Joseph P. Kennedy made a fortune on Wall Street in somewhat dubious security trading. He was active in the Massachsetts Democratic Party. Kennedy supported Govenor Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination.
As a New Dealer, Kennedy helped draft new laws regulating securities trading. Roosevelt appointed him the first chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission. This was commonly described as the fox in charge of the hen house approach. Subsequently, President Roosevelt was appointed to head the Maritime Commission. Kennedy thought that neither of these appointments was adequate payment. He wanted a cabinent appointment. But when he learned that a new ambassador to Britain was needed, he began lobbying for the post--using his frienship with the President's son James. Roosevelt at first thought that sending an Irish Catholic to the British was laughfable. And he didn't appreciate Kenndy using James. After considering the idea he seems to have felt that he did owe Kenndy more. And he was apparently snubbed by Primeminister Chamberlain turning down an invitation to visit Washington (June 1937). Roosevelt apparently thought this was a way of snubbing Chamberlain. He also had a laugh on Kennedy by ordering him to lower his trousers in the oval office and declaring him to be the most bow-legged person he had ever seen. (The new ambassador to the Court of St James wore knee breeches when presenting his credentials.) Kennedy had to get written permission from the British Government to wear stripped pants and a cut-away jacket. [Davis, p. 153.] It was to be one of the appointments that Rossevelt would come to most regret. Ironically, Kennedy develop a close relationship with Chamberlain, in part because he agreed so strongly with the Primeminister's apeasement policy. It proved a problem when war finally broke out and Kennedy tried to prevent the United Stayes from supporting Britain which he saw as a defeated nation. This proved to be a serious problem as the President struggled with the isolationists to support Britain against the NAZIs.
Joseph P. Kennedy made a fortune on Wall Street in somewhat dubious security trading. He was active in the Massachsetts Democratic Party. Kennedy supported Governor Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination. As a New Dealer, Kennedy helped draft new laws regulating securities trading. Roosevelt appointed him the first chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This was commonly described as the fox in charge of the hen house approach. Subsequently, President Roosevelt was appointed to head the Maritime Commission.
Kennedy thought that neither of these appointments was adequate payment for his assistance to the Roosevelt campaign. . He wanted a cabinent appointment. But when he learned that a new ambassador to Britain was needed, he began lobbying for the post--using his frienship with the President's son James. Roosevelt at first thought that sending an Irish Catholic to the British was laughfable. And he didn't appreciate Kennedy using James. After considering the idea he seems to have felt that he did owe Kenndy more. And he was apparently snubbed by Primeminister Chamberlain turning down an invitation to visit Washington (June 1937). Roosevelt apparently thought this was a way of snubbing Chamberlain. He also had a laugh on Kennedy by ordering him to lower his trousers in the oval office and declaring him to be the most bow-legged person he had ever seen. (The new ambassador to the Court of St James wore knee breeches when presenting his credentials.) Kennedy had to get written permission from the British Government to wear stripped pants and a cut-away jacket. [Davis, p. 153.] The President appointed Kennedy as the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James (1938). As it turned out, Kennedy's Irish and Catholic status did not bother the British. To them he was an America and as the war approached, America was the all important country. Kennedy and his attractive family became a fixture in London socirty. And Kennedy hugely enjoyed the attention and prominance in London society. This could not have been more different than the outsider status in Boston. It proved to be, however, one of the appointments that Presidentb Rossevelt would come to most regret.
Ironically, Kennedy developed a close relationship with Chamberlain, in part because he agreed so strongly with the Prime-Minister's apeasement policy. As a result, Chamberlain spoke very frankly with Kennedy. Chanberlain would come to see how disasterously appeasemrnt had failed. Kennedy in contrast never chsnged his mind about appeasing Hitler.
Kennedy also developed a close relationship with the German Ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen. It is unlikely that the Presuident sent Kennedy to London to cozy up to the German ambassadir, but that is just what he did. Kennedy during their conversations passed on confidences provide by Primeminister Chamberlain. This included how desperately he was seeking aeaceful solution in the diplomatic exchanges leading to the Munich Confrence (September 1938). Von Dirksen passed on the these conversations to Berlin. Thus Hitler was well briefed before Chamberlain arrived as to how desperate he was to avoid another war and seak a peaceful solution to the Sudeten issue Hitler had created.
Kennedy had some Jewish friends or at least associates. He was also like many Americans at the time destinctly anti-Semetic. Where most Americans parted company with Kennedy was the violence and lawlessness with which the NAZIs percecuted the Jews. In his conversations with the German ambassador, Herbert von Dirksen, he even offered advise as to how to deal with the Jews (June 13, 1938). He reported to Berlin that Kennedy had advised him, "... it was not so much the fact that we want to get rid of the Jews that was so harmful to us, but rather the loud clamor with which we accompanied this purpose. [Kennedy] himself fully understood our Jewish policy."[Hersh, p. 64.] Kennedy's main concern with such violent acts against German Jews as Kristallnacht which was to come. He saw that they generated bad publicity in the West for the NAZI regime. He expressed no shock or disfavor for the viloent outbusts. He expressed similar views in a letter to Charles Lindbergh. [Renehan, p. 60.] And with the NAZI outranges in Austria and on Kristalnacht, not a murmor of criticism from Ambassador Kennedy.
The Ambassador's son Jack decoded to take a trip to the Continent just at the time Europe was descending toward war. Rose wrote in her diary, “Jack and Torby Macdonald leave for Germany. They would like to go to Prague but are told no one is allowed to go there.” Macdonald told us, ‘We went up to Vienna’…”(August 12, 1939) [Blairs, p. 65.] Vienna and all of Austria at the time, as a result of the Anschluss the previous year, was a part of NAZI Germany--Ostmark. Jack had studied political sciences at Harvard University with a focus on international relations. Jack was, however, more intersted in asummer outing than any real attempt to assess the NAZI tajke over of Austria. He abnd his friend headed for Klagenfurt, Carinthia. Carinthia was the location of Lake Wörthersee, which the NAZI elite was busy transforming into a kind of NAZI Riveiera. Here were the benefiiaries od the New Germany. One author writes, "One thing could be said for certain: nowhere else in Europe there was a greater concentration of beautiful blond women, with their constitution according to the regime-imposed Teutonic code of beauty, as it was in the summer on the lakes of Carinthia."
Ambassador Kennedy was a strong suppoter of Prime-Minister Chambrlsin's appeasement policy. What he and Chamberlain could not see was that rather that satiating Hitler, appeasement only encouraged Hitler and enticed him to more demands. And what was more difficult to understand was tht Hitler was not deterred by the horors of war, he actually wanted a war. Both men were shocked by the signinging of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939). A few days later, the Panzers smashed across the Polish Border while the Luftwaffe bombed undefended Polish cities. They were shortly followed by the Soviet Red Army attacking from the East. Three days after the German invasion, Britain still yearning for peace, reluctantly declared war. Kennedy saw his family off to safely back to America. And from Ambassador Kennedy not a word of criticism toward the NAZIs for launching the War or for commiting terrible atrocities in Poland.
Churchill and Roosevelt had met only once before World War II. They met during World War I when the President was a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The President the encounter, but Churchill had not. Some advisors to the President with liberal leanings saw Churchill as at heart a conservtive, a political has been who drank way too much. This was Mrs. Roosevelt's asssessment. The President who had been snubbed by Prime-Minister Chamberlain and apauled by the failure of Britain and France to stand up to Hitler saw Churchill as a rare British politican with the spine to confront the NAZIS. Thus when Chamberlain recalled Churchill to the Admiralty, the President ininiated a corresponce with him (September 1939). Churchill who had realized the importance of the United States, eagerly responded. The President signed his Letters POTUS, Chuchil signed 'Former Naval Person'. It would prove to be perhaps the most important correspondence of the 20th century. The messages would at first be exchanged through the U.S. Embassy. Churchill agreed to this hoping it might affect Ambassador Kennedy's defeatist attitudes. This ended when the British learned through Ultra that copies of the messages were reaching the Germans. Thankfully neither Roosevelt or Chuchill mentioned Ultra.
Tyler Kent was a Foreign Service officer assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as a code and cipher clerk (1934). He was a gifted linguist and spoke flawless Russian. The State Deprtment transferred him to the London Embassy (October 1939), shortly after Hitler and Stalin had launched world War II. In his new position he was assigned to work on the POTUS correspondence. And he was apauled at what he read. Kent was a fervent isoltionist who thought America should stay out of the European War. And here was the President secretly communicating with the one man in Britiain most committed to bringing America into rhe War. Ultra transcripts soon revealed that the corresondence was reaching the Germans, launching a major investigation. It was potentially disaterous. Such a corresondence and the contents of the letters was a decidedly uneutrl act and could have been used by the isolationists to great affect. It was at first thought that Ambassador Kennedy might be resonsible. Then attention turned to Kent. Kennedy authorized the cancelation of his diplomtic immunity and a laarge cash of secret dicuments were found. Special Beanch arrested him (May 20, 1940). After a secret trial, he received a sentence of 7 years' penal servitude. The incidented also ended the use of the U.S. Embassy for the POTUS correspondence. It was a step in Kennedy's isolation from the President.
The President's choice of Kennedy proved a problem when war finally broke out and Kennedy tried to prevent the United Stayes from supporting Britain which he saw as a defeated nation. This proved to be a serious problem as the President struggled with the isolationists to support Britain against the NAZIs. Having a defeatust and isolationist ambassador in London was a threat to the President's principal foreign policy gosal--saving Vritain.
The American presidential election of 1940 is arguably the most important American presidential election in history with the exception of Abraham Lincoln's election in the 1860 campaign. The German invasion and defeat of France brought about a political earhquake. President Roosevelt decided to defy the well-established third term tradition. Everyone including Eleanor and the President were assuming that the Roosevelts were leaving Washington. The Fall of France fundmentally changed this and begun a fundamental change in American public opinion undermining the isolationist argument.
Ambassador Kennedy returned to the United States in the middle of the election campaign (Octiber 1940). Churchill could not have been more pleased. Kennedy was one of those shocked by the Roosevelt decesion, in part because he was considering a presidential run of his own. It was to be based on foreign policy and the need to stay out of what he saw as another European war. This seems to have been political phantasy on Kennedy's part. He had never won a political election in his life. And as a Catholic he would have been unacceptable to the South, a major source of Democratic support in any election. He undountedly could have, greatly embarassed the President and hurt his reelction campign. As Ambassadior, he could have lent prestige and valuable information that would have aided the Isolationists. The existence of the POTUS correspondence alone would have badly damaged the President.
Ambassador Kennedy was one of the Isolationists ho resisted president Roosevelts efforts to oppose Hitler and the NAZIs and save Britain. We now know that was a grave error in judgement that cost countless lives and put America and Britain, in fact the great values of Western Civiization itself, in jepordy. But that is history looking backward. The Isolationists made a coherent argument with morality seemingly on their side. War is a terrible thing. And the NAZIs and the Deitsche Wehrmacht were a fearsome force. The Isolationists and pacifists were right about that and the President was pursuing policies that would invitably lead to war. Ambassador Kennedy had two sons of military age about whom he was right to be concerned. And in fact he would lose one in the war and nearly a second. Where the Isolationists were fundamentally wrong was that Hitler eventually would get arond to America. Roosevelt saw that it was a qestion of fighting Hitler alone with all of the resources of Europe at his disposal or fighting him with an indispenable British ally. But even the Isoltionist moral argument was questionable. While the Isolationists often had shrill lnguage to use against President Roosevelt, the British, and the Jews, when do you here them criticizing Hitler and the NAZIs? Even modest disapproval was for the most part lacking. It is true that even by the time of Pearl Hrbor, the killing phase of the Holocaust had just begun, but enough was known about the NAZIs that there was plenty to criticize and condemn. Why were the Isoltionists who made such a case for morality and peace remain absolutely silent about the NAZIs and Hilter's embrace of war as arimary implent of national policy?.
Kennedy had considerable influence withe Chamberlain and the British politicans who were associated with him. This all changed with the appointment of Churchill as primeminister. The new officials that Churchill brought into government saw Kennedy as a defeatist. Churchill given the importance of the United States tried to work with him, but it soon became clear that this would not be possible. His cabled back to Washington jusr became more disparing and defeatist in tone, ven unerving the President at a critical time in history. With the behinning of the Blitz, he retreated to the safety of the countryside.
The British Royal Family (including the princesses) , Prime Minister, government ministers, and other ambassadors chose to stay in London and deft the NAZIs. One Foreign Office official was pompted to note, "I thought my daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy.") The cables were not just defeatist, but displayed veiled NAZI sympathies. One cable taled about democracy being 'finished'. In another he talked about the Battle of Britain was not about 'fighting for democracy'. He called British claims to be fighting NAZI tyrnanny just 'bunk'. President Roosevelt realized that Kennedy could not be trusted to represent him. And then the British passed on information that Kennedy was preparing to publish an anti-Roosevelt article just days before the 1940 presidential election. It is unclear just what on between the Prsident and Kennedy, but thecAmbassador submitted his resignation as was on his way back to America (October 1940). None other than future president, then a Congressman, described the end to Kennedy's political career. When Kennedy reached New York, he phoned the President (October 27). Johnson happened to be in the White House at the time and and recounts the President's side of the conversation. "Ah Joe, old friend, it is so good to hear your voice, I'm dying to talk to you ...." Johnson adds that when the President hung up, he drew his fore finger across his throst as if if slitting a throat with a razor. [Stevenson, p. 149.]
Jack and his brother Joe, who was killed during the War defending Britain, disagreed with their father. Jack would write a book on the subject. [Kennedy] As President well after the War, President Kennedy proclaimed Churchill an honary American citizen, mentioning his leadership 'in the dark days abd darker nights when Britain stood alone--and most men save Englishmen disaired of England's life." The British Embassy offered a bust of Churchill for display in the White House. President Obama not as much an admirer of Churchill returned the bust to the Embassy. The Churchill bust in question now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington DC.
Blair, Joan and Clay. The Search for JFK (Berkley Pub. 1976).
Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940 (Random House: New York, 1993), 691p.
Hersh, Seymour. The Dark Side of Camelot (Back Bay Books, 1998).
Just, Maximilian. "John F. Kennedy in Vienna or just for fun in the Third Reich" (December 25, 2012).
Kennedy, John F. While England Slept.
Renehan, Edward. "Joseph Kennedy and the Jews," History News Network (George Mason University, April 29, 2002).
Stevenson, William. A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York, 1976), 486p.
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