Nuclear Armageddon, he says in the Fog of War, was narrowly averted seven times during his tenure alone.
The hard, direct fighting of the Second World War had, by the 50s and 60s, given way to indirect proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam. In the nuclear age, the West could not afford to confront communism militarily, the way it had fascism. But the spectre of nuclear exchange between the superpowers always loomed in the background.
It only faded when the Berlin Wall and then the USSR collapsed in 1989, and 1991, respectively.
While we face the prospect of a new Cold War with Russia today, President Kennedy began his administration in 1961 at the height of the first Cold War.
And what a start it was.
Upon assuming the presidency, he was immediately pressured into carrying out a CIA-backed plan to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Castro had come to power in the revolution of 1958-59. Fulgencio Batista had driven his people to revolt after seizing power in a military coup and abusing human rights for years as a right-wing dictator. US-Cuban relations were no doubt damaged later by years of support for Batista from, in particular, the US business community. Kennedy himself was later vocal in his opposition to this:
"At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40% of the Cuban sugar lands, almost all the cattle ranches, 90% of the mines and mineral concessions - 80% of the utilities - practically all the oil industry - and supplied two-thirds of Cuba's imports…
"Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years ... and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state - destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. [Eisenhower] Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista - hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend - at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people - and we failed to press for free elections."
In the end, Batista's rule was so egregious that allies in the US were forced to withdraw their support. It was thus with tacit US approval that Castro came to power. But political repression and human rights issues soon became a concern under Castro as well. Things looked to be going from a far-right dictatorship to a far-left one.
CIA planning for the overthrow of Castro by Cuban exiles started under President Eisenhower, and was presented to Kennedy in April 1961.
Oliver Stone's Secret History of the United States has CIA Director Allan Dulles assuring Kennedy that the Cuban people would rise up in support. But when they didn't, and with US sponsorship now obvious, Kennedy was forced to withdraw air support or risk triggering a Soviet incursion of West Berlin and possibly a wider war. The 'Bay of Pigs' fiasco saw 114 of the counter-revolutionaries killed by Castro's forces and the remainder, over 1,200, captured.
Publicly, Kennedy took responsibility for the incident. Behind closed doors, a huge schism developed between the President and his intelligence and military advisors. He told a journalist friend:
"The first piece of advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that, just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."
Other quotes that filtered out later were even more pointed, complaining of joint chief "sons of bitches" and "those CIA bastards", and the President's desire to "shatter the CIA into a 1,000 pieces and scatter [it] to the winds". He got rid of Dulles and other deputies, and put foreign CIA officials under the State Department.
The CIA and the chiefs also manoeuvred behind the scenes, hatching a variety of schemes to continue their war on Castro. The ruthless Operation Mongoose was approved by Kennedy in November of 61, and authorised the CIA to attempt to assassinate the Cuban dictator, which they tried to do so on several occasions. Meanwhile, the shockingly audacious Operation Northwoods called for actual and/or simulated attacks on America that could then be blamed on 'Cuban terrorists', whipping up public support for a full-scale war there. Kennedy ordered the scheme dropped.
It seems obvious in retrospect that Cuba and the USSR would act to counter the moves made against Castro. However, in October 1962, it came as a surprise to US intelligence that nuclear missiles were being moved from Russia to Cuba.
The 'thirteen days' of the Cuban Missile Crisis ensued as Kennedy fought a public battle to get the missiles removed, and a private battle to stop his chiefs invading Cuba. Fearing nuclear escalation and holocaust, Kennedy told his political advisor Kenny O’Donnell:
"If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."
The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev claimed that Kennedy had got word to him that he wasn't certain the military wouldn’t overthrow him and seize power.
The whole episode was so ridiculously, catastrophically dangerous that it was later spoofed in Stanley Kubrick’s absurdist 'Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'.
But, after the world had gone to the brink of war, Kennedy was able, through backroom dealing, to secure the removal of the missiles in exchange for US warheads being taken out of Turkey, after a delay.
Splitting with military hardliners further, the President also began to re-evaluate America’s involvement in Vietnam. Concluding privately that the US was better off out than in, and planning removal of all troops in 1965, he told O'Donnell:
"I’ll become the most unpopular President in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser, but I don’t care. If I try to pull out completely now… we'd have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected. So we'd better make damn sure I am re-elected."
It was this effort to boost his 'political capital' that saw Kennedy travel to Dallas on November 22, 1963 to shore up support for the 1964 race.
Travelling by motorcade, in the back seat of a soft-top 1961 Lincoln Continental , Kennedy was accompanied by his wife Jacqueline, and Texas Governor John Connally.
As the car wormed around tight corners on Dealey Plaza at 12:30pm shots rang out.
Standing high up, filming events, was middle-aged clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder. His footage captured the entire assassination attempt, including the shocking fatal shot that tore into the president's head.
Rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, the President was soon pronounced dead.
A 24-year-old former marine named Lee Harvey Oswald had worked in the schoolbook depository from which shots were fired. He was soon apprehended by police, after resisting arrest, and was brought in for questioning.
He claimed he was innocent, and that he was a 'patsy' for a larger conspiracy. Before his claims could be explored further, he too was gunned down during a prison transfer. A nightclub owner with mafia connections, named Jack Ruby, ambushed him in a parking garage in front of the police and news crews, shoving a revolver into his torso and firing from point-blank range.
Oswald was also rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he too was soon pronounced dead.
In the months and years that followed, everything about the assassination was argued over.
Oswald's death looked suspiciously like a mob-style hit meant to silence him and prevent law enforcement following a trail that would lead them to a larger conspiracy. The fact that Ruby had loose ties to the mob only added fuel to this fire.
Then there were the events at Dealey Plaza. As recounted in PBS Frontline's 'Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?', one shot first hit the president and then Governor Connally in the back. Another shot then hit the president in the head.
The timing and exact number of gunshots has been disputed, but Frontline says there is an increasing consensus that it took the gunman in the schoolbook depository about eight seconds to fire three shots.
Some believe a fourth shot may have been fired by a second gunman from behind the fence on 'the grassy knoll', an embankment to the right of the motorcade.
Straight after the shooting, people rushed with a policeman up the bank to where some thought they'd seen a second gunman, or heard shots - but no gunman, weapon, or shell casings were recovered.
So had Oswald been the sole shooter, or was there a wider, more sinister plot?
While the Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had shot the President and had acted alone, it didn't satisfy the public.
In 1966, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison launched an investigation into the assassination. He concluded that there had been a wider conspiracy to kill the president involving anti-Castro US pilot David Ferrie, former 'rabid anti-communist' FBI agent and private eye Guy Banister, and New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw.
The investigation concluded with the trial of Shaw (Ferrie and Banister were dead by that point), who Garrison prosecuted for conspiring to kill President Kennedy. His argument was that the three of them had, with some CIA collaborators, formed a group of far-right extremists and had killed Kennedy and set up Oswald as the fall guy.
But his case fell apart in court when a key witness, insurance salesman Perry Russo, who'd testified that the four men all knew each other and had discussed how to kill the President at a party he attended, was found to be not credible. Shaw was promptly acquitted.
But the story didn’t end there. Responding to public pressure, the government established the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) to investigate the assassinations of both John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
According to Chairman Robert Blakey, the investigators took very seriously the possibility that there had been a conspiracy. They worked with the CIA to comb through intelligence documents. The agency put forward a files expert, George Joannides.
Joannides helped the congressional committee root through files in their two-year long exhaustive investigation. In 1978, they concluded that the Warren Commission had acted in good faith but that ultimately acoustic evidence from a police channel dictabelt recording strongly suggested there had been a second shooter, probably on the grassy knoll, and therefore a wider conspiracy. The other conspirator, or conspirators, were, however, unknown.
Oliver Stone went further, releasing the epic three-hour JFK in 1991, starring Kevin Costner. Based on Jim Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, it probably did more to embed in public consciousness the idea of there being a shadowy network of conspirators than anything else.
Backing the original claims made by Garrison, and adding in new evidence, the film recreates Garrison's investigation from the late sixties.
It features the death of what would have been his star witness, David Ferrie, whose demise was attributed to suicide and then to a 'berry' aneurysm (though the film shows him being murdered). Referring to the two notes Ferrie had beside his body, Garrison later said in an interview with Playboy Magazine:
"I suppose it could just be a weird coincidence that the night Ferrie penned two suicide notes, he died of natural causes."
Stone's film also recreates the shock experienced by the jurors in the courtroom (and later the wider public) when they saw the Zapruder film for the first time.
How, Garrison asked, could one shooter have hit Kennedy in the back and throat as well as Governor Connally, in front of him, in the back, wrist, and thigh with only one bullet before the fatal head shot? Was it a single-bullet theory, as the Warren Commission called it, or a magic-bullet, as known by critics of the Warren Commission, like Garrison?
And what of the head shot to the president?
There was Kennedy, on film, his head opening up, and falling "Back and to the left; back and to the left; back and to the left". Surely this meant that the kill shot had came from the front and to the right… the grassy knoll.
Chief Counsel of the HSCA Robert Blakey said in his opinion that the other conspirator, or conspirators, were likely mafia. There was evidence, taken by FBI bugging, that gangster Carlos Marcello had spoken constantly about the need for Kennedy to be "whacked", after he and brother Robert Kennedy started cracking down on the mob once they were in government. There was, however, no hard proof that Marcello had been involved a plot to kill Kennedy.
Stone's, and Garrison's, version of events, in contrast, had a cabal of plotters within the national security apparatus. The CIA had worked with the mafia in the Second World War in the Italian campaign, and afterwards, including the possibility of using them in Operation Mongoose. So this perspective lends itself to a Jack Ruby mob hit on Oswald as well.
"Any effort to explain what happened in Dallas must explain Lee Harvey Oswald. And Lee Harvey Oswald is a mystery, wrapped up in an enigma, hidden behind a riddle" – Robert Blakey, Chief Counsel, House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Ultimately, events surrounding the JFK assassination are so complex that establishing whether there really was, or was not, a conspiracy, requires sifting through vast amounts of information, much of which is incomplete. Glenn Vasbinder and James Sawa designed an entire 10-week college course on his life and assassination. Such is the volume of material out there.
But as Robert Blakey has pointed out, focusing one's efforts on understanding more about Lee Harvey Oswald is a good start.
And Frontline's biopic of Oswald almost makes you feel sorry for him. Like so many political killers, Lee Oswald was a sad loner who seems to have been emotionally insecure. Born to a recent widow who tried to offload him onto a local orphanage, Oswald appears to have found solace in TV escapism. According to his older brother Robert, Lee became engrossed in a show called 'I Led Three Lives' about an outwardly respectable, everyday guy who is both secretly a communist agent, and even more secretly an American double-agent infiltrating communists.
This insight is important. If you start out with the premise that Oswald was compensating for a lack of parental guidance or interest in him by making himself more heroic and important to the world, his apparent contradictions start to make a lot more sense.
Indeed, Gerald Posner, a firm believer in the lone-gunman scenario, argues in the Frontline investigation that so much attention has been given to bullet trajectories and shooter locations that the man at the heart of the story, Oswald, gets lost.
Frontline's documentary aims to correct this imbalance.
He started off as a marine where he learned to shoot, and was definitely not, as Stone's film alleges, a bad shot. While in the corps he started reading Karl Marx and, when posted to Japan, hanging out at bars known more for making contacts than having fun. Applying for an early discharge after having been disciplined severely at the Brig, Oswald found his way to Russia. This was a difficult and somewhat expensive undertaking, and there's been speculation that Oswald might have had help. If he did, it's unlikely to have come from either an official American or Russian source. He was not unintelligent, but Oswald wasn't well-educated or connected. What he did seem to have been was unstable. When his request for amnesty was denied, he cut his own wrists to avoid being deported. He went to the American ambassador and said he intended to defect and tell the Russians the radar secrets he'd learnt as a radar operator while in the marines. But when he did, the Russians told Oswald they'd already been given this information, and the KGB assessed him as a possible spy and concluded he was not skilled enough to be of any use to them. If Oswald was acting as a secret double-agent, he was a rather conspicuous and unhelpful one.
But the Russians, afraid he'd try another blackmailing stunt like when he'd cut his wrists, let him stay. From that point on, he showed little interest in Marxism. Instead, he learnt Russian, got married, and had a child. But he soon tired of Russia, took his family, and repatriated to the US. His brother Robert, having found out previously about Lee's defection in the newspapers, said he seemed disappointed when no reporters were there to greet him upon his return. He'd planned exactly what he was going to tell them.
But some people who did want to talk to Lee were the FBI. Robert Oswald recalled that Lee had said:
"He said they even asked me if I'd ever been an agent of the Federal Government or the CIA. He says 'Well, don't you know?' And he just laughed… He was toying with them."
But the laughing was a mask. Oswald was likely still insecure, and sought his secret double-life again, creating an alias for himself, Hidell (others followed) so he could receive Marxist publications in a postbox without people knowing. He became very interested in and protective of Cuba, eventually joining the Fair Play For Cuba Committee and printing leaflets that he handed out on the streets of New Orleans. This led to a scuffle with a group of anti-Castro Cubans that he crossed paths with who were in the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (Student Revolutionary Directorate), a group he'd previously tried to join (or infiltrate).
He got a rifle, under the same alias, and had his wife photograph him with it. We also now know that he tried to assassinate someone else with it. General Edwin Walker, a racist who incited race violence in Mississippi, was shot at in his home by Oswald one night but escaped unharmed.
Oswald later boasted to his Russian wife Maria that he'd done it the poor man's way, by escaping on a bus.
His actions on the morning of November 22 also fit the profile of an insecure misfit-turned political assassin. After a fight with Maria, he got a lift to work, telling those who asked that the long box he was carrying contained 'curtain rods'.
Witnesses put him in the Texas School Book Depository window at the time of the shooting, as well as at the scene of the shooting of Officer Tippit, who tried to arrest him later on.
As well as Frontline's thorough investigation of Oswald, others have gone back over the evidence in the Zapruder film and reached a completely different conclusion to the likes of Garrison and Oliver Stone.
Dale Myers is an ABC News Consultant known for his computer modelling of the Kennedy assassination, based on Zapruder’s footage.
And what his model shows is that the single-bullet theory does fit with the pattern of injuries sustained by Kennedy and Governor Connally. The Governor wasn't seated directly in front of the President, as critics of the Warren Commission claimed, so the bullet wasn't, in fact, required to zig-zag ridiculously ('magically') in order to cause all the wounds that it did. Connally was twisted in a wave, meaning his back, thigh, and wrist were lined up perfectly with the shot that hit Kennedy in the back and passed through him into the Governor.
Meanwhile, Posner, in his book 'Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK', digs into Garrison’s investigation. He reveals that Garrison administered sodium pentothal, a general anaesthetic, and used hypnosis, while interviewing his star witness, the insurance salesman Perry Raymond Russo, who had tied together Oswald with other conspirators like Shaw and Ferrie.
Posner also says in his book that when he died, David Ferrie was under tremendous stress because of Garrison's investigation - something that could have helped bring on his aneurysm. Garrison had reputedly tried to enlist the support of Gordon Novel, an anti-eavesdropping expert (Garrison was concerned about being bugged), because he knew Ferrie and of his anti-Castro activities. Novel was told by Garrison that what he saw as Ferrie's stonewalling of his investigation might be solved by shooting him with a tranquiliser dart before also injecting him with sodium pentothal. The letters that were later found by Ferrie's body were, Posner states, him lashing out against a friend he thought had wronged him, and against the justice system - likely as much a result of his stress as his aneurysm was.
As for the head shot and the grassy knoll, Posner states that the police dictabelt that had recorded the ‘fourth’ gunshot from the grassy knoll was misread by the HSCA. The National Academy of Sciences later analysed the auditory track and claimed that the ‘fourth shot’ was likely static, and in any case was recorded a minute after the Dealey Plaza shooting.
In his interview with PBS, Posner says of the President apparently being blown backwards:
"When I first saw the Zapruder film, I thought that it was evidence of a shot from the front… I asked the experts, 'What does that mean, that backwards head movement?' What they told me is… as the cortex of the brain is destroyed, a neuromuscular response shoots down the spine, sending a seizure through the body. The body’s muscles twitch, with the large muscles in the back predominating".
In fact, a frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film does show a very slight movement forwards by the president when his head is struck, before he rolls backwards. The explanation of Posner and the experts seems perfectly plausible.
As for the apparent secrecy of The Warren Commission, many now claim this wasn't evidence of a government conspiracy, but a fear that public knowledge of Oswald’s connections to the USSR could have started World War Three. The First World War had started with a high-profile political assassination after all.
So had Oswald been the only killer, and, in a bizarre twist of fate, just so happened to cross paths with a brilliant President at the right (or wrong) moment - 'Case Closed', as Posner posits?
Well, not quite.
Over the years, more and more information has become available.
A lot of it helps to make more sense of Kennedy himself. As it turns out, the youthful, 'energetic' President was, in fact, a very sick man. A sufferer of Addison's Disease, an autoimmune condition that disrupts hormone production, as well as other ailments, Kennedy took a cocktail of different drugs.
According to the New York Post, JFK's brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (who was himself assassinated in 1968) grew suspicious of the President's doctor and had the FBI investigate what he was giving the President. When he asked JFK what he was taking, Kennedy responded:
"I don’t care if it’s horse piss, it makes me feel good."
It made him feel some other things as well. The shots contained testosterone, a potent sex hormone, and was likely a key driver behind his now-infamous sexual liaisons and infidelities. He allegedly had said that he needed sexual intercourse every day to function.
Addison's also gave Kennedy back pain, and was the reason he was wearing a back brace on the day he was shot. This may have helped hold him up when the first bullet struck him in the back, and the second in the head.
The most breathtaking revelation about Kennedy's time in office comes from McNamara, however, who travelled to Cuba in the 1992 and formally met with Castro. While there, he learnt that US intelligence had missed the fact that 162 nuclear missiles were already in Cuba in addition to the ones the chiefs of staff wanted to take out with an airstrike before they became operational. Castro had already recommended to Khrushchev that the operational missiles be used in the event of a US offensive.
So by refusing his generals' recommendation to attack Cuba, President Kennedy had quite literally saved the world from nuclear war.
This was surely the biggest contributor to Kennedy's death. Those who believe in a conspiracy see Kennedy's acrimonious infighting with the CIA and military chiefs as the reason he was killed. And they're right, but not necessarily in the way they think. Just like Kennedy said to his aid O'Donnell, he needed to make 'damn sure' he was re-elected to continue the battle he'd started waging against the right-wing security apparatus within the government. His trump card in this fight was his charisma and electability, and playing that trump card, by meeting and greeting widely in an open-top car, drastically increased the odds that he'd eventually cross paths with an assassin.
There doesn't need to have been a conspiracy to explain why him, and why then.
But that doesn't mean there wasn’t a conspiracy either, at least of some sort. One of the other revelations that has come to light is that when the HSCA was looking into the CIA's files in the late seventies, they might not have been receiving as much 'help' as they had thought.
The CIA 'records expert' who’d been called out of retirement and assigned to help them, George Joannides, died in 1990. In 2001, it surfaced that Joannides hadn't been some kind of archive expert at all, but was, in fact, a former field agent. He'd been active in New Orleans working with the anti-Castro DRE (Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil) in 1963, when the group had crossed paths with Oswald.
HSCA chairman Robert Blakey said in response:
"I now no longer believe anything the (CIA) told the committee."
Indeed, it was only under oath that, several years after Garrison's investigation, CIA director Richard Helms admitted that Clay Shaw had actually worked for the agency, just as Garrison had suspected.
Frontline's own investigation indicated that while the FBI was upfront about their interviews with Oswald upon his return to the US from Russia, the CIA denied having spoken to Oswald until Frontline found hard evidence in their files that they had. (Although a CIA member they spoke to said it had probably just been misplaced).
There has, as yet, been no definitive proof that Oswald knew Ferrie or Shaw or Bannister. But Frontline also obtained a photograph from the New Orleans Civil Air Patrol in 1955 showing a teenage Lee standing near pilot instructor David Ferrie. This doesn't mean they knew each other, but it does mean they were likely in the same place, possibly for extended periods.
There is also evidence to suggest that, if Oswald didn't necessarily know Guy Bannister, he also got bizarrely, strangely close to him too. One of the most interesting facts that Garrison's investigation and Oliver Stone's film gets right is the address printed on leaflets for the Fair Play For Cuba Committee handed out by Oswald in New Orleans. The stamp read: 544 Camp Street.
Guy Bannister’s office was located on 531 Lafayette Street.
These two addresses are for the same building, and not only the same building, but one in the heart of US government, military, and intelligence territory in New Orleans. As Kevin Costner's Garrison says in JFK, it really was a very strange place for a young communist to spend his spare time.
So what exactly was Oswald doing there? Which Oswald was on display? Was this the anti-fascist vigilante who tried to kill General Walker, toying with the intelligence community by renting an office and printing subversive material right under their noses? Or was it the other side of the 'I Led Three Lives' persona, printing pro-communist literature while working as a double-agent for the CIA?
If evidence ever does surface to clearly show that Oswald was working with the CIA in some capacity, then this too would be incredibly suspicious. His bumbling defection to Russia and attempts to be recruited as a KGB agent, only to be turned down as completely incompetent, strongly suggest that the only use someone in the CIA would have had for him would be as a patsy in some larger scheme. And his apparent desire to be important in some way would theoretically have made him more vulnerable to this kind of manipulation.
At the present time, we simply don't know enough to explain Lee Harvey Oswald, and by extension, what happened to JFK. Whether something sinister involving JFK's death is yet to surface, or, probably more likely, there are other things some in the CIA would have preferred to have kept hidden that might surface in the process of investigating the assassination, is impossible to say.
Journalist Jefferson Morley has detailed efforts to lobby the agency to release these missing documents by October, 2017. They are set to anyway, but theoretically some or all of these could be kept under wraps for national security reasons. It would seem that for now, the answer is to watch this space.
More: read a follow-up report - 'Analysis: JFK Assassination Documents Go Public, But Much Held Back'