Early one morning in August 1939, twenty-two-year-old Jack Kennedy looked out his window at the Hotel Excelsior, in Berlin, not far from the Reich Chancellery, and caught a glimpse of things to come: on the street below, Nazi storm troopers marched by. A rising senior at Harvard, Kennedy was nearing the end of an extraordinary seven-month study-abroad adventure, one that had included stints working in the U.S. embassies in London (where his father was the ambassador) and Paris, as well as travels to a dozen countries in Europe and the Middle East. At each stop, he’d used his father’s connections to meet with local officials and U.S. diplomats, asking questions, taking notes, and forming a picture of a world in crisis.
Now he was in Germany’s capital, the nerve center of Nazi power. Rumors were rife that Hitler’s armies were readying to invade Poland. Kennedy, a skeptic by nature, wasn’t sure—the German dictator might be bluffing—but he felt unease as he took in the atmosphere of tense expectancy in the city. At every turn, he saw evidence of fearsome Nazi propaganda at work as the authorities bombarded Berliners with supposed proof of heinous behavior by the contemptible Poles. So relentless was the barrage, Kennedy suggested in a letter to his friend Lem Billings on August 20, that German officials might be hemming themselves in, unable to back down even if they wanted to. Moreover, Jack wondered, did Hitler grasp that Britain and France, allied to Poland, were likely to show greater resolve this time than they had mustered during the Munich negotiations the previous year, when they had meekly let the Führer seize part of Czechoslovakia? “England seems firm this time,” he wrote to Billings, “but as that is not completely understood here the big danger here lies in the Germans counting on another Munich then finding themselves in a war when Chamberlain refuses to give in.”
The following evening, shortly before midnight, came staggering news via Berlin radio: Germany and the Soviet Union, longtime bitter foes, would sign a nonaggression pact, with details to be worked out in Moscow in two days. Though many ordinary Germans were relieved— surely the Poles would now succumb without a fight, and the conflict would be resolved in much the same nonviolent way as the Czech crisis the previous year—seasoned diplomats, privy to official thinking in Warsaw and Paris and London, knew better. They recognized that the Nazi-Soviet deal, by isolating the Poles, made war more likely, not less. When Jack visited the U.S. embassy shortly before his departure from the city, Alexander Kirk, the chargé d’affaires and senior officer (Ambassador Hugh Wilson had departed several months prior), asked him to take a secret message back to Ambassador Kennedy in London: Germany would invade Poland within a week.
The invasion came on September 1. By then Jack was back in London, joining his parents and eight siblings at the ambassadorial residence in Knightsbridge. On September 3, he and his mother, Rose, along with two of his siblings—older brother Joe Junior and younger sister Kick—were in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain somberly affirmed what he had just announced in a radio broadcast: Britain was at war with Germany. Jack’s worry as expressed to Lem Billings two weeks before had been borne out. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, an unbending supporter of Chamberlain’s failed efforts to avert war through a policy of appeasement, had been moved almost to tears by the prime minister’s mournful radio address. His wife felt the same as she took in his remarks in the Commons.
For Jack, however, another speaker on this historic day left the deepest impression. Standing before the Commons as the incoming First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill summoned his compatriots to the glorious endeavor ahead: “Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace.” Jack watched transfixed as Churchill declared, “Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest.”
From JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956
By Fredrik Logevall (Random House)