The 2009 book JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE has become a classic among Kennedy fans, presidential historians, peace activists, and conspiracy buffs (an unlikely coalition of readers, to be sure!). In it, author Jim Douglass outlines, with meticulous detail and carefully sourced notes, the steady progression of John F. Kennedy from a war-hawk who brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, into a president who was steadily turning toward a policy of lasting peace.
At the time of his assassination, claims Douglass, Kennedy was growing disillusioned by the growing influence of the military industrial complex in American foreign policy. In fact the author asserts that, had he lived, Kennedy would have likely de-escalated the growing war in Vietnam that came to define the 1960s. (Just imagine, Douglass says, how different America would be today if the Vietnam War had wound down by the mid-Sixties.)
Once Kennedy started to waver on those Cold Warrior beliefs, the book claims he was marked for death by the military intelligence agencies that held (and still hold) huge influence over every level of government in the U.S. These forces, which Douglass call “the Unspeakable” (after Thomas Meryton), tagged Kennedy as a dangerous traitor, plotted his assassination, and orchestrated the subsequent killing and cover-up in Dallas in 1963.
It’s a provocative claim, though not an original one – Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs have been making these kinds of allegations for more than fifty years. So what was new here? One key was the depth of research Douglass brought to this project. Every assertion, every quote, every conversation is meticulously sourced and detailed in the Notes section (which spans almost 100 pages of this 500+ page book and is fascinating reading in and of itself).
So as one might imagine, this controversial book certainly had an audience. But the real spark – the thing that took it from a niche conspiracy book to a big bestseller – was something quite outside the author’s control: a champion, in the form of Oliver Stone.
Jim Douglass isn’t some tenured history professor at an Ivy League institution. He’s the writer of many books, but he identifies first and foremost as a peace activist—he’s spent his lifetime advocating directly for the poor and disadvantaged, and he and his wife, Shelley, live a humble life in Birmingham, Alabama, where they run Mary’s House, a non-profit Catholic Worker house. He’s not regularly hob-nobbing with the cultural elite or rubbing shoulders with Hollywood types.
So it makes sense that the hardcover edition of JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE was published by Orbis Books, a well-regarded Catholic-interest publisher affiliated with Maryknoll University in the Hudson Valley. The hardcover had already been getting some attention and good reviews. But a few months after it came out, the book shot to national attention in a surprising way.
Oliver Stone, the filmmaker and probably the best-known JFK conspiracy theorist in the US, held up the book during an appearance on Bill Maher’s show. “This is the best book on the JFK assassination I’ve ever read,” he proclaimed. And when Oliver Stone talks, people listen. Suddenly, this obscure book was getting national attention, and it shot to the top of Amazon.
Shortly after then is when I (the editor) heard about it, but it wasn’t from watching Bill Maher. My publisher’s parents actually put us on the trail of this book – they’d heard about it in their church (Douglass and Orbis Books had been doing a lot of outreach to various Catholic communities to spread the word), and they told their daughter (my boss) that she should take a look.
Now, we in the book biz get a LOT of referrals from family and friends … most of them are well meaning but misguided. This one, however, really snagged the attention of both me and my publisher. We made a swift and aggressive offer for paperback publishing rights, and we came out with the softcover book in 2010, about a year after the hardcover was published. It’s gone on to great success, and what’s more it has fundamentally changed the way that people think about Kennedy and his legacy.
For Jim, though, the proudest moment came when the Kennedy family itself gave JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE their seal of approval. “I urge all Americans to read this book,” said Robert Kennedy, Jr., JFK’s nephew last year, “and come to their own conclusions about why he died and why–after fifty years–it still matters.”