ideas, history, culture.

Sign-up for the Age of Division newsletter.

Great man of history

Purely by historical circumstance and in the face of internal opposition, John F. Kennedy saves the world.

President John F. Kennedy.

There were several flashpoints and potential stumbles into thermonuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, some more dangerous than others.

In 1966 in what became known as the Palomares B-52 crash, a US B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling over the Mediterranean Sea, just off the coast of Spain. The KC-135 was destroyed when its fuel load ignited and the B-52G broke up.


Of the four Mhydrogen bombs the B-52G was carrying, three were found on land near the fishing village of Palomares in Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of nearly a square-mile area by plutonium. The fourth, which fell into the Mediterranean Sea, was recovered intact after a ​2 and a half month search.


Much later, in August 1983, the Soviets shot down an off-course Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 which had strayed deep into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board. Then there was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars" as it was more popularly known) of the same year, not to mention the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.


The closest the world, steered by the US and the USSR, came to nuclear destruction, however, was the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962, when a relatively inexperienced US president and a Soviet premier struggling to maintain his authority, struggled with the realities of potential thermonuclear war and the responsibilities the two men shouldered to prevent such a war erupting.

History can sometimes be the story of great men or women shaping the world around them, or of lucky individuals finding themselves in the right time and place and taking decisions that have greater influence than they may have considered before fate intervened.

In 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union were emerging from a period of fierce nuclear and economic competition, following their repositioning after the end of the Second World War as the world’s dominant superpowers. Super because of their nuclear and economic power, giving each a global standing and reach which divided the world between two distinct and competing political ideologies.

Beneath and behind both US President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev were huge, complicated and highly technological political structures with the enormous influence of their political elites on how to win the Cold War. In the USSR Khrushchev had recently emerged as the leader of a country that had grown in strength and influence under Stalin and which was learning to transition into a modernised era.

Not everybody with political power in the Soviet Union agreed with this transition or with Khrushchev’s efforts to change the country and its political economy.

In the United States, Kennedy, glamorous and elitist, was a US president who had taken office after a hard-fought (if barely won) election that had divided the country just two years previously. Surrounding himself with a circle of young, technocratic technocrats, by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis arose, Kennedy had already been politically bruised by the failure of the CIA's attempt to overthrow of the Castro regime in Cuba (an operation that Kennedy was not convinced of and which damaged his administration and international standing when it failed).


As in the USSR, Kennedy was also challenged by a defence establishment that favoured a strong approach to what it saw as a threatening and expansionist Soviet foreign policy, and which questioned the ability of the Kennedy presidency to defend American interests.

Facing such challenges, Kennedy was influenced by both those around him and his personal experiences to date.


Historian Robert Dallek, the writer of the Kennedy biography An Unfinished Life, points out how many of the president's illnesses were kept from the public. Kennedy’s medical records, however, reveal that Kennedy had spastic colitis as a boy, started taking steroids at Harvard to deal with this (at a dose that was far too high), which in turn triggered Kennedy’s back problems throughout the rest of his life. The president suffered from osteoporosis of the lumbar spine and, as a result, living with pain and misery, and depending on painkillers from this point on.


In the 1950s, Kennedy was hospitalised 19 times for different ailments and treatments, including Artisans disease (malfunctioning of the adrenal gland), back problems, back surgery, sinusitis, prostatitis, all of which were hidden from the public until after his death.

Against this backdrop, Kennedy lived with a keen sense of mortality and a conviction that his life may be brief.

He died at the age of 46 when assassinated in Dallas, Texas.