Roger Martens struggles to unravel what really happened in the JFK assassination through a series of provocative labyrinths in an article for Currents Magazine.

JFK’s Thousand Days: A Battle for World Peace

As the morning progressed, Roger shifted his attention back to JFK’s ‘Camelot years’ when America’s fragmentation was once again all too evident. The president’s commitments to racial equality, multiculturalism, and human complexity produced tribal reactions which ominously foreshadowed America’s polarizations sixty years later.

With the next buzz of bees, and the sun now behind a few clouds, Roger proceeded to write the section devoted to JFK’s battle with the military and the CIA in a search for world peace. A struggle that finally did turn out to be physical, in which the 35th President, a man imperfect in many ways, nevertheless fought against the posturing forces of hate, pretense, and prejudice consuming much of our country.

In some respects, Kennedy was popular among much of his base for the wrong reasons—a movie star image with a model family (which it wasn’t largely due to him) and a war hero who made his way to the presidency. Instead, the values he brought to America came from his thinking and his courage to take a stand against what was far too often ascendant in the forces around him.

Roger remembered that Kennedy, the president who created the Peace Corps and instituted a law supporting equal pay for women, was also a historian. Before running for the Oval Office, he had considered a future in academics as a history professor. Perhaps as an extension of this, what was most notable about JFK compared to many of his successors was his ability to learn and adapt to national and international complexities while in office. For instance, there were clear indications he would have taken us out of Vietnam if he were re-elected. This was largely because he realized, even more than most of his advisors, that the corrupt South Vietnamese government had already sunk into a morass of desperation, while North Vietnam didn’t pose the iconic threat the military pretended it did. Our future leadership would make itself deaf to these truths and America paid a dear price.

        The Labyrinth of JFK’s Thousand Days: A Battle for World Peace

What you will see as you venture forward are only four circles, not the many rings in Chartres’ labyrinth as depicted here. But each circle contains its own set of issues. In this labyrinth we move from conflict to hope, from contention to fear.

                                          Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth Vector Digital Download - Etsy

The very center of this labyrinth may lead you to ask—what would have happened to America if JFK’s trip to Dallas had been canceled? A grim reminder of how history had so tragically played itself out. And yet it is in hope where I’d ask you to center, as this circular journey can offer you a chance to revisit history and see it anew, much like the twelfth-century labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, where visitors can still chart their course from day-to-day distractions toward meditational moments that bring past and present together for new visions of the future.

                     The Fourth Circle: Contentions with the Military

The instances here abound. But just two should be enough to shine a spotlight on a rift that might well have led to World War III had another president been in office.

Heightened tensions: America’s military leaders presented a plan for a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in a July 1961 National Security Council meeting. They would justify the attack on the USSR by “a period of heightened tensions,” which they would create by endangering the lives of American citizens at home and at sea while blaming their acts of sabotage on Moscow. In other words, deliberately harming  our own citizens to legitimize a war on Russia. While leaving the meeting, President Kennedy complained to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race!” This scheme would be echoed again in 1962 with Northwoods, a plan to stage acts of terrorism against the American military and civilian targets, along with the possible assassination of Cuban immigrants, sinking boatloads of Cuban refugees, and blaming it all on Castro—leading to an even deeper confrontation between JFK and the military.

Out of control: Kennedy’s contentions with the military during the Cuban Missile Crisis may have saved the world from nuclear holocaust, but they also deepened the divides in Washington. According to Khrushchev’s memoirs in October of 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy told Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador to the United States, “Even though the president is himself very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will. That is why the president is appealing directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating the conflict. If the situation continues much longer, the president is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American Army could get out of control.”

                           The Third Circle: Contentions with the CIA

The Bay of Pigs fiasco lasted from April 15 to April 19, 1961, when a brigade of exiled Cubans tried to unseat Fidel Castro. Despite the CIA’s insistence, JFK refused to send in U.S. combat forces. The President quickly concluded the Bay of Pigs was a trap designed to force an escalation of American military involvement. In his anger, he told his advisor, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “It’s a hell of a way to learn things, but I have learned one thing from this business—that is we will have to deal with the CIA. No one has dealt with the CIA.”

In June 1961, Arthur Schlesinger issued a memo claiming the CIA was “inadequate “on three counts: inadequate in its definition of “clandestine operations,” inadequate in clarifying the relationship between operations and policy, and inadequate in clarifying the relationship between operations and intelligence. Most significantly he warned the CIA was “a state within a state,” and as such a danger to the elected government. Within the same month Kennedy sought to reduce the CIA’s power through National Security Action Memorandums 55 and 57 by taking military operations out of their hands. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty observed, “I can’t overemphasize the shock…that [this] procedure caused in Washington.”

In November 1961, JFK removed Allen Dulles from the CIA, replacing him with American industrialist John McCone. Then in 1962 he moved to cut the CIA’s budget with a targeted twenty-percent reduction by 1966. Dulles would later serve on the Warren Commission, which put all blame for the assassination on Lee Harvey Oswald. In an interview with ghostwriter Willie Morris for his biography, Dulles complained, “That little Kennedy, he thought he was a god!”

On October 2, 1963, seven weeks before the assassination, Washington Daily News reporter Richard Starnes quoted a “very high American official” comparing “the CIA’s growth to a malignancy, and add[ing] he was not sure the White House could control it any longer.” The following day, Arthur Krock wrote a similar piece for the New York Times citing an unnamed U.S. official who spoke of a possible coup in Washington. “If the United States ever experiences a [coup like] Seven Days in May it will come from the CIA, and not the Pentagon.”

                                 The Second Circle: A Call for Peace

In September of 1961, Nikita Khrushchev wrote a confidential letter to JFK. It was hidden inside a newspaper brought by a Soviet intelligence agent to press secretary Pierre Salinger. The letter compared peace in the nuclear age to Noah’s Ark where both the “clean” and “unclean” found sanctuary. Rather than arguing over which was which, the key was to welcome all on board for the Noah’s Ark cruise. JFK responded in a letter on October 16, 1961, saying, “I like your analogy… Whatever our differences our collaboration to keep the peace is as urgent—if not more urgent—than our collaboration to win the last world war.”

In June of 1963, a hotline was established between Moscow and Washington. Also in June, only five months before his death, the President delivered one of his most famous speeches—his commencement address at the American University in Washington, D.C. He began by rejecting “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” while promoting dialogue in pursuit of mutual understanding across the world’s nations. Then he announced a unilateral suspension of nuclear tests. “Our most basic, common link is that we all inhabit this same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Kennedy’s call for world peace led him to recognize the tyrannies and exploitation that Castro fought against from the Batista regime—a government allied with the Mafia which had also been supported by Washington. On November 19, 1963, four days before the assassination, Castro met French journalist Jean Daniel, editor of Le Nouvel Observatour, in Havana. Castro said that he hoped JFK would win re-election. “He still has the possibility of becoming, in the eyes of history, the greatest President of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in America.”

                                  The First Circle: Calls for Concern

In many respects, JFK’s trip to Dallas hung in the balance. Intuition argued against it. Linear political logic argued for it. America’s history hung in the balance.

Rendezvous: In a surprising interlude at a meeting of the National Security Council in the Rose Garden in October 1963, JFK’s five-year-old daughter, Caroline, walked into the group and recited one of her father’s favorite poems. Everyone sat stunned in silence. The poem “Rendezvous” was written by Alan Seeger, a poet killed during World War I. It begins:

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death…

Ecclesiastes: As the days moved forward, intuitions about Dallas became far from just a child’s magic. Once November got underway, Kennedy was repeatedly warned about going to Texas by his most personal advisors. A friend, Larry Newman, later commented, “You know, they talked for three weeks about him being shot in Texas! And they tried to talk him out of it, right to the last minute. But he just said, ‘If this is the way life is, if this is the way it’s going to end, this is the way it’s going to end!’ Then he quoted Ecclesiastes, ‘There is a time to be born and a time to die.’”

I just hate to go: Kennedy’s own determination finally faded. Shortly before leaving, he said to Senator George Smathers, “God, I hate to go out to Texas. I just hate to go. I have a terrible feeling about going. I wish I could get out of it.”