Susan Ronald’s new biography of Joseph P Kennedy covers his time as US Ambassador to Great Britain; a time which, as she tells Historia, his son Jack’s own political views and diplomatic skills – very different from his father’s – were formed.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, known as Jack to family and friends, was never meant to be president of the United States. That honour was intended for his elder brother, Joseph P Kennedy, Jr, who was earmarked from birth to be the first Catholic president.
Their father, Joe, established a military-style campaign to ensure that the family goal would be achieved, donating time, energy, and millions to the Democratic Party. As a second generation American of Irish Catholic extraction, Joe Kennedy still felt an outsider, unable to penetrate the upper crust Protestant Boston Brahmin world. Determined to make the name of Kennedy as great as those other Bostonians, presidents John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, Joe Senior was devastated when Joe Jr was killed in action in August 1944.
That said, all the Kennedy boys were baptized in the heady waters of politics with hero stories from their legendary maternal grandfather, John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the uncrowned king of Ward 2 politics in Boston. But when it came to understanding world politics, Jack Kennedy was in a league of his own, inspired by his time during his father’s ambassadorship in England and Europe.
Unlike Joe Jr, who adopted his father’s anti-Semitic and sympathetic fascist stance throughout 1939, Jack strove to understand the desperate situation and intelligently analysed the rights and wrongs of American isolationism, international diplomacy, and Europe’s myriad dilemmas.
There is no doubt that Jack’s time in England was the making of his world view. Handsome, lackadaisical, possessed of a self-deprecating manner, and oozing charm, Jack mostly resembled his father by his own brand of brazen philandering.
Where Joe Senior never read a book, Jack was the family reader and daydreamer. He had an analytical mind and acquired an incisive understanding of governments and human nature. Jack relished poetry and language, and independence of mind. Someday, he thought, he’d make a good journalist or author. He became both after university. Above all, Jack understood that the world was increasingly complex — and searched for answers as to what had caused the rise of the new isms. Above all else, he knew he was living history.
Though he never argued with his isolationist father, Jack chose to write his senior thesis at Harvard about Why England Slept and dissected the rise and failure of appeasement in British foreign policy. It was published as a trade book after his graduation, and became an instant bestseller. Always a grateful son, Jack also chose this way to show his father that his isolationism and admiration for the fascist dictators was wrong. He was as brave in word and deed as he was in combat.
Unlike Ambassador Kennedy, Jack was a great believer in democracy and understood that for democracy to flourish it needed an informed and engaged public. To combat apathy, he used the language of empathy, of shared values and dreams, and promoted a world view that spoke of a shared destiny for all people. His greatest inspiration for how to express his thoughts in 1939 was undoubtedly Winston Churchill.
Jack Kennedy sat in the gallery of the House of Commons on 3 September, 1939 (next to his sister Kathleen and brother Joe Jr), when Churchill rose to speak for the first time as Chamberlain’s First Lord of the Admiralty. Though physically an unimpressive figure, stooped and rotund, Churchill riveted Jack.
Britain was going to war, Churchill said; “the storms may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales,” but “we are fighting to save the world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny… to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.” Britain was fighting with the united voice of millions to defend the rights of the individual.
Within hours of Churchill’s rousing speech, the SS Athenia bound for Montreal with 1,300 passengers – 500 of whom were Jewish refugees – was struck by a German U-boat just off the Hebrides. Over 200 of its passengers and crew became the first British, Canadian and American civilian casualties of the war.
Ambassador Kennedy was awakened around 2 am on 4 September with the news that there were several hundred casualties, and that the vessel was sinking fast.
The embassy had been on high alert, attempting to repatriate not only Americans to the United States, but also stranded British subjects to the United Kingdom as diplomatic relations with Germany had been severed and the United States was acting on behalf of the British government.
Claiming to be swamped with more important matters and that handling the survivors was “routine”, Ambassador Kennedy sent the utterly inexperienced 22-year-old Jack to deal with the matter in Glasgow.
How Jack managed the situation was never written about in detail, but the Glasgow Evening News reported that Jack “displayed wisdom and sympathy of a man twice his age” and diffused the situation calmly and with tremendous tact by saying American ships were being diverted to collect them. Reassuringly, he pointed out that since America wasn’t at war with Germany, they would not be attacked.
“His boyish charm and natural kindliness persuaded those who he had come to comfort that America was keeping a benevolent and watchful eye on them,” the paper said.
Jack Kennedy’s first foray into international diplomacy was taken from the book of Winston Churchill rather than that of his father.
The Ambassador: Joseph P Kennedy at the Court of St James’s 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald is published on 3 August, 2021.
- Joe Jr, Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy and Jack: courtesy of Getty Images. Photo by AFP via Getty Images
- Ambassador Kennedy with Winston Churchill outside 10 Downing St, c1939: courtesy of Getty Images. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
- Joe Jr, Kathleen and Jack Kennedy entering the House of Commons on 3 September, 1939: courtesy of Getty Images. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
- John F Kennedy in 1940: Michael Donovan via Flickr