James W. Douglass was a professor of religion at the University of Hawaii who as a pacifist became involved in the civil disobedience protest demonstrations against the Vietnam War. During this period he was the author of several books including The Non-Violent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace (1968), and The Human Revolution: A Search for Wholeness (1969).
In 1975 he joined forces with his wife, Shelley Douglass to establish the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in an attempt to stop the construction of the Trident missile nuclear submarine base on the Kitsap Peninsula.
Other books by Douglass include Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age (1983), Dear Gandhi: Now What? Letters from Ground Zero (1988).
In 2003 Douglass joined a Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq and stayed with civilians during the U.S. led invasion of the country. In 2006 he published The Nonviolent Coming of God and Resistance and Contemplation.
Douglass next book, JFK and the Unspeakable (2008) was a study of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In the book he argues that after the experience of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy decided to try and bring an end to the Cold War. This included opening-up secret back-channel dialogue with Nikita Khrushchev in 1963. According to Douglass, this action "caused members of his own U.S. military-intelligence establishment to regard him as a virtual traitor who had to be eliminated."
Daniel Ellsberg argues that in JFK and the Unspeakable: "Douglass presents, brilliantly, an unfamiliar yet thoroughly convincing account of a series of creditable decisions of John F. Kennedy - at odds with his initial Cold war stance - that earned him the secret distrust and hatred of hard-liners among the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA."
Gaeton Fonzi, the chief investigator of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, has argued: "With penetrating insight and unswerving integrity, Douglass probes the fundamental truths about the JFK's assassination. If, he contends, humanity permits those truths to slip into history ignored and undefined it does so at its own peril. By far the most important book yet written on the subject."
Gerald McKnight argues that the book "is an exceptional achievement", whereas Vincent Salandria has pointed out that "Jim Douglass's spiritual and eloquent telling of President John F. Kennedy's martyrdom for peace is a peerless and extraordinary historical contribution." Peter Dale Scott has called the book "a remarkable achievement, outstanding even in an overcrowded field."
This book 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.
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.
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.
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.