By Joyce Rothermel
Whenever ‘conspiracy theory’ I hear
I know that a brain has just gone out of gear.
The common phenomenon again I behold.
Of a person determined to believe what he’s told
By the press and political powers-that-be
Who have long had no credibility.
It’s a sad thing to witness the widespread condition
Of critical faculties out of commission.”—David Martin
It was 1968. Racism and war were under attack in the U.S. The voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became stronger than ever with his murder on April 4th. A candidate for president was also speaking out against war and racism. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down on the campaign trail on June 6th. Then on December 10th, Fr. Thomas Merton, an outspoken author opposing war and racism, whose writings were influencing many around the world, died unexpectedly and mysteriously in Bangkok, Thailand.
Was Thomas Merton’s death an accident as is most commonly believed or was he assassinated? This is the subject of the book, “The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation” by Hugh Turley and David Martin, published earlier this year.
In a review by Edward Curtin, he writes: “Fifty years have elapsed since Thomas Merton died under mysterious circumstances in a cottage at a Red Cross Conference Center outside Bangkok, Thailand where he was attending an international inter-faith monastic conference. The truth behind his death has been concealed until now through the lies and deceptions of a cast of characters, religious, secular, and U.S. governmental, whose actions chill one to the bone. But he has finally found his voice through Hugh Turley and David Martin, who tell the suppressed truth of Merton’s last minutes on earth on December 10, 1968.”
While the book is subtitled “An Investigation”, the research and the evidence presented gives its readers reason to believe that Merton’s death was no accident. The accounts of Merton’s death prior to this book say he was electrocuted by a fan while wet from a shower. Turley and Martin’s presentation is well documented with footnotes, which allow readers to easily check sources as they read. They refer to primary documents – letters, police reports, and more that are included in the appendix. A person might ask, why it has taken 50 years for this information to be brought into the light?
The book begs the question: Was Merton, like well-known anti-war leaders – MLK and RFK – who were slain that year by whom many believe were U.S. government operatives whose goal was to stop the growing opposition to the war waged on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The links between these assassinations make sense as the readers follow the analysis of the authors; all connected to intelligence agencies experienced in murder and cover-up.
Did Merton have any idea of how dangerous the government thought he was? He wrote in “A Signed Confession Against the State”, “The very thoughts of a person like me are crimes against the state. All I have to do is think: and immediately I become guilty.”
Although Merton lived in a monastery, and eventually by himself in a hermitage nearby, he corresponded widely and was tuned in to worldly events. He became a friend and mentor to religious/political activists such as Martin Luther King, Fathers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, James Douglass, and many others. He was a friend of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker.
During the 1960s his writing turned more overtly political. He remained rooted in a deep mystical and contemplative spirituality. He became a major inspiration for radical activists who opposed nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and the materialist way of life fostered by capitalism that relied on the spread of the American empire through world-wide violence.
Although living far away from the drama of politics, his writing, encouragement, and influence were profound. He became a major impediment to the propaganda and policies of the military-industrial-political-intelligence complex. He disturbed church and state in radical ways. Merton saw clearly that devotion to truth could not help but bring a person into conflict with sinister special interests. Merton’s effectiveness was greater to the extent he could rally others to his cause, but ultimately, he said, one’s strength lay in trust in God.
Maybe even harder to fathom in reading the book is the conjecture that Merton was betrayed by friends, associates, and biographers whom up to this time people might assume were speaking the truth about Merton’s death and certainly not involved in any cover up of what had happened. The authors lead readers to these conclusions.
Should it matter to us that Merton’s death may have been an assassination and not an accident? For those of us who have inspiration and encouragement from Merton’s writing as truth seekers, clearly the truth must matter as we continue to face the realities of our own time with integrity and hope.
(Much of the report about the book is taken from its review by Edward Curtin.)
Joyce Rothermel is long time member of the Thomas Merton Center.