Rogue Diplomacy

  Enlarge Photo    
By Lynne Olson,
a former Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and Associated Press and the author of "Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England"
Thursday, May 1, 2008

THE KENNEDYS AMIDST THE GATHERING STORM

A Thousand Days in London, 1938-1940

By Will Swift

Smithsonian. 374 pp. $26.95

When Joseph P. Kennedy became ambassador to Britain in February 1938, a friend told him he was heading for disaster. "The job of Ambassador to London . . . needs skills brought by years of training. And that, Joe, you simply don't possess. . . . If you don't realize that soon enough, you're going to be hurt as you were never hurt in your life."

Kennedy, who had lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the job, paid no attention to what turned out to be a remarkably prescient warning. The former Wall Street speculator, whom Roosevelt had appointed in 1934 as first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was "hell-bent on becoming the ambassador," writes Will Swift in "The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm." "Then, he believed, all of London's social doors -- often closed to the Irish -- would open for him and his wife, Rose."

Casting his book as a revisionist view of Kennedy, Swift aims to erase some of the tarnish from the ambassador's image as a defeatist and appeaser and to establish him as a more substantial, sympathetic figure than the one portrayed by most historians and Kennedy biographers. The trouble is, Swift offers considerably more evidence to back up the earlier view of Kennedy than he does to support his own.

Although Kennedy sought the London post in large part to enhance his social status and had no experience in diplomacy or firsthand knowledge of Britain or the rest of Europe, he saw himself, in Swift's words, as "Roosevelt's premier delegate not just to Britain but the world." Blinkered by his background as a businessman, he viewed Hitler's threat to Europe almost entirely in economic terms, believing, as James Reston of the New York Times put it, that "wars were bad for business, and what was worse, for his business."

Upon his arrival in Britain, Kennedy allied himself with the appeasement policies of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, himself a former businessman. Unsanctioned by the Roosevelt administration, the American envoy embarked on what Swift aptly terms "rogue diplomacy": freelance negotiations with the German ambassador to London and other Reich officials in a vain attempt to accommodate Hitler. After the German occupation of much of Czechoslovakia in October 1938, the ambassador told a London audience that democracies and dictatorships must learn to get along, declaring that "there is simply no sense . . . in letting these differences grow into unrelenting antagonisms." Like a number of other foot-in-mouth remarks he made during his 2 1/2 years in Britain, these comments caused a major international uproar and considerable heartburn for Roosevelt, who, while trying to walk a tightrope of neutrality, opposed Hitler's policy of aggression.

Although the attempt to rehabilitate Kennedy as ambassador fails to persuade, Swift, a clinical psychologist, does an admirable job of depicting Kennedy the man, an Irish Catholic outsider who spent most of his life trying to "defuse his profound sense of being a second-class citizen" by seeking acceptance from the WASP establishment.

His appointment to the Court of St. James's was the pinnacle of his social ambitions, and he and his wife, who remind one of characters in a Trollope novel, gloried in invitations to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and to the Mayfair and Belgravia mansions of Britain's aristocratic elite. Kennedy hired press agents to stir up British media interest in himself and his photogenic family; his daughters, accompanied by their mother, were presented at court.

The Kennedys' dazzling social success in London, however, lasted little more than a year. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Rose and the children were sent home, and Kennedy, who predicted the death of Britain as a democracy, found himself increasingly an outcast. The invitations dried up, King George VI condemned Kennedy's defeatist views in his diary, scornful government officials kept their distance, and the British press reviled him. When Winston Churchill, who detested Kennedy, became prime minister in May 1940, he and Roosevelt bypassed the ambassador by communicating directly with each other. Kennedy, feeling "once again like an aggrieved outsider," returned home for good in October 1940, declaring that "England is gone" and "I'm for appeasement one thousand per cent." With his reputation indelibly stained, he never held another government position.

Kennedy's political downfall, Swift argues, was a blessing in disguise for his three younger sons -- John F., Robert and Edward -- who, while remaining close to their father, were able to learn from his mistakes as well as carve out their own identities. "It is possible," Swift writes, "that they would never have blossomed as they did if, like Franklin Roosevelt's children, they had been overshadowed by an unquestionably powerful man." A case in point: In college, John F. Kennedy wholeheartedly embraced the isolationist, pro-appeasement views of his father. Twenty years later, as president of the United States, he was an unequivocal internationalist, following in the footsteps of the man who had replaced Joseph P. Kennedy as his role model: Winston Churchill.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company