Review: The Schemes and Ambitions of Joseph P. KennedyHistorians in the News
tags: book reviews, political history, diplomacy, Joseph P. Kennedy
Alexis Coe is the author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.
In “The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s, 1938-1940,” Susan Ronald fashions a portrait of the ambitious Kennedy that brings to mind the mythological figure Icarus. Ignoring a warning to temper his pride, Icarus flew too close to the sun on wings made of feathers and wax that melted, plunging him to his death in the ocean. When Kennedy, father of nine, including sons John, Robert and Edward, was named ambassador to Britain, he was instructed to accurately reflect the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Or at least, not contradict him. That is, behave like a diplomat.
But Kennedy was no diplomat, and he had no interest in imitating one. He was a boorish, stubborn man who got the ambassadorship mostly because he donated to Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign and then demanded the prestigious position in return, as a steppingstone to the presidency. At the next Democratic National Convention, or perhaps the one after, the freshly minted ambassador expected to secure the nomination and sail into the White House. He hoped to launch America’s first Catholic political dynasty with himself as the first Kennedy president. But his pride and bald ambition took him a little too close to the sun.
He already had a spectacular story: He was the grandson of an Irish immigrant who worked so hard he died before he was 40, and the son of a Boston ward boss and barkeep. Kennedy’s shrewd business sense (in the stock market, real estate and even Hollywood) produced a fortune so immense, he encouraged his children to follow their passions (preferably politics for the boys and whatever his daughters wanted, as long as they married by 30). He served as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and directed the Federal Maritime Commission. But Kennedy wanted his boss’s job, and FDR knew it.
“The first time he opens his mouth and criticizes me, I will fire him,” the president reassured advisers. Whatever FDR’s threat, Kennedy, who had always been a monomaniacal isolationist, voiced his personal opinions without reservation, while the president was noncommittal in public. He had to be, even as German troops stormed across Europe. The U.S. military was unprepared for war, Americans were reluctant to enter it, and Roosevelt didn’t have permission to declare it. Congress, determined to keep America out of another foreign war, had responded to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 by passing three Neutrality Acts. Roosevelt tried to work around these nonintervention efforts, offering England advice and military supplies. The ambassador, meanwhile, spent his days “sticking a knife into the presidential hide,” as Ronald puts it, a practice he extended to the British, too. Stop “resisting Hitler,” Kennedy urged them. He told an adviser to Roosevelt that the British should “let Hitler take over all of Europe.” If it didn’t work out, America could assassinate the Fuhrer, reasoned Kennedy — who all the while was trying to secure a personal meeting with him. Fascism was the future, he believed, and neutrality best for the American economy. Democracy was dead in England and would soon be everywhere else, too. Kennedy made these arguments in opposition to his sponsor and to morality; details about every stage of the Nazi persecution of Jews, from pogrom to concentration camp, flooded his embassy from the day he arrived in London.
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