Cover image of "Surrounded by Enemies," a novel about what might have happened if JFK survived Dallas

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Anyone who followed the news in the early 1960s is well aware that President John F. Kennedy was, indeed, “surrounded by enemies.” Bryce Zabel chose well when he used the phrase as the title of his 2015 alternate history thriller. JFK’s enemies included the belligerent members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who hated him for seeking peace with the Soviet Union. The CIA loathed him for compromising their invasion of Cuba and firing Allen Dulles. And the Mob was incandescent with rage because of his and his brother Bobby’s campaign against organized crime. So it is not far-fetched to imagine that one or more of these forces might have conspired to assassinate him in Dallas on November 22, 1963. In fact, there is considerable evidence pointing in that direction. But Zabel hasn’t written about what happened. Surrounded by Enemies is a story of what might have happened if JFK survived Dallas.

Who can the President trust?

In fact, in Zabel’s telling, JFK receives a minor wound to the shoulder and cracks his wife’s wrist in leaping to shield her from the bullets. At least seven are fired from two or three directions. Texas Governor John Connolly dies of his wounds. And Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill dies in a heroic move to save the President and First Lady. But other Secret Service agents appear to act passively at best, casting their loyalty into account. And thus President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy emerge from the event feeling as though they can trust nobody. Under the circumstances, it’s not an unreasonable assumption. And in fact it wasn’t it in 1963 as it is today.

Surrounded by Enemies by Bryce Zabel (2015) 342 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of President and Mrs Kennedy shortly before his assassination, an event that doesn't happen in this novel about how JFK survived Dallas
John and Jacqueline Kennedy rode in a Lincoln convertible through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963. We all know he died that day. But what if instead he had survived? This intriguing novel tells that story. Image: Library of Congress via PBS

Dealey Plaza may have been only the beginning

The events that unfold in the aftermath of November 22 confirm JFK and Bobby’s suspicions that a conspiracy was, indeed, afoot. The Dallas Police and DA seem determined to pin the blame solely on Lee Harvey Oswald. So does FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who shuts down his agency’s investigation after a single day. And soon the President receives credible threats from unknown quarters that his assassins won’t miss the second time. JFK holes himself up in the White House, and his brother puts together a small group of trusted aides in the Justice Department to investigate the attempted murder.

A conspiracy of boldfaced names

If you followed politics on the national scene back in the day, you’ll enjoy Surrounded by Enemies. Zabel brings back to life on the page many of the boldfaced names of the Kennedy Administration and the military and intelligence establishment. Names like Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana, Strategic Air Force Commander Curtis LeMay, Dallas oilman Clint Murchison, and CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton are impossible to forget for anyone who kept an eye on the news at the time. And in the aftermath of the events of November 22, 1963, all five men were the subject of speculation about their possible roles in a conspiracy to murder the President. In Zabel’s fictional account, it appears as though they all have been.

Zabel’s story works well as a speculative account of what might have transpired in the years immediately following the events in Dallas. And he might have stopped then, capping off a great yarn. However, he continues the narrative for many years afterward, tracing the careers of many of the major players in the story, often to the end of their lives. He should have stopped when he was ahead.

About the author

Photo of Bryce Zabel, author of this novel about what happened after JFK survived Dallas
Bryce Zabel. Image: Television Academy

Bryce Zabel is best known for his work on television as a producer, director, writer, and actor. You might have seen his medical thriller Pandemic or the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure. Surrounded by Enemies is one of his four books.

Zabel was born in 1954 and educated in Oregon, where he received a BA in broadcast journalism from the University of Oregon in Eugene. He has become a prominent figure in the television industry and served for a time as Chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which produces the primetime Emmy Awards. He and his writer-producer wife have three children. They live in Southern California.

If you remain intrigued by the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963, see:

This is one of the Great alternate history novels.

You might also care to check out The five best novels about politics and Top 10 nonfiction books about politics.

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