22 January 1964, Washington DC, USA
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy stared at the hastily typed-out memo. It was difficult to read the words, his hands were shaking so much. The syntax was garbled, at least two words had letters transposed and the type was smeared with what seemed to be tears. Despite all this, the message contained on the single page of yellow paper was plain - the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.
Tens of thousands of troops were massing in East Germany ready to surge across Europe towards Great Britain. West Berlin had already fallen to the communist forces. In Eurasia, China was threatening to retaliate with a nuclear strike on Moscow unless Soviet troops withdrew in the next 72 hours from disputed border regions. The world's superpowers were at each other's throats and the United States of America was in the middle, its efforts to negotiate a truce frustrated and impotent.
For three days and nights the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their advisers had been working without remission to prevent this moment arriving. Sleep was rare, taken in snatches; food merely an afterthought when the pangs of hunger became too debilitating to ignore; families forgotten as this handful of men and women tried to find some way forward, some way out of this crisis.
Through it all, the President had remained in the Oval Office, calling each of the world leaders personally, desperately trying to talk sense into the key players. He had thought if he spoke to them as one human being to another, then maybe the situation could be resolved. Instead the crisis only deepened.
John F. Kennedy swayed slowly back and forth in his beloved wooden rocking chair, looking to his younger brother as he asked a question. ‘Jesus Christ, Bobby, are these figures accurate?’
The Attorney General nodded grimly, his face ashen. ‘We could be at war any minute, Jack.’
The President crumpled the document in his left hand while the fingers of his right hand lightly touched the wound in his neck. It was still sore and stubbornly refused to heal, a constant reminder of the attempt on his life in Dallas, Texas just two months before.
The assassin had been unsuccessful in his bid to kill Kennedy, but the attempt itself had triggered this greater crisis. The gunman killed several Dallas police before turning his rifle on himself. Beneath his street clothes the assassin wore the uniform of a Russian soldier. Of course the Russians had denied any involvement or knowledge of the attempt to kill the President of the United States, but no-one believed them.
Since then international tension had escalated at an alarming rate. Now, the world was within minutes of destroying itself in a nuclear conflict no one could ever win, a holocaust of light and fury and radiation. Sometimes John Fitzgerald Kennedy wished the assassin had been successful, had killed him and escaped. Then maybe none of this would have happened...
‘Doesn't Khrushchev understand that I can't back down? Didn't he learn anything from Cuba?’ The President pulled himself out of the rocking chair and began to pace the Oval Office. A camp bed had been set up to one side of the room for him to grab a few hours sleep. That would not be needed now. John F. Kennedy breathed deeply and coughed on the blue haze of tobacco smoke hanging in the air. Worse than the smell of old tobacco and stale sweat was the stench of despair, clinging to everyone and everything in the Oval Office.
The President stopped to rest a weary hand on his brother's shoulder. Never a heavy sleeper because of his chronic back problems, the crisis of the past days had left John F. Kennedy hardly a moment's rest. His gaze settled on the faces of two smiling infants in a framed photograph standing on his desk. ‘Bobby, if the worst happens, are the children safe?’
His brother managed a smile. ‘Yes. The families of all the White House staff and senior Government members are already down in the shelter. John Junior's been asking after you, wanting to know when you'll join him and Caroline.’
‘God knows what world they'll have left to grow up in if--’
All faces turned to the doorway as the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, burst into the room. ‘Sir, we've got confirmation of missile launch. The birds are in the sky!’
‘How many?’ asked the President, hoping against hope it was a rogue attack - something that could be sustained without retaliation. Anything to avoid full-scale war.
‘Dozens of war birds already, maybe hundreds,’ replied McNamara, tears in his eyes. ‘Continental Army Command estimate four minutes to the first impact.’
The President sagged, his last reserves of will-power and strength leaving him. His brother led him over to the desk that served so many Presidents in times of crisis, but never one so grave as this. John F. Kennedy's legs buckled beneath him as he slumped into his chair.
For nearly a minute he sat there, silent, staring at a black-framed photograph of his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. She had died in his arms two months ago, murdered by an assassin's bullet meant for him. More than ever, the President wished she was here now. Despite all the infidelities and the lies and the coldness between them, he still loved her like he had loved no other woman.
‘Mr. President? Mr. President, what's our reply?’ asked McNamara.
Jackie, thought Kennedy, why did you have to die? It still seemed unreal, like watching a car accident - something happening to somebody else. Not to her.
He remembered he had been angry with her. It was a sultry day in Dallas, with the blazing sun turning early morning rain into stifling humidity. Several times in the motorcade's slow trip through the city the President had snarled at the First Lady to remove her sun-glasses, so that the throngs lining the sidewalks could see her smiling eyes: a husband berating his wife over something so trivial, all the while smiling falsely for the strangers surrounding them.
Then the shots started. The first sounded just like a firecracker going off, had hardly seemed real at all. Then something slapped Kennedy in the back of the neck and he found it hard to breath, to call out a warning. Then that fatal third shot and a blur of motion - Jackie's head exploding, the blood and bone and brain showering the President in a pink spray, his wife slumping slowly over into his lap.
They had rushed her to Parkland Memorial Hospital, but she was pronounced dead on arrival. The security alerts followed; a hurried trip back to Washington in case there were any further attempts on his life; not even time to wait for his wife's body to be loaded onto Air Force One, the Presidential jet.
Since the funeral John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been like a ghost himself, he now realised. He had let this conflict escalate as he mourned; ignored the warning signs; been too wrapped up in his own grief. But most of all, he had been wracked with guilt: about his philandering, about his lies to her; about how he had insisted she go on that trip to Texas to bolster his popularity in a Southern state that would be crucial in the following year's presidential elections. The Texas trip was the first time Jackie had accompanied him on a political visit anywhere within America since his election back in 1960. It was also her last.
‘Jack? Jack! You've got to make a decision - now!’
The President snapped out of his reverie. He looked for McNamara before speaking, his voice firm and gruff. ‘Get the Bagman in here.’
The Secretary of Defense stepped to the door, opened it and nodded. In stepped Ira Gearhart, a dark-suited Secret Service agent carrying a small suitcase with a device not unlike a safe dial attached to its locking mechanism. He strode to the desk and placed the suitcase by the President.
Kennedy nodded and Gearhart quickly flicked the dial through its complex combination sequence.
The suitcase sprung open and the President looked down at the electronic mechanism inside. With this piece of equipment he could call for a retaliatory nuclear strike, make sure that America did not burn alone. Or he could pause; refuse to retaliate; let his nation die to show the world why this should never happen again. If he did that, at least there might still be a world left after today. This was a decision Kennedy prayed each night he would never have to face. Now the decision was his, and his alone. ‘How long?’ he asked.
‘Less than two minutes,’ snapped McNamara. ‘You must act now, or else our war birds will be dead in the silos. We'll be wiped out!’
The President looked to his brother. In a family of staunch Roman Catholic upbringing, Bobby Kennedy had always been the one of deepest beliefs and greatest faith. Jack frequently used his brother as a moral compass to guide his proper course of action in matters of the conscience. But now his brother's face was impassive. The decision had to be made and it had to be made by the President himself. It was time.
John F. Kennedy closed his eyes and tapped the secret code into the machine. The code was sent to the missile silos around the nation, where soldiers stood ready to launch the deadly payload they guarded. Within sixty seconds thousands of nuclear weapons would fly forth from the ground, carrying death through the sky.
The President sat back in his chair and felt curiously calm. Now the irrevocable decision had been taken, a weight had lifted from his shoulders. Perhaps this was how the suicidal felt as they fell through the air towards their deaths.
Kennedy looked at the faces of those around him. Many had tears rolling down their faces; others were firm and resolute; several were praying. The President realised they were expecting him to speak; to comfort and reassure them; say this was the only course; they had had no choice; that everything would be all right really.
Instead all his mind was wracked by one of those niggling, trivial questions that you know the answer to, but you just cannot remember it. What was it the director of the Manhattan Project, Doctor Robert Oppenheimer, had said when he witnessed the first explosion of an atom bomb? Something from a Hindu epic poem...
Kennedy almost smiled as he remembered the answer: ‘I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.’ But that was not what the people in the Oval Office wanted to hear right now. Instead John Fitzgerald Kennedy bowed his head and whispered quietly as the world came to an end: ‘May God have mercy on all our souls.’
22 January 1996
The incident just described never happened.
It was President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated on 22 November 1963, not his wife. The man who was arrested for Kennedy's murder, Lee Harvey Oswald, was found to have links to the Soviet Union but was himself murdered a few days later. There was no trial, and when new President Lyndon Johnson set up a tribunal to investigate the matter, the Warren Commission decided that Oswald had acted alone. America and the world lost much of its innocence that tragic day in Dallas. The world survived when Kennedy did not. But perhaps the world survived because Kennedy did not.
What if JFK had lived? What if the assassination had never taken place, or the bullets had only wounded the President? What effect would that have had on the world? I wrote a book published in 1971 which speculated about just such a situation. My book suggested Kennedy would have been re-elected for a second term and carved out a new era of prosperity for the Western World.
It is a measure of the world's cynicism today that a novel recently published speculated Kennedy would have simply become old, fat and discredited, and not the mythic figure he is now. Kennedy symbolised so much about this century and about America, that it is hard to imagine how history would view his achievements had he lived longer.
Consider this: if he had lived, John Fitzgerald Kennedy would be 79 years old when this book is published, going on 80. It's difficult to imagine JFK as a 79-year-old. While his contemporaries have withered and died, he remains forever young, preserved in our collective memory as the smiling faced man whose head was blown open by an assassin's bullet.
The killing of President Kennedy has had a profound effect on the entire world, and has changed the course of history. Every adult who was alive that day can remember what they were doing when they heard of Kennedy's death; it sent a shockwave around the world that reverberates to this day. But his death has had particular effect on my life.
It was my eighteenth birthday the day JFK was murdered. I had always wanted to become a cadet reporter and as a special pre-arranged birthday treat I was taken to spend the day on work experience at the offices of the 8 O'Clock, a Saturday-evening newspaper in Auckland, New Zealand. Kennedy was assassinated just after midday on Friday 22 November in Dallas, Texas. (Because of the International Dateline, it was early on the morning of Saturday 23 November in New Zealand when JFK died.)
I never had an eighteenth birthday party; never marked my coming of age as many adults do. Instead I spent the day acting as copy-runner, coffee maker and library assistant at the 8 O'Clock offices, helping put together a special memorial edition of the paper.
Traditionally, the 8 O'Clock was a place to read reports and results from sports fixtures. It had a news section, but this was merely an adjunct of its parent paper, the Auckland Star. But for once, thanks to quirks of timing and international time differences, a story had fallen into the 8 O'Clock's lap - the biggest story of the decade. After that day, it was inevitable I would be a journalist - what other job could be that exciting?
The world lost its innocence that day and I left behind my childhood at the same time. More than three decades have passed since then, and every year we learn a little bit more about JFK: his womanising, his vanity, his human frailties. But still the myth of Camelot - a glorious time when the world was a better place - grows ever stronger.
After the death of John F. Kennedy, I became fascinated with the late, lamented president and began what has proved to be a lifetime of research into what really happened that day in Dallas. Meanwhile, the investigative skills I was developing in my spare time were paying off at work. I pursued a career in journalism: first as a cadet in the provinces, then a shift to the big metropolitan papers. There I learnt about writing and researching, making contacts and fostering friendships, sub-editing and betrayal and ambition. I also learnt about my past.
I was born on 23 November 1945, the illegitimate son of an American GI stationed in New Zealand on his way to the war in the Pacific. When my mother told him she was pregnant, he became furious with her, refused to acknowledge his responsibilities, and accused her of being a whore. My mother was only seventeen. The GI went off to war, leaving her with nothing. He died two weeks later, the victim of friendly fire.
To be an unmarried pregnant girl of seventeen in New Zealand during the Second World War made you as much of a social outcast as if you were a leper. The fact that my mother came from one of Auckland's wealthiest and most influential families just made her shame greater. Twice she tried to kill herself, without success. When I was born, I was immediately put up for adoption.
My foster parents told me on my 21st birthday that I had been adopted, but it came as little surprise. There had always been a barrier between myself and the rest of the family; now I knew the real reason why. I determined to find out all I could about my past so I could confront my natural mother - why she had abandoned me.
Eventually, when I had learnt all I could, I went to my natural mother's family home in Remuera, Auckland's richest residential area. The house was an immense wooden mansion with a carefully raked gravel driveway and a gardener trimming the high hedges which shielded the property from view of the road.
I pushed the front door bell and a cold-faced woman in her mid-forties answered it. Her greying hair was pulled back from her face and her eyes were dead inside. I turned and walked away, ignoring her questions. There was no love in her, yet she was richer than I could ever hope to become in New Zealand. It was time to move on.
Nearly five years after that fateful day in Dallas, I left for Britain with the ambition to work in Fleet Street - the home of newspaper journalism. I arrived in England in 1968. Across the Atlantic, Robert Kennedy was assassinated - shot down like his brother before him. The golden age of Camelot was long gone, and the world becoming ever more bitter and cynical: the escalating war in Vietnam; growing conflict between generations; and the gap between rich and poor always expanding. What had been a decade of idealism and the urge to change things for the better seemed to have turned sour.
I never really abandoned my fascination for the Kennedy family and its tragedies, but instead concentrated on my career, on myself. Looking back now, I realise I became as selfish and cynical and bitter as the rapidly approaching new decade. Of course I flourished, moving quickly from worthy provincial papers to the gutter press of Fleet Street, my rise taking months when most take years.
But my good training in New Zealand stood me in good stead and I soon landed a top job on the Daily Chronicle, then Fleet Street's best-selling ‘quality’ tabloid newspaper. The hours were long and gruelling, the competition from other hacks was cut-throat at its most pleasant, and the possession of a conscience was a definite handicap. I had no such impediment to my success. A series of exposés about the bizarre sexual habits of certain Government backbenchers brought me a juicy pay rise, and I soon owned an expensive apartment just off the King's Road in Chelsea.
About this time my activities brought me to the attention of the Establishment, who discovered that my immigration status was questionable at best. I needed an English wife and quickly. But rather than wed the nearest native, I decided to turn my escape from imminent deportation into another way of thumbing my nose at authority.
I set my sights on Natasha, the daughter of Lord Howarth. She was tall and willowy - as was fashionable at the time - with long blonde hair and a small, slightly crooked nose that endeared her to me greatly. I pursued and captured her heart just like the brash colonial her father accused me of being. We married in September 1969 at the Chelsea Registry Office, much to the chagrin of her family. It was one of the showbiz marriages of the year, and I even managed to get a Beatle along for the photo session on the steps of the registry office. That guaranteed front page coverage, just to add to the embarrassment of Natasha's family.
Kiwi captures heart of heiress, screamed the headlines in most of the tabloids, over pictures of us outside the Chelsea Town Hall. Much was made of Natasha's daring white mini-skirted wedding dress; I opted for a more traditional morning suit, although I did dispense with a top hat, vainly preferring to show off my fashionably long brown hair. It all seemed like a bit of fun - nothing serious.
Then one day, while I was busy researching a piece to run on the imminent sixth anniversary of Kennedy's death, I took a phone call that changed my life. Its effect on me was just as explosive as the bullet that blew apart President John F. Kennedy's head. Although I didn't realise it at the time, the two events would become inextricably inter-linked.
This book begins and ends with the assassination of JFK. That day changed the direction of my life, setting me on the path to becoming an investigative journalist. It changed the lives of others too.
My involvement with this investigation began with an incident in October 1969. That incident led to my investigating one of the best kept secrets of recent British history, a secret paramilitary organisation called UNIT. This organisation pretends to be an intelligence taskforce, when it is actually much more than that.
Who Killed Kennedy charts my investigation of that organisation and how discovering its true nature led me back to that day in Dallas more than thirty years ago. I tell this story in first person unashamedly - it is the only way to do justice to it.
When I trained as a journalist in New Zealand, we were bullied into making sure our names or our opinions never appeared in any factual articles. This was done to preserve objectivity, we were told. But objectivity also leads to alienation, and abdication of human responsibility. If you see a road accident, you try to help; a journalist stands back and takes notes while people die before them.
When I began my quest for the truth held in this volume, I believed in objectivity. Eventually I realised that objectivity is a cop-out, a way of avoiding involvement in real life. The best crusading journalists have not been afraid to become part of the story, no matter what the cost. And for me, the cost has been high.
Discovering the truths in this book has cost me my job, my career and my family. My life has been threatened, my phone calls tapped, my mail opened. The only person I ever truly loved was murdered in order to silence me. I have been a target for more than twenty years but now the truth can be told, thanks to two people.
The first is a soldier who believed in his country, believed what he was doing was right. Private Francis Cleary died on 5 April 1995. He was born in Liverpool into an Irish Catholic family, the oldest of seven sons. He joined the army because he wanted a skill, because he wanted to see the world and because he knew he had not been blessed with a great mind.
Cleary did not want to kill anyone. He believed in causes and morality. He believed in doing what was right and it cost him his life. Details about what happened to Cleary have been hushed up. Now his story can be told. Special thanks go to his family who have allowed me to publish his letters home from the barracks. They add a human dimension to this book that I could never have given it alone.
The second person I must thank is co-author David Bishop, a fellow expatriate New Zealander and journalist.
It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. I believe it is also infinitely more terrifying. With follows is my proof. Much of what you read in this book has been gleaned from interviews with people who could not talk on the record without risk to their lives. I salute their courage in talking to me at all.
That all-encompassing form of official censorship of the truth, the D-notice, has made compiling this investigation a nightmare. But even more difficult to overcome is people's failure to imagine possibilities beyond what they can perceive through their own five senses. It is as if we have created an entire nation of doubting Thomases.
There has been a campaign of lies and disinformation spread through the media for the past three decades, why should this book be any different? To many, the final chapters of this book will seem like science fiction. All I ask is that you suspend your disbelief and consider the facts I present. Less than fifty years ago, the idea of men walking on the moon was considered idle fantasy. But in 1969 - the year my investigation started - Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon's surface and Britain was preparing to send the latest Mars Probe up into space.
Can you prove what is written in this book is wrong? I doubt it. Even if you do not believe my conclusions, they may stir you to investigate further for your own peace of mind. I know who killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy on 22 November 1963, and it wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald. Read this book and you will discover the truth too.
But dare you believe it?