Unveiling JFK’s secret weapon in the Cold War: James Bond

The pandemic has been tough on the world’s most iconic secret agent. James Bond was primed to hit cinemas with No Time to Die in April last year, but a mysterious new virus known as SARS-CoV-2 put 007 out of commission.

The release of No Time to Die was pushed back and back and back again until finally it opened in Ireland  last week.

The long wait gave fans a chance to sip martinis and re-acquaint themselves with the highlights of Bond’s six-decade career: stopping a demented tycoon from crashing the global economy (Goldfinger); thwarting a terrorist conspiracy to hack the internet (Spectre); and preventing nuclear bombs from razing Miami (Thunderball), New York and Moscow (The Spy Who Loved Me), West Germany (Octopussy) and Istanbul (The World Is Not Enough).

Still, 007’s most politically important mission did not take place on the big screen, but at the White House in the early 1960s. John F Kennedy was a Bond fan, and the media loved to draw parallels between the fictional spy and the real-life president — so much so that their personas became intertwined in America’s cultural subconscious. This was no accident: Kennedy deliberately used Bond to project an image as a heroic leader who could meet any challenge in the most perilous years of the Cold War.

In 1954, then-senator Kennedy was in hospital recovering from back surgery and looking to kill time when a friend handed him a copy of Casino Royale, the first of the 007 novels, by British author Ian Fleming. JFK devoured it.

In 1960, during his presidential campaign, Kennedy invited Fleming over to his Georgetown house. They talked foreign affairs, with Fleming arguing that the United States could topple Fidel Castro by dropping pesos over Havana, together with leaflets reading “Compliments of the United States”.

While that particular piece of advice was ignored, probably with good reason, Fleming did inspire American spymasters. Allen Dulles, who served as CIA chief under presidents Dwight D Eisenhower and Kennedy, was another Bond devotee, and he instructed his Office of Technical Service to engineer 007-style gadgets for his agents. The resulting devices included exploding cigars and knife-tip shoes.

In 1961, not long after his inauguration, JFK was asked about his favourite books. Alongside highbrow choices he named From Russia With Love, in which Bond comes up against Soviet counter-intelligence. The presidential shout-out sent the 007 series flying off the shelves. 

Bond’s sudden popularity stateside persuaded Eon Productions to dash ahead with its movie adaptation of Fleming’s Dr No. It was later screened at the White House. Afterwards, JFK told the producers they should film From Russia With Love next. It wasn’t an executive order, but they followed it anyway. That movie would be the last JFK ever watched. He was shown a rough cut on November 20, 1963 — a day before he departed for San Antonio and then Dallas.

JFK was a master of spin. He knew professing his fondness for Bond would result in an avalanche of articles lumping them together, which worked to his advantage. When people thought of Bond, they would also think of Kennedy — and thus the heroic qualities of the spy would get bestowed on the president.

Political leaders have always sought to govern under the aegis of mythic figures. In the ancient world, that meant invoking gods and heroes. In our secular age, it’s subtler, but the principle remains the same. Politicians refer to “great” leaders from the past or, in some cases, fictional characters. When Trump tweeted a picture of himself as Rocky, the intended message was clear: Trump = fighter. Kennedy never actually transposed his head on to Bond’s body, but Americans got the picture — their president would protect them.

In October 1962, that perception took on more importance than ever. Like the Bond villains brandishing weapons of untold destruction, the Cuban missile crisis threatened to unleash nuclear war. But JFK kept cool under pressure and led the way in finding a diplomatic solution.

Bond may have been more of a fighter than a diplomat, but the mark he made on his greatest Oval Office admirer might just have helped save the world.

© Washington Post

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