The Still Elusive Joseph P. Kennedy

tags: Joseph P. Kennedy

Sheldon Stern received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970 and is the author of numerous articles and "Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings" (2003), "The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis" (2005), and "The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality" (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000.

Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the paterfamilias of the Kennedy clan, continues to be scrutinized in lengthy biographies as well as in numerous studies of his most famous progeny.1 The reasons for this persistent interest are not especially difficult to understand. Kennedy’s intriguing career is well documented in print, in archival collections, in recordings, and on film. Of course, much the same can be said of the life of Senator Prescott Bush, the founder of the Bush clan. However, the Kennedy family story has taken on a unique and almost mythic quality because of the dramatic historical events which destroyed JPK’s own political ambitions and the tragedies that consumed his sons and two of his daughters.  

Historian and biographer David Nasaw, the most recent scholar to take on the JPK story, was offered unrestricted access by the Kennedy family to the papers of Joseph P. Kennedy at Boston’s Kennedy Library. Nasaw insists that there were no strings attached—that he received permission to read and cite any and all materials in the JPK papers. However, he has acknowledged in a TV interview, that even after he agreed to write the book it took nearly 18 months to finalize a legal agreement between the Kennedys and the author—inevitably creating speculation about the precise nature of the issues which required such lengthy negotiations.

When I was a graduate student in history in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960s, I was offered $10,000 [about $80,000 today] by my next door neighbors, the granddaughters of Congressman Oakes Ames—disgraced in the great railroad stock scandal of the Grant administration—to write an exculpatory account of their ancestor. That would have been the ultimate example of a strings attached biography! There are, however, more subtle ways in which an author, whether deliberately or not, can shade the evidence to give the benefit of the doubt to his or her subject and their family. And there are some legitimate questions—not accusations—along these lines that historians should ask about Nasaw’s JPK biography.

The most fundamental question is: has Nasaw, in a laudable effort to be fair and balanced, gone too far in filing down the rough edges of Joe Kennedy’s personality and career? Early in the last decade, for example, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz described David McCullough’s widely acclaimed biography of John Adams as “a prudent but deeply admiring study of an enormously talented and remarkable patriot.” But, at the same time, Wilentz wondered if McCullough, in emphasizing the “goodness” of Adams’ character, had all but lost sight of Adams’ “suspicious, pugnacious, and at times pig-headed” intellect as well as his political “ponderousness, his pettiness, and his sometimes disabling pessimism.” Has Nasaw, whether consciously or unconsciously, also opted for a kinder and gentler JPK?

Nasaw covers Kennedy’s extraordinarily successful business career in about 130 pages—1/6 of the 787 page book. We learn about his remarkable ability “to jiggle numbers and accounts” and to profit from a bull market. But, “when it came to making money,” Nasaw tells us, “in up markets and down markets, good times and bad, Joseph P. Kennedy was in a league by himself.” In Hollywood, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he substantially increased his net worth. Nasaw makes clear that Kennedy used all the tricks of the trade (such as stock pools, insider trading, and selling short). These practices were rife in the rampant market speculation of the 1920s. And, of course, they were not yet illegal.

But, for example, in his detailed account of the sale of Pathé to RKO in 1931, from which JPK made a great deal of money, Nasaw fails to mention that Kennedy allegedly shafted Guy Currier, the man who had helped launch his early career with a position at the Fore River Shipyard. Currier’s daughter and granddaughter, quoted in Ronald Kessler’s 1996 JPK biography, insisted that Currier had been betrayed and “didn’t realize how corrupt he [Kennedy] was.” If Nasaw disagreed with Kessler on this question, he should have dealt critically with the Currier episode instead of disregarding it.2

Likewise, Kessler weaves a sordid tale of how Kennedy apparently fleeced Alexander Pantages, the owner of some sixty luxurious “movie palaces” through the use of bribes, payoffs, and even false charges of rape. Again, it is entirely possible that Kessler’s account is inaccurate and even false. But Nasaw never mentioned Pantages and did not list Kessler’s book in his bibliography.

Nasaw also discusses JPK’s 1937 effort to rescue his friend William Randolph Hearst from possible bankruptcy by arranging a bank loan “predicated on Kennedy ‘taking over the financial management of all the Hearst properties.’” Kennedy would reorganize Hearst’s empire “and spin off the magazines into a new company that he would control.” Hearst’s financial advisers rejected the deal and Kennedy denied that he was “stealing the magazines from Mr. Hearst.” Armand Hammer, a businessman who dealt personally with Hearst at the time, is quoted by Kessler as claiming that Kennedy’s plan was “self-serving” and that the $8 million price offered “was only a fraction of what the properties were worth.” Nasaw did not cite any of the contemporaneous critics of Kennedy’s proposed deal.

Later that same year, FDR decided to appoint JPK to the post of American ambassador in London. It was a daring move; Kennedy would become the first Irish-Catholic to hold that post. Nasaw concludes that Roosevelt needed someone to provide reliable intelligence about Europe’s political situation and the thoughts of its leaders, industrialists, press and public. “This Kennedy might be able to provide. Say what you might about the man,” Nasaw concludes, “he was a superb analyst and reporter, a clear-headed, tough-minded, independent thinker who appeared not to be swayed by ideology, belonged to no political faction, was beholden to no industrial sector, and was loyal to the president.”

This judgment, however, seems to contradict not only many other far more critical assessments of JPK, but much of the evidence in Nasaw’s own book. JPK may not have been beholden to any specific industrial sector, but he was certainly closely bound to the financial/banking/stock market sector. Kennedy’s loyalty too, was very malleable. After working in and contributing to FDR’s 1932 election campaign, JPK reacted furiously to the fact that he was passed over for any significant position in the new administration. Roosevelt brain truster Raymond Moley recalled that Kennedy’s disappointment “turned very soon to deep indignation. … I heard plenty of Kennedy’s excoriation of Roosevelt, of his criticisms of the President-elect, who according to Kennedy, had no program—and what ideas he had were unworthy of note.” One of Moley’s associates later claimed that JPK had been “spreading malicious stories about the president.” Kennedy’s close friend and loyalist Arthur Krock predicted in the New York Times that Roosevelt was planning to move far to the left by 1936 and was distancing himself from conservative businessmen and former advisers such as Joseph Kennedy. It seems highly unlikely that Krock would have named Kennedy without the latter’s prior knowledge. Soon after, as American Ambassador in London, Kennedy told his diplomatic and political contacts not to worry about FDR’s hostility to Nazism because after the 1940 election his friends would be in the White House.

Likewise JPK soon demonstrated that he was very easily swayed by ideology, political/economic self-interest, and group-think in his not very “clear-headed, tough-minded” evaluation of the growing Nazi threat in Europe. In 1934, he essentially endorsed an assessment by Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who had visited Germany and seemed to be parroting what Nasaw calls “a script prepared for him by Nazi propagandists.” JPK’s eldest son argued that Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies were a “well founded” response to a situation for which the Jews themselves were responsible. He observed that the “brown shirts were very nice and polite … and one sees no sign of brutality.” JPK noted that Nazi racial violence may “be covered up” in the presence of foreigners, but nonetheless praised his son’s “very keen sense of perception” and added, “I think your conclusions are very sound.” Kennedy, Sr.’s stance on Nazi racial policies seems to have been all but decided long before his appointment as ambassador in London.

In a similar vein, when discussing JPK’s pressure on President-elect Kennedy to appoint Robert Kennedy as attorney general, Nasaw concludes that JFK’s “past experiences had proven to him that more often than not Joseph P. Kennedy knew what he was talking about.” The book, on the contrary, is littered with examples of JPK’s opinions, which more often than not demonstrated that he did not know what he was talking about. For example: Kennedy told FDR that Hitler was bluffing on annexing Austria—and was proved wrong within hours; JPK praised Chamberlain because, unlike Roosevelt, he had been a businessman and still thought like one—which was a plus; the ambassador declared that the crisis between Czechoslovakia and Germany “will solve itself without interference” by other European powers and that Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia was “the beginning of a step in the right direction;” Kennedy told his wife that the Munich agreement “may be the beginning of a new world policy which may mean peace and prosperity once again;” he even argued that “if we had to protect our lives we would do better fighting in our own backyard” rather than in Europe; on the first night of the blitz in London, he told an aide: “I’ll bet you five to one any sum that Hitler will be in Buckingham Palace in two weeks;” when Chamberlain resigned, Kennedy told him that “Your conception of what the world must do in order to be a fit place to live in is the last sensible thing we shall see” and predicted that “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here [in the US].”

In 1940, he told his wife, “My God how right I’ve been in all my predictions. I wish I’d been wrong. … I know more about the European situation than anyone else and it’s up to me to see that the country gets it.” During the Battle of Britain, he callously grumbled to Lord Beaverbrook, “The bombers may be tough in London but the ill-disposed newspapers are tougher in America;” in 1944 he complained again to Beaverbrook, “I wonder if this war will do anything for the world;” and, even after the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, and the indisputable proof of the Holocaust, he asked Churchill in early 1946, “After all, what did we accomplish by this war?”

Finally, the staggering fact of the “Final Solution” makes it is essential to confront one of the most contentious issues relating to Joseph P. Kennedy—his purported anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic thread, Nasaw documents incontrovertibly, runs consistently through JPK’s life and career. Kennedy went to Hollywood in the 1920s to rescue the industry from “the unscrupulous, money-hungry, immoral Jews,” pants pressers “who didn’t understand business, banking, or accounting—and never would.” He cast himself as “Hollywood’s white, non-Jewish knight,” a Harvard-educated financier who would rescue the film industry “from the suspicion that its pictures were not to be trusted because they were produced by men who through breeding and background were morally untrustworthy.” His films would be “American films for Americans.”

A decade later, as US ambassador in London, Kennedy quickly fell under the spell of Lady Astor and the Cliveden set—sharing their enthusiasm for appeasement and anti-Semitism. (The boy from East Boston, aspiring to social acceptance by the condescending British elite, was able to overlook the Astors’ openly anti-Catholic views.) Nasaw asserts that JPK was not a “member” of the Cliveden set and was not “unduly influenced by their views.” But, he acknowledges that Kennedy—a foreign diplomat expected to avoid becoming entangled in internal British politics—“had no problem with Lady Astor’s pronouncements about the Jews, in large part because she was simply saying in public what others, Kennedy included, were saying in private. Kennedy had no intention of staying away or encouraging any member of his family to do so. … He continued to see a great deal of the Astors, almost in defiance of those who criticized him for doing so.” The claim that JPK was not a “member” of the Cliveden set, (whatever that means) is a rhetorical distinction without a real-world difference, and it certainly fails to let him off the hook for blatantly undiplomatic and disloyal behavior that infuriated FDR and Cordell Hull, the secretary of state.

In June 1938, Kennedy met with the German ambassador in London and declared that Hitler’s desire to “get rid of the Jews” was entirely justified, but deplored the unnecessarily “loud clamor” associated with these measures. He claimed to understand Nazi racial and religious policies because he was from Boston and Jews had been barred from private clubs there for fifty years—casually equating this comparatively trivial example of the pervasive Irish-Catholic anti-Semitism of that era with Nazi Germany’s persecution, dispossession and murder of its Jewish citizens.

When his appeasement was criticized in the American press, he attributed the attacks to a vast Jewish conspiracy that controlled both the press and the State Department. He simply ignored the fact, “that in numbers and ferocity, his gentile critics far outnumbered the Jewish;” His chief detractor, Walter Lippmann, was Jewish, but so was his most influential defender, Arthur Krock—“jokingly referred to” by members of JPK’s own family as “the ambassador’s spy in Washington.” He also claimed that the Jews were “so powerful in that they were steamrolling their proposals for [Jewish] refugee resettlement through Washington.” In fact all these efforts failed miserably; Jews had no influence whatsoever in the State Department or over US foreign policy.

Shortly before the 1944 presidential election, Kennedy warned FDR that some “old line Democrats—the Irish and the Italians” might not vote for him for a fourth term because he was “Jew controlled [sic].” The former ambassador specifically mentioned the ostensibly excessive influence of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Roosevelt responded defensively, “Why, I don’t see Frankfurter twice a year.” JPK, increasingly convinced of the power of this elusive and secret Jewish conspiracy, replied: “You see him twenty times a day but you don’t know it because he works through all these other groups of people without your knowing it.”

The reader, therefore, is left with no doubt about the author’s conclusions about Joe Kennedy’s anti-Semitism. But, when Nasaw spoke about the book at the JFK Library, he stressed that he had tried from the beginning to determine whether JPK was indeed an anti-Semite:

I concluded that to be an anti-Semite, like Henry Ford, like Lindbergh, like Lady Astor… a real anti-Semite has to believe there’s something in the genetic make-up, in the blood of Jews which makes them sinister, evil and destructive of Christian morality. I think Henry Ford believes that. I think Lindbergh believes that. They have a real, racist, racial understanding. Kennedy doesn’t believe that at all.

On the other hand, Kennedy believes that—and he’s brought up that way—that the Jews are another tribe. They’re different; they’re culturally different. They look after themselves, just as Irish Catholics look after themselves. The Jews are smarter because they’re better organized in the United States than Irish Catholics. The Jews get what they want. But his admiration of the Jews allows him, permits him, encourages him to buy into thousand-year-old anti -Semitic myths while he is ambassador to Great Britain. And it is frightening, indeed. And I’m glad that his family didn’t have to read some of his letters and some of his diaries, and some of his conversations that other people recorded.

This distinction is, to say the least, an incredible stretch. The “genetic make-up, in the blood” arguments were largely a product of late 19th century “scientific” and “racialist” anti-Semitism in Europe (for example, in the writing of Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain). Joe Kennedy’s historical/religious/theological anti-Semitism had flourished for more than a thousand years before genes were even discovered. As Jean Paul Sartre famously declared, the anti-Semite’s experience did not produce his view of the Jew, rather his view of the Jew explained his experience: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”3

It is striking that Nasaw utilized this historically artificial distinction at the Kennedy Library, allowing him, in that particular setting, to fudge the issue of whether JPK was an anti-Semite—which he did not do in the book. Also, the ambiguous final sentence in the Kennedy Library quote, referring to the “frightening” anti-Semitism in JPK’s letters, diaries, and conversations “that his family didn’t have to read,” hints that Nasaw may have chosen to leave at least some of these very disturbing remarks out of the book.

Finally, there is a compelling irony about Joseph Kennedy’s toxic convictions about Jews. JPK was dogged throughout his life by charges that he was a corrupt banker and Wall Street operator, an insular, amoral, ruthless, greedy, selfish, conniving and secretive robber baron who believed that everyone had a price and anything could be bought. For example, soon after Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Kennedy met with King George VI who concluded that the American ambassador spoke “a different language” and calculated “everything from the angle of his own investments.” In other words, JPK himself exhibited the same stereotypical behavior which anti-Semites associate with Jews.

“It can be argued,” Doris Kearns Goodwin concluded in 1987,

that Kennedy embodied many of the traits traditionally associated with the Jews. It was said that the Jews did not cultivate the earth or work at mechanical trades, preferring to live by their cunning and wit in the ‘unproductive’ role of creditors, speculators and middlemen. It was said that the Jews were unscrupulous profit-takers who made their gains from the labor of others. It was said that the Jews were pushing for social acceptance too hard and too soon, while their voices were still uncouth and their sense of tact still in the stage of the pushcart peddler. All of these charges could be equally laid against Joseph Patrick Kennedy.4

During my years as historian at the Kennedy Library, I heard JFK’s pal Dave Powers tell a revealing story about “old man Kennedy.” When 13-year-old Edward Kennedy was a student at the Fessenden School, he would buy candy bars during lunch break and then sell them at wildly inflated prices to his hungry fellow adolescents during the afternoon. Joe Kennedy thought Teddy’s behavior was admirable, but joked that perhaps a Jew had gotten over the fence and secretly infiltrated the family in the distant past. It obviously never occurred to Kennedy, Sr. that his youngest son did not need an allegorical or mythical Jewish ancestor to explain his behavior; he was emulating someone very close at hand—his own father.

1For example: Richard Whalen, The Founding Father: the Story of Joseph P. Kennedy, 1964; David E. Koskoff, Joseph P. Kennedy: A Life and Times, 1974; Doris K. Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, 1987; Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth, 1992, Ralph G. Martin, Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons, 1995; Ronald Kessler, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded, 1996; Amanda Smith, Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, 2001; Lawrence Leamer, The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963, 2001; David Nasaw, The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, 2012.

2Kessler’s book is relentlessly hostile to JPK; but, as the author of nine books, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and the winner of sixteen journalism awards—including two George Polk Awards—he should not be ignored.

3Jean Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, Schocken Books, 1965, p. 13.

4Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, Simon and Schuster, 1987, p. 473

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