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4.0 out of 5 starsJack Kennedy was a man not a saint, but he was no Joe Senior
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 31, 2020
After George Washington and Abe Lincoln, no other US President has more book titles than JFK, John or “Jack” Kennedy to his friends and clannish US-Irish Catholic family; as he was the first young dashing pin-up boy of the TV age. Further from his early tragic death at 46 in Dallas – an event which might have come sooner, academics and journalists gradually come to lose that strong alure and fatal attraction that seduced a generation of veterans and females, to see events clearer less through tinted lenses about a sick man with gonorrhea who needed more than a dame a night to quieten him down, and listen to the words of those who lived with him.
Top of that list goes to that unforgettable remark declared by his bright pretty wife Jackie, “It was like being married to a whirlwind. Politics was sort of my enemy as far as seeing Jack was concerned”, something which Peter Morgan of The Crown found significant to use in an episode in his popular second series.
But the Kennedy presidency – featuring the TV debate with Nixon, the Bay of Pigs, and the meetings with PM “Uncle” Macmillan, is in the future, in the still unwritten volume 2, and Harvard Professor Fredrik Logevall has enough material to excite British readers in these 650 pages as his hero seems to have rested everywhere of importance prior to, and immediately after the Second World War.
As a student at Harvard, and second son of Joseph (Joe) P. Kennedy, US Ambassador, in London, he was able to get around Europe in August 1939: reaching Poland, the USSR, secretly wandering through the rump Czechoslovakia, being accosted and attacked by angry Nazi toughs in Munich on the eve of War for unwisely travelling with his loyal trusted pal in a car with British license plates, hitting Paris, and London, which with further useful contacts, such as the British historian John Wheeler-Bennett, the US press attaché James Seymour, and his tutor Bruce Hopper helped him transform his undergraduate dissertation into the bestseller Why England Slept which was published in 1940; in 1945, his father still known after his departure, as the “Ambassador”, got the Hearst-owned Chicago Herald-American to hire him for several months as a reporter to write on the first conference of the United Nations, before flying over in the summer to report on the first post-war British election, and then moving on to Potsdam, where in the presence of the 33rd the still unknown haberdasher from Independence, Missouri “deader than Kelsey nuts” (Truman), the future 34th “an outstanding figure” (Eisenhower) and the 35th (JFK himself) US Presidents, he witnessed the makings of the Cold War world with the leaders led by Stalin and Churchill, soon replaced by the newly Premier elect Attlee. Nothing, however, occurred in the Kennedy family by chance. Jack was being groomed for power -and after the wreckless unnecessary death of his elder brother Joe Jr in 1944 trying to bomb V3 bases in Northern France, hopefully for the top job in Washington, at the White House.
As a nation of immigrants, the author kicks off in the Emerald Isle, with the Irish Famine, but refuses to inspire national British antipathy as might Irish Republicans, and other Kennedys with a mission - youngest brother Senator Ted, and sister Jean, US President Clinton’s Ambassador to Eire.
Logevall refutes the charge that Joe Senior’s fortune was made from bootlegging and Mafia hoodlums during Prohibition because it can not be proven, but he can not deny that as a Wall Street tycoon much of the great Kennedy wealth did arise from insider trading – which to Joe’s credit was still then not completely illegal. He does contend that Joe, like his third son Robert or “Bobby”, was ruthless, and did have connections with groups who could force themselves on those who were less than willing to oblige freely.
He can not deny that Jack’s continual philandering with models, starlets, and secretaries was not a unique personal feature, but a particular family DNA characteristic among males derived from dad – who was delighted this offspring was straight off the old block who played wildly and won the field in all his activities, and even further back by his maternal grandfather, Congressman and Mayor of Boston John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald; but despite the disappointments and hurt, the ladies still appeared to continue to adore and overlook his weakness and needs, including the former glamorous Miss Denmark Inga Arvad, who throughout the war years was specially being watched by the FBI as a possible Nazi spy.
Instead, the very prudish determined matriarch, Rose, preferred hypocrisy, ignoring the truth and silence naturally for the family’s future. But then her intolerance to her wayward carefree daughter Kathleen “Kick”, was not because she married a Cavendish, the son of a Duke (the Duke of Devonshire), and a British one to boot, but a British Protestant, a heretic; it was the burning feeling of centuries old inherited irrational hatred of national-religious divisions, which moved on among Roman Catholics after the death of Jack, with Pope John XXIII’s 2nd Vatican Council at the start of the Swinging 1960s, but more rapidly from the last quarter of the century. So, Joe Senior and Rose’s mission lived on with most of the children.
British readers born after the War, however, will soon understand why the name Kennedy with Joe Senior was thought a mark of cowardness, and treachery. One British Foreign Office wit is said to have noted: “I thought daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy”.
When Joe was nominated Ambassador it was only partly a sign of recognition for the support to President FD Roosevelt. It was a hoped mistaken plan to dispatch the untrustworthy pacifist far from the US shores, so that he might not interfere with the Democrat Roosevelt’s third term re-election. But Joe did himself, however, no good after the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the early Blitzkrieg successes when promoting his own independent line, claiming as during the Great War that US direct involvement would solely bring financial loss, and certainly no benefits after an inevitable British defeat to Germany. Such a stand delightedly observing the (British) “lion’s tail twisted” was both severely weakening his own and the US influence among the growing clique of interventionists in government headed after May 1940 by Churchill, who was calling him “Jittery Joe”. The author does observe in passing in a footnote there was no proof he was a coward, but chose not pursue the argument anew as he felt he was repeating himself.
The change and speed in the War and the increasing loss of patience had obliged the President to ignore his representative and unofficially approach Churchill directly from early 1940, something the proud Joe Senior could not easily stomach, nor to his detriment was he willing to reserve comment. Furthermore, when he was eventually recalled, though he never interfered in the decisions of his two eldest sons from volunteering, he never stopped advocating his total opposition to the War, first when he initially objected to the Lend Lease bill being debated in Congress, and then continuing to identify that man Churchill as the pariah who had brought the war closer to the US and an end to his dreams of world peace, and increasing political dominance of the Kennedy family. What is more, a year on from the end of hostilities, in 1946, Joe could still not swallow his pride, neither refusing to recognise that he had ever been wrong and his fall was not of his own making, nor could he suspend his loathing and forgive the British statesman in the same way as Churchill never bore grudges to his own political appeasing rivals. Was that because he saw Churchill as the cause of Joe Jr’s death? Logevall does not say, so we have to guess ourselves.
The author stresses that the “Ambassador” has to be remembered as a particularly selfish individual who was moved by lust for money alone, an idealist representative of an earlier age, whereas Roosevelt was a better man who chose not to hold the foolish ideas of the father as the prejudicial rod to beat and hold back the career of the second son.
Logevall covers the father more at length simply to emphasize how different Jack had become. At Harvard under Hopper, Jack already showed he was a committed scholar who wanted to help explain his father’s isolationist ideas in the editorial of The Harvard Crimson during the last days of 1939, something which was recognised among his peers. But as the War had moved on, when rewriting his Why England Slept, a brash play on While England Slept, the US title of Churchill’s Arms and the Covenant, which Jack had read in 1938, he had seen for himself in Europe one could not stick with the same views in mid 1940. He now was convinced this statesman, unlike what his father imagined, was the sole British leader who could really give the country a firm determined sense of purpose to stand against the might of Hitler- a sense he believed which was also required in the US with the two nations uniting together in a common world cause for the protection of democracy.
So, unlike Joe Senior who saw politics as the continuation of business affairs with any regime – Nazi or Communist, so peace was always the necessary factor, his son was already out on a mission to do his bit for the good of others, which in this circumstance required making real sacrifices and except personal loss for long term gains.
The author wishes to stress the importance of While England Slept in the US, and across the Atlantic, as a pioneering revisionist tract – something he does not compare but might be put together with Cato’s exceptionally critical Guilty Men (1940) and AJP Taylor post war study The Origins of the Second World War (1961). In months Jack had moved from seeing society forces as the main cause to that of certain tired Conservative leaders – namely Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, the appeasers, but also idealistic peace loving socialists and trade unionists, who were largely to blame for not standing up to tyranny. His message, Longevall maintains, understood in 1940 by both Roosevelt and the Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, was a need to move forward, to make preparations, including Lend Lease, in order to be ready for the eventual German attack against the US which was certain to occur sooner rather than later.
The historian might present Jack as also different from Roosevelt despite being a co-founder of the Special Relationship, because both he and his father were looking at the benefits of peace or war exclusively for the US, while despite still being American Jack respected the different needs of its allies within the same common cause. He was looking forward to the future as President Woodrow Wilson had to a new world, not back.
I should note here in passing that Logevall does say that after Potsdam when he came to know President Truman better Jack was able to reappraise his opinion and depict him as a “courageous and decent man” because he too believed in the same mission to stand up and fight against the new obvious danger in 1945.
That mission lived on for Jack in the Korean War, and eventually Vietnam – which he was unable to see. The question is had Jack lived would he have persuaded British Premier Wilson to join Australia and the US in that struggle in South East Asia? I doubt it, but it is nice to speculate as perhaps the author may when he finishes his second heavy tome. We must wait and see.
This lengthy volume is a wonderful biography of Jack and the Kennedys, about grass roots politics in Boston, and how the Kennedys, in particular Bobby, was transforming an electoral organization into a personal Kennedy machine that ran parallel to the Democrat’s official body. It is informative, enlightening, and lively, and while written by an American it sounds good to the British ear. But remember, Jack was a man, not a saint: he had his needs and made mistakes – and fortunately scholar Fredrik Longevall, despite admiring the statesman, is there to note them in full.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 17, 2020
I am only 195 pages in but I have already noticed at least two and possible three errors. 1. Italy did not fight in WW1 on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The country joined the war onthe same side as Britain, France and Serbia.
2. The author suggests that the US ambassador to London's then residence in Prince's Gate was within walking distance of the embassy in Grosvenor Square. In reality the two locations are almost two miles apart.
3. The author suggests that during Kennedy senior's time as ambassador 'Kick' Kennedy was squired by 'William Douglas-Home the 13the Earl of Home. He seems to have got his Douglas-Homes mixed up. The 13th Earl was called Charles and would have been too old (as well as married) to have any kind of relationship with Ms Kennedy. I can only assume he means the playwright William Douglas Home (he dropped the hyphen) who would have been the right age at the time. As a younger son he would not have inherited the earldom. The 14th Earl was his older brother Alec - the later Prime Minister.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 24, 2020
This is one of the finest biographies I have read. Be in no doubt it will take commitment as it is a huge volume, but you will be rewarded with a detailed history of Kennedy‘s early life - starting with how his forefathers emigrated to the decision to run for president.
Logevall is a brilliant writer and at times it feels like you are reading a novel. The story telling and narrative is compelling and the ‘just in more chapter’ syndrome hit me more than once!
Can’t wait for Volume 2 and have already begun to read Embers Of War by the same author. Highly recommended
4.0 out of 5 starsGreat first volume, now the wait for volume 2!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 26, 2020
I thoroughly enjoyed this first volume of political biography of one of America's greatest presidents. I tend to assess political biographies against the standard set by Robert A Caro's magnificent the Years of President Johnson. This one measures up pretty well - with its hinterland of family history setting the scene , for an understanding of the subject, and a clear theme that the narrative explores. In Caro's case, the theme was his subject's genius for locating where power lay in government and his superhuman work ethic. In the case of Kennedy, the theme that Logevall uses to understand Kennedy, as he matures in his political thought, is a central concern with the limits that power of government should have in a great democracy. In this volume, we see how, just out of Harvard , his travels around the world as the ambassador's son, and as a decorated hero of the war in the Pacific, would shape his mature political career.
His relationship with his father was hugely important, poignant and significant, as indeed, for very different reasons, the tragic relationship between Lyndon B Johnson and his father comprised some of the most memorable and moving narrative of Caro's work.
We also have an insight into JFK's treatment of the women in his life, and the acceptance of Jackie his wife of his serial philandering.
The volume ends with Kennedy's (unsuccessful) bid to win as Adlai Stevenson's running mate, at the Democrat's convention in 1956, "a very near thing", and a moment for the rising star of the Democratic Party to learn crucial political lessons about the route to national leadership and successful campaigning - not just winning with the electorate but also with the local branches of the Party.
Like other readers, I must now wait and anticipate the next volume!