Confronting the unspeakable

Confronting the unspeakable
John F. Kennedy is shown at a news conference in 1959 in this handout picture provided by the the Newseum and the estate of Jacques Lowe. The Newseum is featuring new exhibits to mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. Photo by AP/Newseum - Estate of Jacques Lowe

Around 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, three shots were fired in Dallas, Tex.—John F. Kennedy had been killed. In the 50 years since that pivotal moment, the public has never lost interest in the event and the differing opinions on who killed the president. By some counts, more than 2,000 books have been written about the assassination.

In 2008, James Douglass ’61 added his own book to the growing corpus, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. In its review of the book in the Fall 2008 issueSanta Clara Magazine noted Douglass’ use of the words of Thomas Merton on the possibility of Kennedy becoming a peacemaker: “Such people are before long marked out for assassination.”

As we mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s death, it is worth reading the words of Douglass in the following excerpt of his afterword to the paperback edition. JFK and the Unspeakable has been newly released in hardcover by Orbis books.



In the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy had to confront the unspeakable in the form of total nuclear war. At the height of that terrifying conflict, he felt the situation spiraling out of control, especially because of the pressures and provocations of his generals. At a moment when the world was falling into darkness, Kennedy did what his generals thought was unforgivable. He not only rejected their pressures for war. Even worse, the president reached out to the enemy for help. That could be considered treason.

Nikita Khrushchev saw it as hope. When Khrushchev received Kennedy’s plea for help in Moscow, he turned to his foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, and said, “We have to let Kennedy know that we want to help him.”

Khrushchev hesitated when he heard himself say “help.” Just when the U.S. president seemed to be at his wit’s end, did he, Khrushchev, really want to help his enemy? Yes, he did. He repeated the word “help” to his foreign minister: “Yes, help. We now have a common cause, to save the world from those pushing us toward war.”

How can we understand that moment? The two most heavily armed leaders in history, on the verge of total nuclear war, suddenly joined hands against those on both side pressuring them to attack. Khrushchev ordered the immediate withdrawal of his missiles, in return for Kennedy’s public pledge never to invade Cuba and his secret promise to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey—as he would in fact do. The two Cold War enemies had turned, so that each now had more in common with his opponent than either had with his own generals. As a result of that turn toward peace, one leader would be assassinated thirteen months later. The other, left without his peacemaking partner, would be overthrown the following year. Yet because of their turn away from nuclear war, today we are still living and struggling for peace on this earth. Hope is alive. We still have a chance.

What can we call that transforming connection when Kennedy asked his enemy for help and Khrushchev gave it?

From a Buddhist standpoint, it was enlightenment of a cosmic kind. Others might call it a divine miracle. Readers of the Christian Gospels could say that Kennedy and Khrushchev were only doing what Jesus said: “Love your enemies.” That would be “love” as Gandhi understood it, love as the other side of truth, a respect and understanding of our opponents that goes far enough to integrate their truth into our own. In the last few months of Kennedy’s life, he and Khrushchev were walking that extra mile where each was beginning to see the other’s truth.

Neither John Kennedy nor Nikita Khrushchev was a saint. Each was deeply complicit in policies that brought humankind to the brink of nuclear war. Yet, after they encountered the void and had turned to each other for help, they turned humanity toward the hope of a peaceful planet.

In November 2009, a year and a half after the publication of this book’s hardcover edition, I interviewed Sergei Khrushchev about an important late development in the relationship between his father and President Kennedy. In his interview, Mr. Khrushchev confirmed that his father had finally decided, not long before President Kennedy’s death, to accept Kennedy’s proposal that the U.S. and the Soviet Union go to the moon together. In Kennedy’s September 20, 1963, speech to the United Nations, he had once again stated his hope for such a joint expedition to the moon. However, both American and Soviet military leaders, jealous of their rocket secrets, resisted his initiative. Nikita Khrushchev, siding with his rocket experts, felt he again had to decline Kennedy’s proposal.

JFK was looking beyond the myopia of the generals and scientists on both sides of the East-West struggle. He knew merging their missile technologies in a peaceful project would defuse the Cold War. It was part of his day-to-day strategy of peace.

Sergei Khrushchev said his father talked to him about a week before Kennedy’s death about the president’s idea for a joint lunar mission. Nikita Khrushchev had broken ranks with his rocket scientists. He said he now thought the Soviet Union should accept Kennedy’s invitation to go to the moon together, as a further, decisive step in peaceful cooperation.

In Washington, Kennedy acted as if he already knew about Khrushchev’s change of heart. JFK went ahead in ordering NASA to begin work on a joint U.S.-Soviet lunar mission. On November 12, 1963, JFK issued his National Security Action Memorandum 271, ordering NASA to implement “my September 20 proposal for broader cooperation between the United States and the USSR in outer space, including cooperation in lunar landing programs.”

That further visionary step to end the Cold War also died with President Kennedy. The U.S. went to the moon alone. U.S. and Soviet rockets continued to be pointed at their opposite countries rather than joined in a project that could have brought the Cold War to an end. Sergei Khrushchev said, “I think if Kennedy had lived, we would be living in a completely different world.”

So if that is the case, how does the why of his murder give us hope?

At the climax of his presidency in the missile crisis, John Kennedy turned a corner. Although JFK was already in conflict with his national security managers, the missile crisis was the breaking point. At that most critical moment for us all, he turned from the remaining control his security managers had over him toward a deeper ethic, a deeper vision in which the fate of the earth became his priority. Without losing sight of our own best hopes in this country, he began to home in, with his new partner, Nikita Khrushchev, on the hope of peace for everyone on this earth—Russians, Americans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Indonesians, everyone—no exceptions. He made that commitment to life at the cost of his own.

What a transforming story that is.

And what a propaganda campaign has been waged to keep us Americans from understanding that story, from telling it, and from re-telling it to our children and grandchildren.

Because that’s a story whose telling can transform a nation. But when a nation is under the continuing domination of an idol, namely war, it is a story that will be covered up. When the story can liberate us from our idolatry of war, then the worshippers of the idol are going to do everything they can to keep the story from being told. From the standpoint of a belief that war is the ultimate power, that’s too dangerous a story. It’s a subversive story. It shows a different kind of security than always being ready to go to war. It’s unbelievable—or we’re supposed to think it is—that a president was murdered by our own government agencies because he was seeking a more stable peace than relying on nuclear weapons. It’s unspeakable. For the sake of a nation that must always be preparing for war, that story must not be told. If it were, we might learn that peace is possible without making war. We might even learn there is a force more powerful than war. How unthinkable! But how necessary if life on earth is to continue.

That is why it is so hopeful for us to confront the unspeakable and to tell the transforming story of a man of courage, President John F. Kennedy. It is a story ultimately not of death but of life—all our lives. In the end, it is not so much a story of one man as it is a story of peacemaking when the chips are down. That story is our story, a story of hope.

I believe it is a providential fact that the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination always falls around Thanksgiving, and periodically on that very day. Thanksgiving is a beautiful time of year, with autumn leaves falling to create new life. Creation is alive, as the season turns. The earth is alive. It is not a radioactive wasteland. We can give special thanks for that. The fact that we are still living—that the human family is still alive with a fighting chance for survival, and for much more than that—is reason for gratitude to a peacemaking president, and to the unlikely alliance he forged with his enemy. So let us give thanks for John F. Kennedy, and for his partner in peacemaking, Nikita Khrushchev.

Their story is our story, a story of the courage to turn toward the truth. Let us remember what Gandhi said that turned theology on its head. He said truth is God. That is the truth: Truth is God. We can discover the truth and live it out. There is nothing more powerful than the truth. The truth will set us free.

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