(Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, in 1938.)
This is a two-part blog about Joseph P. Kennedy, businessman, one-time ambassador to the United Kingdom, and father of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States. I became intrigued by “Joe” when I read John McCrea’s description of a talk Kennedy delivered in late 1940 when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, known formally in the U.K. as the ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James’s. That talk—a shocking display of views about the close ally to which he was ambassador–will be the subject of part 1 of this blog. The talk made me interested to know more about a person who would hold such views and how he came to be ambassador, so I did some research on Kennedy. Part 2 of this blog will address Kennedy’s personal history, personality, and his ambassadorship. My findings included some disturbing similarities to our president, Donald Trump.
In the fall of 1942, Ambassador Kennedy was invited to speak before the Navy’s General Board, a small group of influential senior officers. At the time, Captain John McCrea was serving as aide to Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark. Because of a schedule conflict, Admiral Stark asked John to attend the ambassador’s talk in his stead and to report back about what Kennedy said.
At the time of the talk, Kennedy had been ambassador for a little more than two years. Britain had declared war on Germany about a year earlier. France and the western European nations had fallen by June 1940, and since July, Germany had been waging war against England by air. First was the Battle of Britain, where the British Air Force successfully repelled German air attack. Starting in September, came the blitz, the German bombing of civilian targets in England. Kennedy had witnessed the outbreak and enlargement of the war, and the Navy brass were expecting, no doubt, to hear some first-hand impressions of these developments and possibly the British view of them.
Admiral William Sexton, the president of the General Board, introduced the ambassador. At the end of his introduction he remarked that the ambassador had been assured that his talk was off the record so he could be as frank as he chose in expressing his opinions. The following is John McCrea’s recollection of the talk:
The ambassador, remaining seated, stated his pleasure in having so small an audience and an audience of military men who understood war and the politics of war. He told us of his delight at being selected by President Roosevelt for the important post of ambassador. He recognized its great importance to our country and said that it meant much to him and to his family to represent the United States in what many considered the most important of all United States diplomatic posts.
It didn’t take long for the ambassador to get to the war. He covered the ballpark, and his views were expressed with emphasis. He had seen the war develop. He thought the British could have avoided it, but because of inept leadership, they had not. “They literally stumbled into this war, and now they wonder how they got there. And they’re also wondering how to get out of it.
“As I read public opinion,” said he, “the British are far from being of one mind about the situation in which they find themselves. Of one thing I am certain, however. They want us in this war. In my judgment, it would be a great mistake for the United States to get involved in a second European war within 25 years. This is a European quarrel, the settlement of which should be left to the Europeans to handle. I admit that much is happening on the continent of which I do not approve, but much of it is none of our business. In my judgment, Europe is due for a big shakeup after this war is over, no matter who wins. And who at this time can forecast the victor?
“Another thing of which I am equally certain is that the British Empire is coming apart, whether the Allies win or lose this war. In other words, the British Empire has had its day. No wonder they want us in the war to help bolster their waning fortunes.
“For my part, I counsel keeping out of this war, no matter what happens to our British friends. Many, no doubt, will disagree with me. But as I see it, the British are a decadent race, and because of their decadence, they are certain to lose this war unless, of course, they can persuade us to get into it with them. And if we do get into this war, mark my word, we will be committing this country to carry the major burden of the Allied cause.
“I also have a personal reason for wanting to keep out of this war. Mrs. Kennedy and I have given nine hostages to civilization. I refer to our children. If war comes to us, those of military age are bound to be called up. I rebel at the idea of my children being tossed into a world war, with all its attendant dangers, for the purpose of saving this decadent people.”
When the ambassador started his talk, he was mild in manner and spoke pleasantly and calmly. As his talk progressed, the earnestness of his position was apparent from his rapid, forceful, staccato delivery. By the time he had reached the decadence of the British and the possible military service of his children, he was really on fire, seated on the edge of his chair, articulating vigorously for emphasis.
At this point, the ambassador apparently realized that he had been most outspoken. Recovering his composure, he quietly reminded Admiral Sexton that he had been told he could express himself freely and frankly, and he had done just that. Few questions were asked. No doubt those present were sobered, as was I, with the vigorousness of his expression. Following a few minutes of informal discussion, Admiral Sexton thanked the ambassador for sharing his views, and the meeting was at an end.
I made an oral report to Admiral Stark about the ambassador’s talk, remarking on the ambassador’s extraordinary outburst about the war in general and the British in particular. Admiral Stark expressed surprise as to the nature of the ambassador’s remarks. He wanted to know if I really thought the ambassador intended to be as critical of the British as I seemed to think he was. My reply was that, if the ambassador had remarked only once about the decadence of the British, I might have thought it a slip of the tongue, but since he chose to emphasize that point a number of times, I had come to the conclusion that he really meant what he was saying.
Of course, in 1940, there was powerful isolationist sentiment in the United States, so the ambassador’s views about staying out of the European conflict were not so extraordinary. However, his view of the people in the country to which he was accredited as ambassador was remarkable. As a postscript, not long after his talk before the General Board, Kennedy resigned as ambassador and was replaced by John G. Winant. Two years later, when John was serving as FDR’s naval aide, John described Kennedy’s talk to the president. The president responded, “You know, that doesn’t surprise me in the least. Joe just didn’t like the British. He was almost violent about them. We just had to get him out of there.”
McCrea, Vice Adm. John L., A Naval Life, edited by Julia C. Tobey (2012) (unpublished pdf document), pp. 431-433.
“Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.,” Wikipedia, last visited 8.14.17, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_P._Kennedy_Sr.