JFK's secret weapon in the Cold War: James Bond

The pandemic has been tough on Her Majesty's most iconic secret agent. James Bond was primed to hit theaters with "No Time to Die" - the 25th installment in the franchise - way back in April 2020. But then 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; now, finally, it's opening across the United States on Friday.

The long wait, largely spent in lockdown, gave fans a chance to sip martinis and reacquaint 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").

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Still, 007's most politically important mission didn't take place on the silver screen, but at the White House in the early '60s.

John F. Kennedy was a vocal 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.

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In 1954, then-senator Kennedy was in the 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. His bromance with Bond had begun.

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 quizzed about his favorite books. Alongside highbrow choices (Stendhal's "The Red and the Black," Churchill's "Marlborough"), he named "From Russia With Love" - in which Bond comes up against Soviet counterintelligence. The presidential shout-out sent the 007 series flying off the shelves.

The sales were so massive that, as historian Mark White wryly remarked, "Fleming should have paid Kennedy a percentage of the royalties." The novelist did repay the president, albeit with prose rather than cash. The next entry in the series, "The Spy Who Loved Me," included the line: "We need some more Jack Kennedys."

007'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. Afterward, JFK told the producers they should film "From Russia With Love" next. It wasn't an executive order, but they followed it anyway.

"From Russia With Love" would be the last movie JFK ever watched. He was shown a rough cut on Nov. 20, 1963, a day before he departed for San Antonio and then Dallas.

Kennedy's Bond fandom was not, as his adviser Arthur Schlesinger would later explain, simply a "publicity gag." The '60s were replete with challenges: civil rights at home and the Cold War abroad. "The old ways," JFK cautioned, "will not do."

So upon entering office in 1961, he dynamited the leadership style of the past. Out with the hackneyed propriety of his predecessor ; in with élan. If Eisenhower was monochrome, Kennedy was going to be Technicolor.

JFK strove to preside over a moral renewal. On the campaign trail, he had sounded like an American Nietzsche, deploring that "as a nation . . . we have gone soft - physically, mentally, spiritually."

Kennedy especially abhorred "the Organization Man" - that avatar of '50s conformity who held a 9-to-5 corporate job and led a stale life that prioritized material comfort and groupthink over adventure and gumption.

Say what you will about Bond, but no one's ever mistaken him for an Organization Man. Therein lay JFK's admiration for Fleming's hard-edged hero. 007 is masculine, intrepid, gutsy - all qualities the president wanted to project.

JFK was a master of spin. He knew that 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 President Trump tweeted a picture of himself as Rocky, the intended message was clear: Trump = fighter.

Kennedy never actually transposed his head onto 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. Soviet and U.S. generals were eager to fight it out. But JFK kept cool under pressure and led the way in finding a diplomatic solution.

Bond himself 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.

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