Kennedy congratulated the president for his successful reelection (to a record third term) and then offered his resignation as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Roosevelt accepted the offer and the two chatted briefly about possible replacements. A few minutes later, Kennedy strode out of the Oval Office relieved to be done with what he believed had become a thankless and impossible job and confident his political career was still on the rise. If all went according to plan, he might soon occupy the office he just left. But an ill-advised interview with the press a few days later would make headlines around the world and force Kennedy to transfer his political ambitions to his sons.
Joseph P. Kennedy was born in Boston in 1888 and grew up in a household steeped in politics. His father, Patrick J. Kennedy, was a saloonkeeper and politician who made certain his intelligent son received the best education possible. After graduating from the prestigious Boston Latin School, he attended Harvard and graduated in 1912. In 1914, he married Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of Boston Mayor John F. “Honey” Fitzgerald. Together they would have nine children, four boys and five girls.
Kennedy began his career in business as a banker, before moving chiefly into investing in stocks, the film industry, and. it is widely believed, bootlegging operations during Prohibition. He made a substantial fortune by the late-1920s and was one of the few big Wall Street investors to pull his money from the stock market in the summer of 1929 and thus escape the Crash of ’29 unscathed.
By the early 1930s Kennedy’s wealth and business connections led him o politics, where he emerged as a major fundraiser and advisor for President Roosevelt. His reward came in 1934 when he was named the first chairman of the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the new federal agency charged with cleaning up the mess on Wall Street and enforcing new regulations on investment practices. Success in that job led to a subsequent appointment to chair the Federal Maritime Commission. As his political career prospered, Kennedy began to think that higher office, even the White House, might some day soon be within his grasp.
In the summer of 1937, Kennedy began to mention to key people in the Roosevelt administration his desire to be appointed ambassador of England, or more formally the ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The position would provide Kennedy with enormous public exposure, especially if tensions in Europe continued to mount, but it also appealed to his sense of humor and ethnic pride. “I’m intrigued by the thought of being the first Irishman to be ambassador to the Court of St. James’s,” he told the president’s son James with a smile.
At first Roosevelt thought the idea ridiculous, but he soon warmed to it and in February 1938 Kennedy, his wife, and his brood of nine children arrived in London. They immediately endeared themselves with the British media and public. The tabloids covered their every move as Kennedy and his wife dined with the king and queen and attended one gala affair after another. Kennedy clearly loved every minute of it. “You would have had a lot of fun watching your little brother having the first dance with the Duchess of Kent and the second with Queen Elizabeth,” he wrote his sister back in Massachusetts. On another occasion he joked with his wife as they prepared for another event with the king and queen, “Well, Rose, it’s a hell of a long way from East Boston.”
Over the next two years, however, as the winds of war blew across Europe, Kennedy became increasingly controversial. Unlike Roosevelt, who was a firm eliever in U.S. activism in foreign affairs, Kennedy was a staunch isolationist. Over and over again he urged the Roosevelt administration to avoid intervening in the coming European conflict and led British officials to believe that the U.S. would not come to their assistance in a war against Germany. Not surprisingly, Kennedy formed a close friendship with Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, who spent much of 1938 and ’39 appeasing Adolph Hitler in a futile attempt to stave off war. Kennedy also evidenced a startling degree of sympathy with fascism (though he did try to distinguish between fascism and Nazism). When war finally came in September 1939, Kennedy sent a steady stream of cables to FDR and State Department predicting the imminent defeat of Britain at the hands of the Germans and urging the U.S. stay out of a losing battle. Slowly but surely, the Roosevelt administration began to isolate Kennedy from the diplomatic exchanges between Washington and London and by the summer of 1940 it was clear he needed to step down.
A frustrated and dejected Kennedy returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1940 to tender his resignation to Roosevelt. Roosevelt accepted the offer but agreed to keep it secret until a replacement had been selected. While disappointed with the way his tenure as ambassador had ended, Kennedy nonetheless had many reasons to be optimistic about his political future. America remained neutral and most Americans, he correctly believed, hoped it would stay that way for the duration of the war. He planned to drop out of sight for a while and wait until the political winds blew his way again — perhaps as early as the 1944 presidential election.
But any hope Kennedy had for a future in politics was quickly dashed when three days after submitting his resignation he gave an interview to a group of reporters in which he uttered one controversial statement after another. “Democracy is finished in England,” he announced, and if the U.S. joined the war “it may be here” as well. He also attacked Mrs. Roosevelt, characterizing her as a nuisance who was “always sending me a note to have some little Susie Glotz to tea at the Embassy.” Kennedy later claimed the interview had been an off-the-record background briefing, but the reporter from the Boston Globe who broke the story denied any such arrangement had been made. Kennedy’s remarks touched off a storm of protest on both sides of the Atlantic and prompted Roosevelt to demand his resignation take effect immediately.
An embittered and embarrassed Kennedy complied and slipped out of Washington. His political career was in shambles and unless the U.S. entered the war on the side of Great Britain and suffered devastating losses, the White House would never be his. Yet without missing a beat, Kennedy soon began planning the political ascent of his sons. After the eldest, Joe, was killed in a plane crash during the war, the mantle was passed to John, who was elected president in 1960. Sadly, the elder Kennedy would outlive all but his youngest son, Edward, dying in 1969 at the age of 86.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 6, 1928: Democrat Al Smith is trounced by Republican Herbert Hoover in the presidential election.
Nov. 7, 1990: Mary Robinson is elected Ireland’s first woman president.
Nov. 12, 1942: Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa, are killed when their ship is sunk in the Pacific during World War II.
Nov. 6, 1955: Broadcast journalist Maria Shriver is born in Chicago.
Nov. 8, 1847: author of “Dracula,” Bram Stoker, is born in Dublin.
Nov. 10, 1879: nationalist Padraic Pearse is born in Dublin.