(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
On May 14, 1940, four days after Churchill became Prime Minister, one of the private secretaries he’d inherited from Neville Chamberlain’s office recorded in his diary a concern that Churchill was:
listening to the alarmist, and, I think untrustworthy opinions of Mr. Kennedy.The secretary needn’t have been concerned.
Churchill listened to the American Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy as a matter of diplomatic courtesy. He knew Kennedy had been an appeaser and was now a defeatist who was predicting Britain would be forced to negotiate a peace on German terms..
Churchill deplored and distrusted Kennedy. Since shortly after he returned to government in September, 1939, he had bypassed Kennedy on important matters and corresponded directly with FDR. Churchill also met with American officials from Washington. Not only was Kennedy often not included in those meetings, frequently he wasn’t even given summaries of what was discussed.
By late October, 1940, when Kennedy returned to America, he was so angry that there was talk he might in the closing days of the presidential campaign publicly endorse FDR's Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie.
Like Churchill, Roosevelt distrusted Kennedy. Unlike Churchill, FDR by 1940 had a dislike for Kennedy that bordered on hatred. But politics is politics and Roosevelt knew Kennedy's support would be important as he battled for an unprecedented third term. So Kennedy and his wife, Rose, were invited to dine at the White House with the Roosevelts and a few other “old and valued friends.”
Roosevelt biographer Conrad Black tells us a little about the evening:
Kennedy complained bitterly of the way he had been treated by the State Department, not informed at all of the destroyers deal, and left out while emissaries like [Asst. Sec. of State Sumner] Welles came through London without any consultation with the ambassador.By the end of dinner Kennedy had agreed to endorse FDR which he did two days later in a national radio address.
Roosevelt took up this theme, blasted the “officious men” responsible, and said Kennedy was being charitable. Only the war crisis had prevented Roosevelt from taking draconian measures against these insolent people, he said, and after the election there would be a “good housecleaning” to ensure the old and valued friends and the most important members of the administration like Kennedy were not treated in this way.
Roosevelt purported to accept Kennedy’s preposterous claims to absolute loyalty, to early and consistent support of the third term, and the virtual indispensability to Roosevelt and his family. The whole exchange was an allegorization of self-delusion by Kennedy and of cunning manipulation by Roosevelt.
I don’t doubt the “dinner conversation” had something to do with that. More important, I think, was Kennedy’s awareness that a bolt to Wilkie would hurt the budding political career of his oldest son and namesake.
Shortly after the election, Kennedy resigned his post.
In August 1944 Joseph P. Kennedy Jr was killed in action while serving as a Navy pilot. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Follow the index for Churchill and Kennedy. The White House dinner is described on pg. 591. The diary entry by one of Churchill's private secretaries is found on pg. 339 of Martin Gilbert's Finest Hour: 1939-1941.