The Peculiar Life of Joseph Kennedy

October 24, 2012 Topics: DefenseHistoryGrand StrategyGreat Powers

The Peculiar Life of Joseph Kennedy

Mini Teaser: From his mercurial personality to his delusions of aptitude in the political realm to his catastrophic diplomatic appointment, a new book provides a thorough account of Kennedy’s life and all of its many highs and lows.

by Author(s): Conrad Black

Kennedy was like a hyperactive child, never content to let events take their course. When Chamberlain and his foreign minister, Lord Halifax, decided to take a harder line, Kennedy briefly got in step. He invited the Lindberghs, who were living in Germany, to London and commissioned a report from Charles Lindbergh on the effects of war. Lindbergh produced a hair-raising forecast of utter aerial devastation of Britain. At a dinner at the Astors’ splendid Cliveden estate attended by Chamberlain, Kennedy read a letter from Germany from his son Joseph. When he finished, wrote fascist sympathizer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Kennedy looked “like a small boy, pleased and shy . . . like an Irish terrier wagging his tail.” When Chamberlain and Halifax veered back to appeasement as the Czech crisis reached its climax, Roosevelt had to veto Kennedy’s request that one of the prime minister’s defeatist addresses be broadcast directly to the United States.

Only a few weeks after the Munich summit meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler, a Polish Jew in France murdered an official of the German embassy in Paris. Hitler and his spokesmen unleashed the horrible pogrom of Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass), in which scores of Jews were murdered, thousands were imprisoned and hundreds of synagogues were burned. Roosevelt, who had called for the “quarantine” of the world’s dictators a year before, pulled the U.S. ambassador to Germany, and Hitler withdrew his from Washington just before he was expelled.

As Hitler propelled Europe toward war, Kennedy torqued himself up to lurid political fantasies: the United States would have to adopt a fascist economic model. He badgered Arthur Krock to get the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to call him as a witness, as he considered himself an expert on European affairs. After Hitler seized Prague and all Bohemia in March 1939, Chamberlain and Halifax abandoned appeasement and unilaterally guaranteed they would defend Poland, but Kennedy took the failed policy to new depths. He proposed to the British and American governments that Hitler be offered cash incentives not to attack his next target, Poland.

He explained to Lippmann in June 1939 that the Royal Navy was “valueless” because the German air force could sink it, after effortlessly brushing aside the Royal Air Force. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was concluded, Kennedy begged Roosevelt to urge Poland to negotiate with Hitler, as if that could have accomplished anything. He was clearly in a delusional state.

Fortunately, Roosevelt paid no attention to any of it. He had known from the beginning that it would come to war with Hitler, that Germany was too strong for France, that appeasement would almost certainly fail and that civilization could only be saved by the United States, preferably after Germany was immersed in the morass of Russia, with Japan in the morass of China.

Kennedy was now a virtual mental case. On September 30, 1939, he wrote the president three letters saying that Britain could not be saved and wasn’t worth saving, and that it had only gone to war to save its colonies (which Germany didn’t want). Neither the moral nor strategic implications of the war were remotely comprehensible to him. Roosevelt had a raving fascist sympathizer in his embassy in London. But he was secretly planning to break a tradition as old as the Republic and run for a third term, and so he had to keep Kennedy in place and out of the domestic debate. Roosevelt couldn’t deal with Chamberlain, so he spoke with the British ambassador, first Ronald Lindsay and then Lord Lothian, and struck up direct communications with the returned head of the navy, Winston Churchill, whom he had not liked when they met in World War I but now embraced as someone who would carry the fight to Hitler. (His initial message to Churchill purported to thank him for a hitherto unacknowledged book Churchill had sent him—seven years before.) Kennedy, in what Roosevelt described as “typical asinine Joe Kennedy letters,” urged that America fight in its own backyard. Roosevelt understood it was better to stop the enemy, using the forces of other countries, on the far sides of the Atlantic and Pacific.

On May 20, 1940, with Churchill (a warmonger and a drunkard, in Kennedy’s view) now prime minister and with Germany slicing through France, Kennedy wrote Rose: “My God how right I’ve been in my predictions.” Of course, it all turned, and he soon resented the prowess of the Royal Air Force and Churchill’s eloquence, seeing them as somehow increasing the likelihood of U.S. involvement in war. He was at this point, as Nasaw rightly summarizes, “exhausted, lonely, frightened, bitter, and self-pitying.” He claimed to believe that if he had been allowed to meet Hitler, he could have worked it out. Kennedy’s private plan was to take over Canada, Mexico and Central America militarily and impose a fascist dictatorship in the United States, though he shared this brainwave only with himself in his private notes.

Roosevelt played a supremely deft hand, resupplying the British Army by executive authority after the Dunkirk evacuation, selling his policy of all aid short of war, insisting the best way to stay out of war was to keep the British and Canadians in it, engineering a bogus draft of himself for a third term as president, lending Britain fifty destroyers and instituting the first peacetime conscription in American history. Nasaw presents this gripping drama well, though there are a few irritating lapses, such as the references to Sir Alexander Cadogan as a lord and the resuscitation of the hackneyed myth that Hitler deliberately allowed the escape at Dunkirk by holding back two armored divisions. As the Blitz opened in September 1940, Kennedy bet one of his officials that “Hitler will be in Buckingham Palace in two weeks.”

Kennedy was desperate to leave his post and spent much of his time in the British countryside, out of harm’s way. He was now despised by the British for wailing that Britain was finished and that Roosevelt was insane and incompetent. He let it be known to friends in the administration that he had written an inside account of Roosevelt’s dealings with the British government, for release if he were not back in America before the election—an act of gross insubordination, as well as a falsehood, as he didn’t know the full inside story. He believed the presence of the Labour Party in Churchill’s coalition showed that socialism, and therefore Nazism, was “budding up so fast that these fellows don’t recognize it.”

KENNEDY FINALLY returned to America, arriving just a few days before the election. Roosevelt cleverly invited Joe and Rose to the White House without any press involvement. When they met, the president adhered to his practice of ignoring the vast accumulation of Kennedy’s insolences and disloyalties and told him that all his problems were due to the “officious” people in the State Department, whom he would clean out as soon as the election was over. There is some dispute about what was said next; only Roosevelt, Joe and Rose Kennedy, Senator James Byrnes and the president’s assistant, Missy LeHand, were present. But there seems little doubt that Roosevelt warned, obliquely or explicitly, that Kennedy’s sons would have no future in the Democratic Party if Kennedy defected at this point. Kennedy gave a speech for Roosevelt three nights later and paid for it himself. Though not effusive, it was an unambiguous endorsement. Roosevelt was reelected comfortably enough, whereupon Kennedy went public with his crusade against the war and his assertion that Britain was washed up. He even gave a three-hour anti-Semitic harangue to a largely Jewish movie-industry audience in Hollywood. He retired as ambassador and did not return to England until after the war. If he had just behaved like a normal diplomat, with any idea of the moral forces at issue in the war and the real strategic balance, he could have served through the war, gained great distinction and possibly have even been the vice presidential candidate in 1944 or 1948.

He didn’t break openly with Roosevelt personally, but he wasn’t relevant anymore, and Roosevelt paid no attention to him. As Nasaw accurately states:

He had never been able to accept the reality that being an “insider” meant sacrificing something to the team. His sense of his own wisdom and unique talents was so overblown that he truly believed he could stake out an independent position for himself and still remain a trusted and vital part of the Roosevelt team.

After Pearl Harbor, Kennedy grandly telegrammed Roosevelt: “I’m yours to command.” Roosevelt ignored him. Kennedy, believing Roosevelt had provoked Hitler into war, now made a specialty of being abrasive and obnoxious to the great officeholders he met. Kennedy’s latest crusade, which began shortly after the war, was against any attempt to combat communism in Europe. He was as faithful a dupe to Stalin as he had been to Hitler, and he fatuously debated with Truman and Eisenhower as he had tried unsuccessfully to do with Roosevelt. He had no notion of or respect for the greatness of any of them, or of Churchill, only a chippy sense of his own right to know better.

Pullquote: The Kennedys were really only a dynasty for the decade of the 1960s, a glamorous and tragic meteor of a family that fleetingly brightened the sky of America and then passed on.Image: Essay Types: Book Review