His skepticism about the military grew steadily. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, he said, “Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there, nodding, saying it would work.” He was furious when it took hours for the army to deploy troops to deal with rioting at the University of Mississippi when the first black student was admitted. And in the closest brush with nuclear war ever—the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—Kennedy repeatedly refused to strike at Soviet missile installations on the island.

His judgment may well have made the difference between war and peace. But the military and intelligence heavyweights saw it otherwise. “The greatest defeat in our history,” Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay called it. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson—the ultimate “wise man” who had confidently assured JFK that the Soviets would not respond to a military strike in Cuba—called the peaceful resolution of the crisis a matter of “luck” and later said, “We have to face the fact that the United States has no leader.” And Allen Dulles, the longtime CIA chief cashiered by JFK after the Bay of Pigs, said in retirement: “Kennedy is weak, not a leader.”

Kennedy, in turn, was sufficiently worried about his military advisers that he encouraged director John Frankenheimer to make a movie out of Seven Days in May, a novel about an attempted military coup, and even vacated the White House for a weekend to accommodate the movie’s shooting schedule.