Joseph Kennedy and the Jews

Culture Watch
tags: Joseph Kennedy, anti-Semitism, Kennedys

Mr. Renehan's most recent book is The Kennedys at War, 1937-1945, published in April 2002 by Doubleday.

Note: Due to a number of anti-Semitic comments that have been posted, comments have been disabled for this article.

Arriving at London in early 1938, newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy took up quickly with another transplanted American. Viscountess Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor assured Kennedy early in their friendship that he should not be put off by her pronounced and proud anti-Catholicism.

"I'm glad you are smart enough not to take my [views] personally," she wrote. Astor pointed out that she had a number of Roman Catholic friends - G.K. Chesterton among them - with whom she shared, if nothing else, a profound hatred for the Jewish race. Joe Kennedy, in turn, had always detested Jews generally, although he claimed several as friends individually. Indeed, Kennedy seems to have tolerated the occasional Jew in the same way Astor tolerated the occasional Catholic.

As fiercely anti-Communist as they were anti-Semitic, Kennedy and Astor looked upon Adolf Hitler as a welcome solution to both of these "world problems" (Nancy's phrase). No member of the so-called "Cliveden Set" (the informal cabal of appeasers who met frequently at Nancy Astor's palatial home) seemed much concerned with the dilemma faced by Jews under the Reich. Astor wrote Kennedy that Hitler would have to do more than just "give a rough time" to "the killers of Christ" before she'd be in favor of launching  "Armageddon to save them. The wheel of history swings round as the Lord would have it. Who are we to stand in the way of the future?" Kennedy replied that he expected the "Jew media" in the United States to become a problem, that "Jewish pundits in New York and Los Angeles" were already making noises contrived to "set a match to the fuse of the world."

During May of 1938, Kennedy engaged in extensive discussions with the new German Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Herbert von Dirksen. In the midst of these conversations (held without approval from the U.S. State Department), Kennedy advised von Dirksen that President Roosevelt was the victim of "Jewish influence" and was poorly informed as to the philosophy, ambitions and ideals of Hitler's regime. (The Nazi ambassador subsequently told his bosses that Kennedy was "Germany's best friend" in London.)

Columnists back in the states condemned Kennedy's fraternizing. Kennedy later claimed that 75% of the attacks made on him during his Ambassadorship emanated from "a number of Jewish publishers and writers. ... Some of them in their zeal did not hesitate to resort to slander and falsehood to achieve their aims." He told his eldest son, Joe Jr., that he disliked having to put up with "Jewish columnists" who criticized him with no good reason.

Like his father, Joe Jr. admired Adolf Hitler. Young Joe had come away impressed by Nazi rhetoric after traveling in Germany as a student in 1934. Writing at the time, Joe applauded Hitler's insight in realizing the German people's "need of a common enemy, someone of whom to make the goat. Someone, by whose riddance the Germans would feel they had cast out the cause of their predicament. It was excellent psychology,  and it was too bad that it had to be done to the Jews. The dislike of the Jews, however, was well-founded. They were at the heads of all big business, in law etc. It is all to their credit for them to get so far, but their methods had been quite unscrupulous ... the lawyers and prominent judges were Jews, and if you had a case against a Jew, you were nearly always sure to lose it. ... As far as the brutality is concerned, it must have been necessary to use some ...."

Brutality was in the eye of the beholder. Writing to Charles Lindbergh shortly after Kristallnacht in November of 1938,  Joe Kennedy Sr. seemed more concerned about the political ramifications stemming from high-profile, riotous anti-Semitism than he was about the actual violence done to the Jews.  "... Isn't there some way," he asked, "to persuade [the Nazis] it is on a situation like this that the whole program of saving western civilization might hinge? It is more and more difficult for those seeking peaceful solutions to advocate any plan when the papers are filled with such horror." Clearly, Kennedy's chief concern about Kristallnacht was that it might serve to harden anti-fascist sentiment at home in the United States.

Like his friend Charles Coughlin (an anti-Semitic broadcaster and Roman Catholic priest), Kennedy always remained convinced of what he believed to be the Jews' corrupt, malignant, and profound influence in American culture and politics. "The Democratic [party] policy of the United States is a Jewish production," Kennedy told a British reporter near the end of 1939, adding confidently that Roosevelt would "fall" in 1940.

But it wasn't Roosevelt who fell. Kennedy resigned his ambassadorship just weeks after FDR's overwhelming triumph at the polls. He then retreated to his home in Florida: a bitter, resentful man nurturing religious and racial bigotries that put him out-of-step with his country, and out-of-touch with history.


The illustration of Joseph Kennedy appearing on the homepage is by Curtiss Calleo.

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More Comments:

N.K. Land - 11/30/2003

The theme of the piece is not "The Kennedys and the Jews" but, rather, "Joseph Kennedy and the Jews." JPK's descendants are not bigots. Bravo for them. But JPK sure as Hell was.

Jeffrey DeWitt - 11/29/2003

Joe Kennedy and Henry Ford were both prominent, powerful men who lived in the same era and apparently shared a lot of views. Do we know anything about what, if any, relationship these two men had?

RJ - 11/24/2003

Assuming arguendo that Renehan has given us a fair and balanced description of Joe Kennedy's attitude toward the Jews, why is this description more important than, for example, the fact that John F. Kennedy's daughter married a Jew?

Landon Mustell - 10/8/2003

Is this a book or just a brief article, as set forth on the George Mason Website?

If it is a book, where can I obtain it?

George Robert - 8/11/2003

Can anyone posting or reading articles on this sight provide me with refferences i.e. books on the subject, newspaper articles from that time, etc.......Thanks

Jack Courtney - 12/5/2002

Mr. Kiedrowski has his "steps" mixed up; the blaming of the Jews came first, Hitler's perceived "successes" only later.

The anti-Semitism of Hitler appealed to men like the Kennedy's, as it appealed to much of Catholic Europe, because they too were deeply anti-Semitic, however anti-Nazi they might have been. As Catholic Poles used to say during the war: "When Hitler is dead we will will go to his grave to spit on it. Then we will return to bring him flowers to thank him for getting rid of the Jews."

The Jewish people have given much to the world in terms of their gifts and yet the answer of the gentile world to this people of genius has been barbaric hatred. There are many who try to deny or excuse the existence of anti-Semitism but the truth lies elsewhere, and the fact remains that its existence is a permanent stain on the church in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.

Lanny Kiedrowski - 10/31/2002

All of the Kennedys were avid pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic men. It was a different era and Hitler led the world during the world's most horrible economic depression. He was looked upon as a hero and by some, a god. He was successful economic and militarily and that appealed to the Kennedys. It was a short step from there to blaming the Jews for WW I and the economic collapse after the Treaty of Versailles.

Kate Shaw - 9/30/2002

I remembered hearing this when I was young, before history ceased to be taught in the schools. Interesting to hear Joe's son Teddy using the same kind of rubbish to elevate Saddam Hussein in the public eye, isn't it? Wonder where he gets it from?

L. Jones - 9/8/2002

Joseph Kennedy was an avowed anti-semite and actually admired Hitler, both for upliftment of Germany after Weimar and for Hitlers own distaste for the jews.

In correspondence from the German Ambassador in London, Herbert Von Dirksen, dated 13 June 1938 (at the time Kennedy was the USA ambassador to London) Von Dirksen relates to his masters in the Reich Ministry for Foreign Affairs a conversation he had with Kennedy.

"...Kennedy had learned from various sources that the present government had done great things for Germany...".

Kennedy touched on the "Jewish Question" and stated that it was "not the fact that we wanted to get rid of the jews that was harmfull to us (the Nazi's) but rather the loud clamour with which we accompanied this purpose. He himself understood our jewish policy completely; he was from Boston and there, in one golf club, and in other clubs, no jews had been admitted for the past 50 years".

In a second communication to Berlin on 18 October 1938, Von Dirksen says that "Kennedy mentioned that very strong anti- semitic tendencies existed in the US and that a large portion of the population had an understanding of the German attitude toward the jews...From his whole personality I believe he would get on very well with the Fuhrer".

Edward J. Renehan Jr. - 5/2/2002

First off, nowhere do I insinuate that Kennedy was a Nazi. However, he was most certainly a rabid anti-Semite and a moral coward who was perfectly prepared to allow Nazism (and all that went with it) to dominate Europe, if that meant avoiding war. A second point: Kennedy's self-serving autobiography (never published, but long available in manuscript as part of the James Landis Collection at the Library of Congress) was written well after the war in an attempt to "spin" his embarrassing record of appeasement. It is neither accurate nor candid. - Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Comment - 5/2/2002

Relative to the contribution about Joseph P. Kennedy's anti-semitism the
author may slightly mislead by the emphasis on Kennedy's attitude toward
Jews and help perpetuate the myth that he was pro-Nazi and pro-German.
Roger Bjerk wrote an excellent Ph.D. dissertation on Kennedy's
diplomatic career and uncovered in the Library of Congress the
unpublished manuscript of Kennedy's memoir relating to that phase of his
career in which Bjerk established beyond doubt that Kennedy's major
concern was that if the United States gave aid to Britain and France,
their military preparedness was so backward that the superior German
force would overwhelm them in war and when the U.S. eventually
confronted the aggressive Germans it would face its own military
resources captured by the Germans.

Edward M. Bennett
Professor Emeritus
Washington State University

Edward J. Renehan Jr. - 4/30/2002

Jack Kennedy emerged from World War II pretty much stripped of the anti-Semitism he had been raised on. This was, in my view and as I try to show in the book, the result of his service side-by-side with a number of Jews whom he came to respect as men and as warriors. (In fact, he came away from the War pretty much stripped of his capacity for bigotry generally, whether it be bigotry against Jews or others.)

On a macro level, I think what diminished the depth and scope of anti-Semitism in the world (at least for a time) was the grim, horrifying, undeniable fact of the Holocaust, from which every right-thinking person naturally recoiled.

The old man, Joseph Kennedy Sr., nevertheless always remained personally distrustful of Jews. He was never rehabilitated although he continued throughout his life to have some friends and retainers who were Jewish. - Edward J. Renehan Jr.

J. Bartlett - 4/29/2002

Dirty linen from the Kennedys is not new, but their anti-Semitism in the 1930s is at least newly publicized.

A few weeks back, HNN had a piece by Edward Schmitt suggesting that the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the 1960s was, at least in part, motivated by animosity towards that Kennedy's PRO-Israeli sentiments.

B does not follow from A. Without having time to read the whole book, I wonder whether something changed in the mentality of the Kennedy family during the intervening decades, and if so how that change occurred.