This book (JFK 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 Kennedy.
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.
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One point of worthwhile comparison would be to David Talbot’s previous volume Brothers. 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 that pitfall.
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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 book, Destiny 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 JFK: 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 The 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.
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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.
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These artful 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.
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It started 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. 5758)
Because the 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.
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Phillips did 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’ homes." (Ibid)
Clearly, Kennedy 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)
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As Douglass 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.
Oblivious to 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.
Howard then 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.
Kennedy wanted 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 days.
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The president 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."
Daniel then 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.
Daniel was unaware of the above when Castro walked into his room for a six-hour talk about Kennedy. (pgs. 8589) 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)
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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)
Douglass has 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.
Equally as 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. 98101) 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)
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Unfortunately, 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.
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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 118119) 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.)
The parallel 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.
What Douglass 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.
As mentioned 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.
Many, including 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. (p. 195)
On October 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.
December 15, 2009