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The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm: A Thousand Days in London, 1938-1940 Hardcover – April 29, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Clinical psychologist and historian Swift (The Roosevelts and the Royals) capably documents Joseph P. Kennedy's troubled tenure as American minister to the Court of St. James's, and the experiences of his family during these years, aiming to present a fair and comprehensive portrait of a man he says has been caricatured by other historians. But Kennedy's flaws still appear to outweigh his virtues. He proved a problem to FDR almost immediately, casting his lot with such British appeasers as Neville Chamberlain, Nancy Astor and others of the so-called Cliveden set. This earned him the enmity of Winston Churchill and criticism from such administration figures as Henry Morgenthau Jr., Cordell Hull and FDR himself, who had to regularly remind Kennedy that his role was to implement, not define, United States policy. Kennedy lasted just over two years, during which his second eldest son, Jack, became a bestselling author with Why England Slept. Eldest son Joe Jr. toured war-torn Spain and wrote articles in support of Franco's Fascist forces. And daughter Kathleen (Kick) became immersed in aristocratic British nightlife, meeting Billy Cavendish—the marquess of Hartington and a Protestant—to whom she would eventually be married, to her Catholic mother's horror. All this Swift narrates with grace and style. Illus. and photos. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Swift’s subject of Joseph Kennedy’s ambassadorship to the UK intersects with the author’s previous interest in British monarchs (The Roosevelts and the Royals, 2004). Indeed, the social-register aspect of the Kennedy family’s navigation of elite London society during their three-year stay, involving debutante presentations for the daughters, political grooming for the sons, and celebrity status for all, receives the author’s extensive narrative attention. Readers familiar with the Kennedy story will see portents of the future in Swift’s detailing of the activities of Joe Jr., Kathleen, and Jack, especially, while learning why their father’s diplomatic tenure became notorious. Joe Kennedy forgot an ambassador’s role, which is to represent the president’s views to the host government; instead, he pressed his own pessimistic predictions of Britain’s chances against Germany. Amid his chronicles of Kennedy’s diplomatic indiscretions, Swift strains to be sympathetic, citing FDR’s hostility toward Kennedy, but ultimately doesn’t challenge history’s verdict that as ambassador, Joe failed. Nevertheless, 1938–40 is a crucial period in the Kennedy epic that Swift covers well for fans of the clan’s history. --Gilbert Taylor
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So, I was getting bored...thinking, well, get on with it ! As the book went on it got a lot more interesting. Hence my wavering between 3 or 4 stars.
What was interesting was that as much as he was going to re paint the image of Joe Kennedy,sr. he actually simply reinforced the current image. So, there wasn't a lot of debunking, but it was an interesting book.
I learned a lot about the Kennedy family's time in England (1938-1940). Joe sr. WAS a difficult man, but FDR was his boss. And FDR was an equally difficult, demanding boss. FDR didn't always share his policy and thoughts with Joe sr. so it would be hard to represent your country in a knowledge vacuum.
So, I enjoyed it. I wouldn't spend a lot of money on it. I got it as a daily deal I think. So, for the amount I paid, it was worth a read.
Not to mention seeing Rosemary, the tragic one, attend elegant high society dances in London with her sisters, without any serious problems, and function well as an arts and crafts teacher in England, totally lose it when she returned to the US, causing Joe, Sr., to agree to a lobotomy, which turned her into a vegetable. And mother Rose, who probably spent as much money on fancy French couture as Joe did on his mistresses.
The book also contains lots of wonderful cameos, from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, to their daughter, the current Queen, to the Lindberghs,
who, with their own rarified brand of politicial naivete, were about to move permanently to Nazi Germany when the war began (!), to Jack's wonderful gay best friend, Lem Billings, and the gay American Ambassador in Paris, Wlliam Bullitt, who lived openly with his partner.
One persistent theme of the book is to criticize FDR's failure to explain his foreign policy to Joe Kennedy. This criticism is, I believe, misplaced. Joe Kennedy knew next to nothing about foreign policy when he asked for the job as the first American Irish Ambassador to the King, and less when he was forced to quit. FDR rightly did not trust Kennedy, and wanted Kennedy out of the country during the 1940 Presidential election. Joe, Sr., lacked the political sophistication to understand his role, or to adjust to FDR's policies and changing public opinion in the US, which moved towards supporting intervention before Pearl Harbor left people with no other option than to fight. FDR could not have clarified his foreign policy to Kennedy because FDR was hiding his own interventionist views from a public and a Congress (and a London Ambassador) who were stuck on neutrality and isolationism. Kennedy made the additional mistake of befriending Neville Chamberlain, a very small-minded and naive politician like himself, who made the near-fatal mistake of thinking Hitler would keep his promises. Kennedy and Chamberlain were two peas in a pod.
In addition, Joe, Sr., a successful businessman, made the mistake of thinking economics controlled the bloodthirsty ideologues of the Nazi regime.
Joe Sr's reward was to see his political career destroyed; he never held any political office after he left London.
On the other hand, Jack, Bobby, Ted, all of them far better politicians and strategists than their father, never made the mistake of hanging on to extreme positions, or giving disastrously candid interviews to reporters, such as Louis Lyons, who actually and courageously reported the crazy things Joe said after his return to the US. The cosmopolitanism and friends the family developed in England just before the war, however, proved a great benefit, especially to Jack. Without the Kennedys' experiences in England, could Camelot have existed?
The book is also full of witty stories and interesting analogies, such as the fact that FDR, like Obama, had trouble with the Irish Catholic working class voters of his day.
FDR achieved his goal of keeping Joe, Sr. out of the 1940 presidential campaign; at Rose Kennedy's urging, aided by some blarney from FDR, Joe even gave a nationwide radio address before the election endorsing FDR. The important job in the government which FDR, in a staged meeting at the White House, promised Kennedy, of course never materialized.
Joe's reward, as we all know, was an amazingly talented and fascinating family. Whatever his other faults, Joe seems to have been a genuinely good father, treating his children with respect, discussing issues at the dinner table and providing support when needed. When he was not around he wrote personalized letters to each of the children. Even the tragedies, such as Rosemary's problems, often had wonderful trajectories, such as the Special Olympics which Eunice and others developed following Rosemary's tragedy.
Perhaps it's my preconception of Kennedy from prior reading, but this bio seems to be a bit defensive of Kennedy. Most interesting to me was reading about young Jack, Bobby and Ted. To be honest, I never cared for their brand of ultra-liberal politics, but this book did fill in some gaps for me.