Book Review of “JFK and the Unspeakable,” by James W. Douglass, (Simon and Schuster, NY, 2010)

As reported by the New York Times on June 13, 2011, the FBI “has given significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash, or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.”

These powers are in addition to measures taken earlier, one, for example, that “allows agents to look into people and organizations ‘proactively’ and without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.”

These actions emanated from within state bureaucracies, were instituted without public discussion, and were made known after the fact. They are in line with Lenin’s view in State and Revolution, (1918) of what a state does, which is to defend and preserve the political and economic status quo of an industrial society.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is likewise a case in point, says Jim Douglass. His book “JFK and the Unspeakable,” was published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, in 2008, and re-issued in October, 2010 by Simon and Schuster. The virtue of this account of the Kennedy assassination written by a Catholic theologian and peace activist is to have documented the most serious kind of plotting by state agents and suggested that the state, or its agents, will stop at nothing.

Douglass’ argument follows two lines. First, he clearly and effectively elucidates some of the background circumstances relating to the Dallas events of November 22, 1963 already surveyed by other observers. His demonstration that Lee Harvey Oswald was a CIA agent and a “patsy” is convincing.

So too is testimony he provides from witnesses and participants on the periphery of the plot, including family members. Their stories ring true by virtue of the grief many of them suffered from reprisals. Douglass steered away from rehashing previous analyses of observations and forensic evidence used to show that a team of gunmen, not a lone killer, was at work on that terrible day.

Secondly, Jim Douglass shows that President Kennedy, in the midst of the Cold War, had a “turn to peace,” and on that account, he had to go. This theme becomes the author’s main contribution to our understanding of those times. Douglass explains that Kennedy backed away from full military support of the failed, CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy dragged his feet on going to war in Vietnam. Mindful of the risk of nuclear incineration of the world’s children, he refused to authorize the bombing of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Kennedy’s personal backdoor correspondence with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, instrumental in ending that crisis, deeply offended his critics.

Douglass documents how generals in attendance at National Security Council meetings freely and obscenely communicated to Kennedy their loathing of his course. In a commencement speech at the American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, Kennedy called for peace and an end to the Cold War. That apparently was the last straw.

The author, while suggesting JFK “was murdered by a power we cannot easily describe,” asserts also that he was “murdered by shadowy intelligence agencies.” Douglass quotes the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of his mentors: “This country has become frankly a warfare state built on affluence, a power structure in which the interests of big business, the obsessions of the military, and the phobias of political extremists both dominate and dictate our national policy.” Douglass says, “I know now why he (JFK) became so dangerous to those who believed and profited from those policies.” He asks: “What 21st century president will have the courage on our behalf to resist the powers that be?”

Douglass explains that, “My methodology is from Gandhi. This is an experiment in truth. Its particular truth is a journey into darkness.” Knowledge of “the larger historical context of the assassination” carries “liberating potential,” he suggests.

Ultimately, however, the author’s exploration of the killing of a president unravels. That’s the point at which the unthinkable part of the story takes over.

Proponents of the “deep state” theory wade in. Author Peter Dale Scott, prolific purveyor of that line of thinking, describes sinister dealings and hidden plots playing out amidst multiple face-offs between deep and public states, the latter having lost ground in the United States. Scott speaks of “deep events,” a “constitutional deep event,” and a “global dominance mindset,” yet does not answer a basic question: Why must the state resort to criminal acts, in this instance the assassination of JFK? (

The truth of the matter may be straightforward. The state, according to Lenin, exists to defend the interests of society’s ruling classes, their money and power. “The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms,” he writes, adding that “According to Marx, the state is an organ of class domination, an organ of repression of one class by another.” The hazard for the ruling class is that within the ranks of exploited masses, potential rebels are plotting and preparing. The job of state agents is to throttle them. They have free rein in defending the state.

Says Lenin, “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.” He quotes Engel who says that after the “grouping of subjects on a territorial basis” the next priority in forming a state is “the establishment of a public force…This public force exists in every state. It consists not merely of armed men but of material appendages, prisons, and repressive institutions of all kind.” It’s reasonable to assume the intelligence operatives referred to by Douglass are stalwarts within such a “public force.”

In contests between the state and underclass, stakes are high. Lenin, having dealt with that particular confrontation, had little truck with halfway measures. The capitalists’ state would be “smashed,” he writes, and reconstituted afterwards. State agents coming to the defense of the capitalist status quo in the case of President Kennedy were also playing a high stakes game. In their case, however, they played with impunity.

Jim Douglass provides a masterful survey, up to a point. Had he taken up the matter of state–capitalism symbiosis, the discussion could have continued. Almost a century after publication of “State and Revolution,” President Kennedy’s death would have been held up as a real life example of how Lenin and Engel’s “public force” works in practice.

The idea of reforming capitalism, or collaborating with it, may beckon to those cowed at the prospect of removing a heavily defended capitalist system. There are others, however, who, committed to a socialist alternative, reject accommodation. Likely as not, they would take the message introduced here of capitalism with everything allowed as a call for relentless, disciplined, and class-based struggle.

“JFK and the Unspeakable,” by James W. Douglass, (Simon and Schuster, NY, 2010)

August 8, 2011