castro if Fidel would approve a visit
by Attwood in the near future. Attwood believed this message never
got through to Castro. So Kennedy decided to get the message to
Castro via Attwood’s friend, French journalist Jean Daniel. (p.
72) What Kennedy told Daniel is somewhat stunning. Thankfully, and
I believe for the first time in such a book, Douglass quotes it
at length. I will summarize it here.
Daniel to tell Castro that he understood the horrible exploitation,
colonization, and humiliation the history of Cuba represented and
that the people of Cuba had endured. He even painfully understood
that the USA had been part of this during the Batista regime. Startlingly,
he said he approved of Castro’s declarations made in the Sierra
Maestra Mountains. He added, "In the matter of the Batista
regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.
That is perfectly clear." Daniel was somewhat taken aback by
these sentiments. But, Kennedy continued, the dilemma now was that
Cuba – because of its Soviet ties – had become part of the Cold
War. And this had led to the Missile Crisis. Kennedy felt that Khrushchev
understood all these ramifications now, after that terrible thirteen
concluded with this, "…but so far as Fidel Castro is concerned,
I must say I don’t know whether he realizes this, or even if he
cares about it." Kennedy smiled and then ended Daniel’s instructions
with this: "You can tell me whether he does when you come back."
went to Havana. On November 19th Castro walked into his hotel. Fidel
was fully aware of the Attwood/Lechuga meetings. He was also aware
of Kennedy’s briefing of Daniel. He had found out about this through
Howard. In fact, he had told her he did not think it would be a
good idea for him to meet Attwood in New York. He suggested that
the meeting could be arranged by picking up Attwood in Mexico and
flying him to Cuba. Castro also agreed that Che Guevara should be
left out of the talks since he opposed their ultimate aim. Attwood
said that Lechuga and he should meet to discuss a full agenda for
a later meeting between himself and Castro. This was done per Kennedy’s
instructions, and JFK wanted to brief Attwood beforehand on what
the agenda should be. Things were heading into a higher gear.
unaware of the above when Castro walked into his room for a six-hour
talk about Kennedy. (pgs. 85–89) I won’t even attempt to summarize
this conversation. I will only quote Castro thusly, "Suddenly
a president arrives on the scene who tries to support the interest
of another class … " Clearly elated by Daniel’s message,
Castro and the journalist spent a large part of the next three days
together. Castro even stated that JFK could now become the greatest
president since Lincoln.
On the third
day, Daniel was having lunch with Fidel when the phone rang. The
news about Kennedy being shot in Dallas had arrived. Stunned, Castro
hung up the phone, sat down and then repeated over and over, "This
is bad news … This is bad news … This is bad news." (p.
89) A few moments later when the radio broadcast the report stating
that Kennedy was now dead, Castro stood up and said, "Everything
is changed. Everything is going to change." (p. 90)
To say he was
prophetic is putting it mildly. Attwood would later write that what
it took 11 months to build was gone in about three weeks. By December
17th it was clear that President Johnson was brushing it all aside.
Retroactively, Attwood came to conclude that it had all really ended
in Dealey Plaza. He finalized his thoughts about the excellent progress
made up to that point with this: "There is no doubt in my mind.
If there had been no assassination we probably would have moved
into negotiations leading toward normalization of relations with
Cuba." (p. 177)
done a real service here. Gus Russo will now have an even more difficult
time in defending the thesis of his nonsensical book. No one can
now say, as the authors of Ultimate
Sacrifice do that these negotiations were "headed nowhere."
And if they do, we will now know what to think of them.
good as the above is Douglass’ work on Kennedy and Vietnam. Especially
in regards to the events leading up to the November coup against
Ngo Dinh Diem and the eventual murder of both he and his brother
Ngo Dinh Nhu.
Taking a helpful
cue from David Kaiser’s American
Tragedy, Douglass begins his discourse by analyzing Kennedy’s
single-minded pursuit of a neutralization policy in neighboring
Laos. (pgs. 98–101) Douglass exemplifies just how single-minded
JFK was on this by excerpting a phone call the president had with
his point man on the 1962 Laos negotiations, Averill Harriman: "Did
you understand? I want a negotiated settlement in Laos. I don’t
want to put troops in." (p. 104)
no one felt the same way about Vietnam. Except President Kennedy.
The Pentagon, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson and the Nhu brothers all looked
askance at Laos as a model for Vietnam. (p. 106) Even the one general
that JFK favored, Maxwell Taylor, told him to send in combat troops
as early as 1961. (Ibid) After Taylor’s visit there, Ambassador
Frederick Nolting wired Kennedy that "conversations over the
past ten days with Vietnamese in various walks of life" showed
a "virtually unanimous desire for introduction US forces in
Viet Nam." (p. 107) In other words, his own ambassador was
trying to sell him on the idea that the general populace wanted
the American army introduced there. Finally, both Secretary of Defense
Bob McNamara and his assistant Ros Gilpatric also joined the chorus.
As Taylor later recalled, no one was actually against it except
President Kennedy "The president just didn’t want to be convinced
… . It was really the President’s personal conviction that U.S.
ground troops shouldn’t go in." (Ibid) But in 1961, Kennedy
was not yet ready to withdraw. So he threw a sop to the hawks and
approved a new influx of 15,000 advisers.
In April of
1962, John K. Galbraith sent a memo to Kennedy proposing a negotiated
settlement with the North Vietnamese. The Joint Chiefs, State Department,
and Harriman vigorously opposed the idea. It was too much like Laos.
(pgs 118–119) But Kennedy liked the proposal. And in the spring
of 1962 he instructed McNamara to initiate a plan to withdraw American
forces from South Vietnam. In May of 1962, McNamara told the commanders
on the scene to begin to plan for this as the president wanted to
see the blueprint as soon as it was ready.
To put it mildly,
the military dragged its heels. It took them a year to prepare the
outline. In the meantime Kennedy was telling a number of friends
and acquaintances that he was getting out of Vietnam. Douglass assembles
quite an impressive list of witnesses to this fact: White House
aide Malcolm Kilduff, journalist Larry Newman, Sen. Wayne Morse,
Marine Corps Chief David Shoup, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson,
Asst. Sec. of State Roger Hilsman, Sen. Mike Mansfield, Congressman
Tip O’Neill, and newspaper editor Charles Bartlett, among others.
Mansfield, for one, wrote that Kennedy had become unequivocal on
the subject of withdrawal by the end of 1962. (p. 124)
In May of 1963,
at the so-called SecDef meeting in Honolulu, the generals in Vietnam
finally presented their withdrawal plan. McNamara said it was too
slow. He wanted it revised and speeded up. In September, Kennedy
and McNamara announced the order – NSAM 263 – to begin
the withdrawal. It consisted of the first thousand troops to be
out by the end of the year. Which, of course, would be reversed
almost immediately after his death. (See Probe, Vol. 5 No.
3 p. 18.)
story that Douglass tells – with grim skill and painful detail
– is of the tragic demise of the Nhu brothers. It is the clearest
and most moving synopsis of that sad tale that I can recall. It
begins in May of 1963 with the famous bombing of the Hue radio station
during a Buddhist holiday. A Buddhist rally was in progress there
to protest another discriminatory edict passed by the Catholic Diem.
The importance of this bombing, and the subsequent firing into the
crowd – which left seven dead and fifteen wounded – cannot be minimized.
As many commentators have noted, this localized incident mushroomed
into a full-blown political crisis, spawning huge strikes and large
street demonstrations. The twin explosions that shook the building
were first blamed on the Viet Cong. Then on the South Vietnamese
police. Which enraged the Buddhist population against Diem even
further since his brother Nhu was in charge of the security forces.
It was a milestone in the collapse of faith by the State Department
in Diem. And it eventually led them to back the coup of the generals
against the Nhu brothers.
does here is introduce a new analysis based on evidence developed
at the scene. Because of the particular pattern of destruction on
both the building and the victims, the local doctors and authorities
came to the conclusion that it had to have been caused by a certain
plastic explosive – which only the CIA possessed at the time.
A further investigation by a Vietnamese newspaper located the American
agent who admitted to the bombing. (p. 131) This puts the event
in a new context. Douglass then builds on this in a most interesting
and compelling manner.
above, the Hue atrocity caused even the liberals in the State Department
to abandon Diem. So now Harriman and Hilsman united with the conservative
hawks in an effort to oust him. In late August, they manipulated
Kennedy into approving a cable that gave the go-ahead to a group
of South Vietnamese generals to explore the possibility of a coup.
(Afterwards, at least one high staffer offered to resign over misleading
Kennedy about McNamara’s previous approval of the cable.) The leading
conservative mounting the effort to dethrone Diem was Henry Cabot
Lodge. Kennedy had planned to recall Ambassador Nolting and appoint
Edmund Gullion to the position. And, as readers of the Mahoney book
will know, Gullion was much more in tune with Kennedy’s thinking
on Third World nationalism. He had actually tutored him on the subject
in 1951 when Congressman Kennedy first visited Saigon. But Secretary
of State Dean Rusk overruled this appointment, and suggested Lodge
for the job. Lodge lobbied hard for the position because he wanted
to use it as a springboard for a run for the presidency in 1964.
myself, have maintained that if there was a black-hatted villain
in the drama of Saigon and the Nhu brothers in 1963, it was Lodge.
Douglass makes an excellent case for that thesis here. Before moving
to Saigon, Lodge consulted with, of all people, Time-Life
publisher Henry Luce. He went to him for advice on what his approach
to Diem should be. (p. 163) Kennedy’s foe Luce advised Lodge not
to negotiate with Diem. Referring him to the work of a journalist
in his employ, he told Lodge to engage Diem in a "game of chicken".
What this meant was that unless Diem capitulated on every point
of contention between the two governments, support would be withdrawn.
The ultimate endgame would be that there would be nothing to prop
up his rule. And this is what Lodge did. With disastrous results.
From the time
of the August cable, Lodge plotted with CIA officer Lucien Conein
to encourage the coup and to undermine Diem by ignoring him. Even
though, as Douglass makes clear, this is contrary to what JFK wanted.
Kennedy grew so frustrated with Lodge that he sent his friend Torby
McDonald on a secret mission to tell Diem that he must get rid of
his brother Nhu. (p. 167)
It was Lodge
who got John McCone to withdraw CIA station chief John Richardson
who was sympathetic to Diem. Lodge wanted McCone to replace him
with Ed Lansdale. Why? Because Lansdale was more experienced in
changing governments. Richardson was withdrawn but no immediate
replacement was named. So in September of 1963, this essentially
left Lodge and Conein in charge of the CIA’s interaction with the
generals. And it was Conein who had been handling this assignment
from the beginning, even before Lodge got on the scene. Around this
time, stories began to emanate from Saigon by journalists Richard
Starnes and Arthur Krock about the CIA being a power that was accountable
to no one.
It was Lodge,
along with establishment journalist Joe Alsop – who would later
help convince Johnson to create the Warren Commission – who began
the stories about Diem negotiating a secret treaty with Ho Chi Minh.
(p. 191) This disclosure – looked upon as capitulation – further
encouraged the efforts by the military for a coup. In September,
Kennedy accidentally discovered that the CIA had cut off the Commodity
Import Program for South Vietnam. He was taken aback. He knew this
would do two things: 1.) It would send the South Vietnamese economy
into a tailspin, and 2.) It would further encourage the generals
because it would convey the message the USA was abandoning Diem.
24th, the conspirators told Conein the coup was imminent. JFK told
Lodge he wanted to be able to stop the coup at the last minute.
(Conein later testified that he was getting conflicting cables from
Washington: the State Department was telling him to proceed, the
Kennedys were telling him to stop.) At this time Diem told Lodge
he wanted Kennedy to know he was ready to carry out his wishes.
(p. 202) But Lodge did not relay this crucial message to Kennedy
until after the coup began.