A President for peace

The President and his wife

The day President Kennedy was murdered, a Divine Word seminarian walked to our apartment in Rome to break the terrible news. Seeking wisdom, I wrote Dorothy Day, who had stayed with us the previous spring, writes James Douglass.

 - America

Dorothy wrote back saying I should pay attention to Kennedy’s life by reading a profile on him she recommended. She said that in a context of continuing violence, she would pray to John F. Kennedy (her emphasis). And she encouraged reflection on St. Paul’s words: “For those who love God, all things work together unto good” (Rm 8:28).

In November 1963 I was in my first full year in Rome lobbying bishops at the Second Vatican Council to condemn total war and support conscientious objection. Inspired by Pope John’s plea for mutual trust between cold war rivals, I had written in The Catholic Worker newspaper that Kennedy should have resolved the Cuban missile crisis by a (politically unthinkable) exchange of missile bases with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier.

At that time I had no idea Kennedy had taken that leap secretly with Khrushchev while also pledging publicly never to invade Cuba, which infuriated his Joint Chiefs of Staff. By his turn to peace with our Communist enemies, proclaimed on June 10, 1963, in his commencement address at American University, Kennedy risked his life, according to a contingent prophecy by Thomas Merton.

In January 1962 Merton wrote to a friend and expressed “little confidence” in Kennedy’s ability to escape the nuclear crisis, since Kennedy did not have the necessary depth, humanity, self-forgetfulness and compassion. “Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle,” Merton wrote. “But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”

Three decades later, I finally took Dorothy Day seriously by researching Kennedy’s life and death. For 12 years I studied national security documents on his crises during the cold war, especially those declassified by Congress through the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. I traced and interviewed witnesses to his assassination. I began to see the redemptive light of Dallas that Dorothy sensed in November 1963 through her love of God.

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