Thomas Merton, Anti-War Hero


We like to honor our war heroes with statues, medals, worshipful books and movies, and the like.  But considering all of the human suffering that warfare entails, shouldn’t it make sense that we bestow even greater honor upon people who have given their lives in an effort to prevent the horrors of war from happening?  In his book, JFK and the Unspeakable, theologian James W. Douglass makes the case that President John F. Kennedy was one such person.


In the introduction to the book, Douglass frames it as a question, but it is clear that he means for the question to be answered in the affirmative:


Was John F. Kennedy a martyr, one who in spite of contradictions gave his life as witness to a new, more peaceful humanity?


That question never occurred to me when Kennedy died.  Nor did it arise in my mind until more than three decades later.  Now that I know more about JFK’s journey, the question is there: Did a president of the United States, while in command of total nuclear war, detach himself enough from its power to give his life for peace?


His book introduction, as it turns out, is almost as much about the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, cloistered away at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, as it is about JFK.  Douglass begins in 1961 with an account of how he was struck by a Merton poem, “Chant to Be Used in Procession around a Site with Furnaces.” The poem is built around the premise of Nazi World War II atrocities that later came to be called the Holocaust, hence the “furnaces,” and it concludes with this jarring line, “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”


The Unspeakable had been spoken—by the greatest spiritual writer of our time.  I wrote him immediately.


He answered my letter quickly.  We corresponded on nonviolence and the nuclear threat.  The next year Merton sent me a copy of a manuscript he had written, Peace in the Post-Christian Era.  Because his superiors had forbidden him to publish a book on war and peace that they felt “falsifies the monastic message,” Merton mimeographed the text and mailed it to friends. Peace in the Post-Christian Era was a prophetic work responding to the spiritual climate that was pushing the United States government toward nuclear war.  One of its recurring themes was Merton’s fear that the United States would launch a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union.  He wrote, “There can be no question that at the time of writing, what seems to be the most serious and crucial development in the policy of the United States is the indefinite but growing assumption of the necessity of a first strike.”


Thomas Merton was acutely aware that the president who might take such a fateful step was his fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy.  Among Merton’s many correspondents at the time and another recipient of Peace in the Post-Christian Era was the president’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy.  Merton shared his fear of war with Ethel Kennedy and his hope that John Kennedy would have the vision and courage to turn the country in a peaceful direction.  In the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Merton agonized, prayed, and felt impotent, as he continued to write passionate antiwar letters to scores of other friends.


During the thirteen fearful days of October 16-28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy did, as Thomas Merton feared, take the world to the brink of nuclear war, with the collaboration of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.  Through the grace of God, however, Kennedy resisted the pressures for preemptive war.  He instead negotiated a resolution of the missile crisis with his communist enemy by their making mutual concessions, some without the knowledge of JFK’s national security advisers.  Kennedy thereby turned away from a terrible evil and began a thirteen-month spiritual journey toward world peace.  That journey, marked by contradictions, would result in his assassination by what Thomas Merton would identify later, in a broader context, as the Unspeakable.


“The Unspeakable” is a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination—in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X., Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.  In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to beyond the capacity of words to describe.


“One of the awful facts of our age,” Merton wrote in 1965, “is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable.” The Vietnam War, the race to a global war, and the interlocking murders of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were all signs of the Unspeakable.  It remains deeply present in our world.  As Merton warned, “Those who are at present so eager to be reconciled with the world at any price must take care not to be reconciled with it under his particular aspect: as the nest of the Unspeakable.  This is what too few are willing to see.”


In overlooking the deep changes in Kennedy’s life and the forces behind his death, I contributed to a national climate of denial.  Our collective denial of the obvious, in the setting up of Oswald and his transparent silencing by Ruby, made possible the Dallas cover-up.  The success of the cover-up was the indispensable foundation for the subsequent murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy by the same forces at work in our government—and in ourselves.  Hope for change in the world was targeted and killed four times over.  The cover-up of all four murders, each leading into the next, was based, first of all, on denial—not the government’s but our own.  The unspeakable was not far away.


In the course of my journey into Martin Luther King’s martyrdom, my eyes were opened to parallel questions in the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy.  I went to Dallas, Chicago, New York, and other sites to interview witnesses.  I studied critical government documents in each of their cases.  Eventually I came to see all four of them together as four versions of the same story.  JFK, Malcolm, Martin, and RFK were four proponents of change who were murdered by shadowy intelligence agencies using intermediaries and scapegoats under the cover of “plausible deniability.” Beneath their assassinations lay the evil void of responsibility that Merton identified as the unspeakable.


But what about Thomas Merton, with his huge audience, his moral authority, and his vast mailing list that included a great many influential people?  Wasn’t he the biggest proponent of all for change away from the warfare state, and wasn’t he the most perceptive exposer of all of the workings of what has now come to be called the Deep State, including the press?  Is there not a mystery surrounding his death as well?


In answering that question—still in the introduction—Douglass, for some inexplicable reason, seems to take leave of all the good sense that he had demonstrated up to that point:


Merton’s understanding and encouragement sustained many of us through those years, especially in our resistance to the Vietnam War.  As Merton’s own opposition deepened to the evil of that war, he went on a pilgrimage to the East for a more profound encounter.  He was electrocuted by a fan at a conference center in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the conclusion of his journey into a deeper, more compassionate humanity.


Say what?  How, one must wonder, does Douglass know that Merton was shocked to death by a fan?  When did fans start jumping on people and electrocuting them? (Merton was found lying on his back, his arms by his side, with a floor fan lying diagonally across his body.)  Let the killer be an obvious patsy, and Douglass is all over it, but make the killer a rogue fan and suddenly he’s all in.  Maybe he would have bought suicide if they had told him that.  They wouldn’t even have needed a corrupt autopsy doctor as in the Vince Foster case.  How about no autopsy at all?  That’s what we had with Merton.


Where is the James Douglass who studied documents and interviewed witnesses in those other suspicious death cases?  Maybe he finds persuasive the reasons (pick one) that authorized Merton biographer, Michael Mott, gives for no autopsy.  This is from endnote 466 of his account in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, the one to which adherents to the killer-fan thesis cling:


On the vexed question of why no autopsy was performed, there have been a number of answers.  [Conference leader] Abbot [Rembert] Weakland has said he was satisfied the cause of death seemed clear, the facilities in Bangkok for an autopsy were few, and he lacked the authority to order one.  [Gethsemani Abbot] Dom Flavian Burns understood that if an autopsy were performed in Thailand, either the body would be greatly delayed in getting to the United States or Merton might have to be buried in Thailand.


Could it be that Douglass has chosen one of these explanations as credible because he finds Mott, himself, to be generally such a credible fellow?  Take, for instance, what Mott says about why nobody around there would have wanted to kill Merton, which is really all that he has to offer against the murder possibility:


No convincing motive has come to light.  Robbery can be dismissed: nothing was taken, though there was an expensive camera and a wallet in the room.  In 1968, Merton’s death would have furthered the political ends of no group.  Those who felt some animosity toward the stands he had taken on various issues were not in Bangkok.  Only the letters of 1967 in which he spoke of his desire to become an intermediary for peace remain to trouble an absolute certainty.  By December 1968, at any rate, Merton was not an obvious target in Bangkok for either reasoning or unreasoning assassins.


This book, mind you, was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.


The simple fact of the matter is that there was no autopsy, the various reasons proffered for why there wasn’t one are flimsy in the extreme, and the Deep State motive for murder was as strong as its means were ample.  Just on its face, Merton’s death has been fairly screaming murder for going on 50 years now, and it should be treated as such until some more convincing evidence has been presented than anyone has put forth up to now.  If someone is willing to present a case for the killer fan, I’m willing to listen, but if they haven’t done it in a half-century, the chances that they will do so now, I’d say, are pretty small.


Douglass admits that he’s not exactly a quick study:


I was slow to see the Unspeakable in the assassination of John Kennedy.  After JFK was killed, for more than three decades I saw no connection between his assassination and the theology of peace I was pursuing.  Although I treasured Merton’s insight into the Unspeakable, I did not explore its implications in the national security state whose nuclear policies I rejected. 


In the interests of the survival of the planet and in Douglass’s own interests, time is running out for him to get his brain in gear with respect to the Merton assassination.  Douglass was born in 1937. 


Should he finally decide to direct his considerable intellectual capacity to the question of Merton’s death, perhaps he can join me in starting a movement to honor the heroes who have given their lives in the cause of peace. A couple of other nominees I would like to propose are James Forrestal and Pat Tillman.  Tillman had not yet gone public in protest of the war in Afghanistan.  He was killed before he got the chance.


David Martin

January 29, 2018


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Another name has come to my attention that deserves a very prominent place on the list of anti-war heroes.  That is Dale Noyd.  A decorated Air Force pilot, he was dishonorably discharged from the service for refusing to train pilots for what Merton had called the “overwhelming atrocity” of the Vietnam War.


David Martin

February 18, 2018




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