Ego, Entitlement, and Failed Public Service

Joseph_and_Rose_Kennedy_1940

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, 1940)

            Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy’s shocking remarks before the Navy’s General Board in the fall of 1940 (see part 1 of this blog) raise a host of questions. What kind of man was Kennedy? Why did he have such a low opinion of the British and the competence of their government? Why did President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoint him as British ambassador and why didn’t FDR fire him? And how was it that such a man as Kennedy could have raised an admired son like John F. Kennedy, our 35th president. In this second part of my blog on Kennedy, I will attempt to shed some light on these questions based on his personal history, character, and public service.

An Irish Catholic born in 1888 into a political family in East Boston, MA, Joseph P. Kennedy was street-smart, supremely self-confident, hard-working, attractive, and a Democrat. As an Irish Catholic in Protestant Brahmin Boston, he was an outsider. Although he graduated from Harvard in 1912, the degree did not magically open doors for him, and he had to make his own path.

From his twenties onward, Kennedy was highly successful in business, and at a young age he amassed a substantial fortune in a variety of ventures, including banking, securities trading, the entertainment industry, real estate, and shipping. Kennedy’s success was entirely self-made. However, his business reputation was less than spotless, mostly because of shady securities trading practices. He engaged in market manipulation and trading on insider information at a time when those methods were not illegal. Although rumored to have bootlegged liquor during Prohibition, there is no support for such claims. Kennedy did legally import liquor after Prohibition’s end.

Kennedy married Rose Fitzgerald in 1914. The couple had 9 children, but Kennedy spent little time at home. He traveled extensively on business, and frequently vacationed separate from the family. He was always in the company of attractive women, and he had a notorious affair with actress Gloria Swanson. Despite his failings as a husband, he maintained a strong interest in his children.

In the presidential elections of 1932 and 1936, Kennedy supported Franklin D. Roosevelt. In recognition of Kennedy’s services in 1932, President Roosevelt awarded him two jobs in his first administration, 1st Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, newly formed to regulate the securities markets, and subsequently 1st Chairman of the Maritime Commission, an agency charged with stimulating U.S. merchant shipbuilding. Kennedy served briefly and successfully in both posts, although, as a man of large ego, he thought he should have been awarded a cabinet post.

Kennedy provided more significant support to FDR in 1936. He was valuable to the president because of his influence with Irish Catholic voters, not a natural constituency for FDR. On re-election to a second term, FDR felt obligated to give Kennedy a significant administration position. Kennedy wanted to be Secretary of the Treasury, a job held by a close friend of FDR. Alternatively, he wanted to be Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the most prestigious of U.S. diplomatic posts. Although FDR offered him Secretary of Commerce, a cabinet position that would have utilized his business expertise, Kennedy insisted on the ambassadorship, which he felt would bring prestige to his family. Roosevelt ultimately agreed.

Kennedy had the fortune to sustain the financial obligations of the ambassadorship, but he had no foreign policy or diplomatic experience. Indeed, he was known to be remarkably undiplomatic, typically blunt, and outspoken. Used to being in charge and throwing his weight around, Kennedy had little experience at being part of a team subordinate to the secretary of state and the president.

Kennedy arrived in Britain in February 1938, just as Hitler was threatening to invade Austria. Kennedy was an ardent isolationist, who believed that the U.S. should stay out of European disputes and wars so that American business could regain its footing after the Depression. Within two weeks of his arrival, Kennedy told the British the U.S. would not provide material or other support to them should they enter any conflicts; he tried to influence British internal politics by voicing support for the appeasement policies of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain over the opposition views of Winston Churchill; and he directly challenged the position of his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, on U.S.-British relations. In relatively short order, Kennedy lost the confidence of Secretary Hull and President Roosevelt through intemperate, independent action. In his eagerness to avoid war, he even explored, without State Department authorization, the possibility of negotiations with persons close to Hitler. Increasingly, Hull and Roosevelt sidelined him by working around him and withholding information from him.

The British view of Kennedy was scarcely more positive than that of his superiors in Washington. Kennedy was welcomed in the social whirl of London and among those British who favored the appeasement of Hitler. However, Kennedy was convinced that the German war machine was invincible, and once war broke out, he became a defeatist. His attitude to towards the British soured, most likely because of his fear that the U.K. would draw the U.S. into war and that his children would be drafted to fight. He thought the British were too inept to avoid war. He impugned British motives in opposing Hitler, indicating their only concern was the survival of empire, not the preservation of democracy. He offended the British by his opposition to U.S. military and economic aid to them. During the blitz, he was scorned for decamping to the countryside while the British government and other ambassadors remained in London. British MP Josiah Wedgwood said of Kennedy:

We have a rich man, untrained in diplomacy, unlearned in history and politics, who is a great publicity seeker and who apparently is ambitious to be the first Catholic president of the U.S.

Kennedy returned to the United States in October 1940. No doubt concerned about Kennedy’s power to damage his bid for an unprecedented third term that November, FDR maintained cordial relations with Kennedy, even though FDR did not trust him or want him to continue as ambassador. In December, after FDR’s reelection, Kennedy resigned. Kennedy had essentially been frozen out of the responsibilities of ambassador because of his outspoken independence. His defeatism and dislike of the British had damaged his reputation, and because he could not be trusted to carry out someone else’s policy, he had destroyed any prospects for future public service.

Reading about Kennedy and his ambassadorship, I was repeatedly struck by parallels to Donald J. Trump and his presidency. MP Josiah Wedgwood’s description of Kennedy (quoted above) leaped off the page as equally descriptive of Trump. Both Kennedy and Trump grew up as outsiders, Kennedy as Irish in Brahmin Boston and Trump as a boy from Queens. In order to succeed, both were willing to engage in less-than-ethical business practices. At the time they sought public office, both were buoyed by wealth, felt entitled to power, and were motivated by outsized ego and ambition. Each wanted a prestigious job for which he was ill-prepared and temperamentally unsuited. Both were used to being in charge, and the independence that may have served each man in business did not play well in government. But while FDR was able maneuver Kennedy out of office, there is unfortunately no simple remedy for the destructive impact of Trump’s grand ambition to be president.

A final word about Kennedy and his role as a father. While Kennedy was rarely at the family home, he played an active role in his children’s upbringing. He followed their progress in school, was in touch with their teachers, and urged them to develop their skills and interests so that they could do something useful with their lives. He regularly wrote them warm letters of encouragement and used his many contacts to open doors to enriching and educational experiences for them. Thus, it is not surprising that Jack Kennedy developed into a balanced, well-grounded adult. And when Jack started to run for public office, Joe recognized that his controversial reputation might damage Jack’s chances so he remained strictly in the background. He provided financing and advice behind the scenes, but stayed out of the public eye.

 

Sources:

Nasaw, David, The Patriarch, The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

“Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.,” Wikipedia, last accessed 8.23.17, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_P._Kennedy_Sr.

 

Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy Speaks His Mind

344px-Joseph_P._Kennedy,_Sr._1938

(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.”

Sources:

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.