JFK the Spy


Francine Mathews’ new novel Jack 1939 invents a story where Harvard senior John F. Kennedy gets recruited by President Roosevelt to foil a Nazi plot that would rig the 1940 U.S. presidential election to elect an isolationist who wouldn’t interfere with Hitler’s plans for Europe. Jack travels to Europe to research his senior thesis (later published as Why England Slept) and tries to intercept a charity ledger that contains the names of American and British citizens who have (knowingly or unknowingly) contributed to Nazi efforts to intervene in American politics. The fact that Jack’s dad (and known FDR rival) Ambassador Joseph Kennedy is on that list gives JFK’s mission a bit more urgency.

In the course of his mission, Jack sleeps with a married woman, helps smuggle the Enigma machine out of Poland, hangs out with Churchill, stabs a Gestapo agent and secretly communicates with FDR via telegraph from rooftops all over Europe. The story works because Mathews starts with some historical facts (FDR’s problems with Kennedy Sr. and J. Edgar Hoover, JFK’s tour of Europe, the Enigma machine, Churchill’s efforts to prepare for war despite Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s utter cluelessness and the actual Nazi efforts to influence U.S. opinion via German-American groups) and imagines a spy thriller tale that forges a personal connection between two of our most popular presidents.


Mathews says she was inspired to write Jack 1939 by this 1937 photograph of Kennedy bumming around Europe on a college break and the novel does a great job of portraying a version of JFK before his future wartime experiences would set him on his own path to the presidency.

You can get the book in hardcover or for the Kindle, iPad or Nook. There’s no paperback until next summer and there’s mysteriously no audiobook for guys like me. Mathews is a former CIA analyst who’s been writing novels for twenty years and her talent for historical spy fiction deserves to bring her success. Her next novel is about James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s (imagined) espionage activities during WWII, so here’s hoping she continues with this kind of work.

  • It’s doubtful that JFK would have engaged in espionage against Hitler. In his “Prelude to Leadership – The European Diary of JF Kennedy (1945), Kennedy stated “After visiting these two places (the town of Berchtesgaden and Obersalzberg) you can easily understand that within a few years Hitler will emegre from the hatred that surrounds him now as one of the most significant figures who ever lived. He had in him the stuff of which legends are made.” I seriously doubt that JFK would have done anything to further Comrade FDR’s war against Germany to rescue the Bolshevik regime in the USSR.

    • Jacques

      Does anyone remember who JFK’s father supported in 1939? Oh Yeah! It was the little guy with the funny haircut and the even funnier mustache. Hint: The correct answer is not Charlie Chaplin.

  • CB

    Ah, but the book, which I have read, makes it clear as to why this was indeed possible. JFK’s enmity toward his father was fact and easily understood when you read about the lives of the Kennedy children. And they differed on large issues, as well. Mathews imagines a young JFK well worth following on this fictional tale through the months leading up to the war. I found it to be a terrific read. My favorite book of the summer, in fact.

  • Michael

    Had there been the media coverage in the late 1950s that is out there today, I cannot imagine JFK even being nominated, let alone run for the top job. One of many books on the Kennedy Clan is “Blood, Money and Power”, mostly about Papa Joe. All my parents and grandparents talked about was his rumrunning and the clash with FDR. One of JFKs girlfriends was “Inga-Binga”, a Danish chick who was thought to be a Nazi spy…JFK was medically 4F, but he called his dad’s friends in the navy and he got in–a desk job first, then orders to the Pacific and PT boats.