Joseph P. Kennedy

Joseph P. Kennedy

Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the son of Patrick Joseph Kennedy and Mary Augusta Hickey Kennedy, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 6th September, 1888. His father was the owner of the wine and spirit importation business, P. J. Kennedy and Company, and a leading figure in the local Democratic Party. All of Kennedy's grandparents had emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1840s to escape the Irish famine.

Kennedy studied at Harvard University and in 1914 married Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of John Francis Fitzgerald, the mayor of Boston. The couple had nine children: Joseph (25th July, 1915), John (29th May, 1917), Rose (13th September, 1918), Kathleen (20th February, 1920), Eunice (10th July, 1921), Patricia (6th May, 1924), Robert (20th November, 1925), Jean (20th February, 1928) and Edward (22nd September, 1932).

In 1919 Kennedy became manager of Hayden, Stone and Company, where he became an expert in dealing on the Wall Street Stock Market. He became a multi-millionaire and retired from the business just before the Wall Street Crash. Kennedy went on to become a motion-picture tycoon. It is estimated that Kennedy made over $5 million ($67.7 million in today's money) from his investments in Hollywood. While in Hollywood he had a three-year affair with film star Gloria Swanson.

Kennedy was an active member of the Democratic Party and was a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. During Roosevelt's 1932 presidential election he donated, loaned, and raised a substantial amount of money for the campaign. 1934 President Roosevelt appointed Kennedy chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. A colleague asked Roosevelt why he had appointed "such a crook". Roosevelt replied: "Takes one to catch one." With his inside knowledge of the system Kennedy was able to outlaw those speculative practices that had made him rich but had contributed to the Wall Street Crash.

Kennedy also helped Roosevelt in his struggle with Father Charles Coughlin, an Irish-Canadian priest in Detroit, who became the most prominent Roman Catholic spokesman on political and financial issues in the 1930s. It was estimated that Coughlin's radio broadcasts were getting an audience of 30 million people. He was also having to employ twenty-six secretaries to deal with the 400,000 letters a week he was receiving from his listeners. In 1936 Coughlin accused Roosevelt of "leaning toward international socialism or sovietism". Kennedy now worked with Bishop Francis Spellman to remove Coughlin from the radio to undermine his influence among Irish Americans.

In 1937 Kennedy was appointed United States Ambassador to Britain. Joseph E. Persico, the author of Roosevelt's Secret War (2001) has argued: "The President may have had an ulterior motive. Joe Kennedy had proved something of a misguided missile in Washington. The right wing saw him as a renegade, a businessman who attacked his own kind. The left painted him as a man who could be troublesome for labor. Within the administration, he was counted a power-hungry publicity hound, a harsh critic of the administration when it suited him, and a man whose business dealings might not stand up to close scrutiny." Henry Morgenthau was upset by the appointment and demanded a meeting with Roosevelt. He later claimed that Roosevelt told him: "Kennedy is too dangerous to have around here... I have made arrangements to have Joe Kennedy watched hourly and the first time he opens his mouth and criticizes me, I will fire him."

In December 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Kennedy informed Roosevelt that Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was "ruthless and scheming" and was in close touch with an "American clique... notably, certain strong Jewish leaders" who wanted the United States to intervene in the conflict. Two months later Harold Ickes claimed that Kennedy informed William Bullitt that at a meeting with Joseph M. Patterson and Doris Fleeson of the New York Daily News: "Before long he (Kennedy) was saying that Germany would win, that everything in France and England would go to hell, and that his one interest was in saving his money for his children. He began to criticize the President very sharply, whereupon Bill (Bullitt) took issue with him... Bill told him that he was disloyal and that he had no right to say what he had before Patterson and Fleeson."

Kennedy soon came to the conclusion that the island was a lost cause and he considered aid to Britain fruitless. Kennedy, an isolationist, consistently warned Roosevelt "against holding the bag in a war in which the Allies expect to be beaten." Averell Harriman later explained the thinking of Kennedy and other isolationists: "After World War I, there was a surge of isolationism, a feeling there was no reason for getting involved in another war... We made a mistake and there were a lot of debts owed by European countries. The country went isolationist.

On 27th May, 1940, Kennedy told Secretary of State Cordell Hull that "only a miracle could save the Britsh Army from annihilation." The "miracle" came at Dunkirk. However, Kennedy was still not convinced and Neville Chamberlain wrote in his diary in July 1940: "Saw Joe Kennedy who says everyone in the USA thinks we shall be beaten before the end of the month."

When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 he appointed William Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC) that was based in New York City. Churchill told Stephenson: "You know what you must do at once. We have discussed it most fully, and there is a complete fusion of minds between us. You are to be my personal representative in the United States. I will ensure that you have the full support of all the resources at my command. I know that you will have success, and the good Lord will guide your efforts as He will ours." Charles Howard Ellis said that he selected Stephenson because: "Firstly, he was Canadian. Secondly, he had very good American connections... he had a sort of fox terrier character, and if he undertook something, he would carry it through."

Stephenson knew that with leading officials supporting isolationism he had to overcome these barriers. His main ally in this was another friend, William Donovan, who he had met in the First World War. "The procurement of certain supplies for Britain was high on my priority list and it was the burning urgency of this requirement that made me instinctively concentrate on the single individual who could help me. I turned to Bill Donovan." Donovan arranged meetings with Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) and Frank Knox (Secretary of the Navy). The main topic was Britain's lack of destroyers and the possibility of finding a formula for transfer of fifty "over-age" destroyers to the Royal Navy without a legal breach of U.S. neutrality legislation.

It was decided to send Donovan to Britain on a fact-finding mission. Donovan took with him the journalist Edgar Ansel Mowrer. He left on 14th July, 1940. When he heard the news, Joseph P. Kennedy complained: "Our staff, I think is getting all the information that possibility can be gathered, and to send a new man here at this time is to me the height of nonsense and a definite blow to good organization." He added that the trip would "simply result in causing confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the British". Andrew Lycett has argued: "Nothing was held back from the big American. British planners had decided to take him completely into their confidence and share their most prized military secrets in the hope that he would return home even more convinced of their resourcefulness and determination to win the war." According to Randolph Churchill, during this period Kennedy was seen by the British government as an enemy: "We had reached the point of bugging potential traitors and enemies. Joe Kennedy, the American ambassador, came under electronic surveillance."

William Donovan arrived back in the United States in early August, 1940. In his report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt he argued: "(1) That the British would fight to the last ditch. (2) They could not hope to hold to hold the last ditch unless they got supplies at least from America. (3) That supplies were of no avail unless they were delivered to the fighting front - in short, that protecting the lines of communication was a sine qua non. (4) That Fifth Column activity was an important factor." Donovan also urged that the government should sack Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was predicting a German victory. Roosevelt took Donovan's advice and in November, 1940, he was forced to resign. Edgar Ansel Mowrer also wrote a series of articles, based on information supplied by William Stephenson, that Nazi Germany posed a serious threat to the United States.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor Kennedy was keen to help with the war effort but was not invited to do so. It is believed that Kennedy wanted to challenge Roosevelt for the nomination in 1944 but he decided against it and eventually encouraged Irish-American and Roman Catholics to vote for the incumbant. During the war, Kennedy's eldest son, Joseph Kennedy was killed while serving in the armed forces, whereas his second son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, served with distinction with the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron.

After the war Kennedy concentrated on helping the political careers of his three surviving sons. John Fitzgerald Kennedy became president but was assassinated in 1963. Robert Kennedy served as U.S. attorney general and as senator from New York before being murdered in 1968. Edward Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, was the front-runner to become the Democratic Party presidential candidate until the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in July, 1969.

Joseph Kennedy died on 18th November, 1969.

Primary Sources

(1) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001)

Kennedy turned out to be a smash choice from the moment of his arrival in 1938 at the palatial thirty-six-room embassy residence on Grosvenor Square. The British public embraced Kennedy, his appealing wife, Rose, and brood of nine handsome children. The luck of the Irish held as the ambassador scored a hole in one on his first round of golf at the Stoke Poges course in Buckinghamshire. Joe Kennedy's London life appeared charmed.

He may have been a favorite of the British people, but Joe Kennedy was not popular in government circles. Early in 1939 he angered FDR by attempting to consort with Nazis. Helmuth Wohlthat, an economic advisor to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, wanted to meet with Kennedy to consider an American gold loan to Germany. Kennedy's request to see the man was instantly turned down by a horrified FDR. Unabashed, Kennedy repeated the request, and again the President refused. Kennedy then, in direct contradiction of FDR's orders, allowed Wohlthat to come see him in London. Learning of the ambassador's insubordination, Roosevelt put a stop to any further encounters....

Churchill's son. Randolph, remarked of the American ambassador's defeatism: "We had reached the point of bugging potential traitors and enemies. Joe Kennedy, the American ambassador, came under electronic surveillance: " Ironically, during that May 20 encounter between Tyler Kent and Kennedy, an American ambassador who himself did not believe in the war, who ridiculed Britain's chances of' survival, and who practiced his own brand of anti-Semitism berated a lowly code clerk who shared both his politics and his prejudices. Kennedy treated the matter as he always did when his principles collided with his survival. He pulled the rug on Kent. Two days after his talk with the ambassador, Kent was fired by the State Department. Kennedy denied him diplomatic immunity, and the code clerk remained in the custody of the British. In this matter, at least, the President showed no disagreement with his ambassador's conduct. Kent's loss of immunity was instantly approved in Washington. Kennedy declared that if the United States had been at war during Kent's betrayal, he would have recommended that he be sent home and shot by a firing squad.

FDR had just returned from a dip in the White House pool when he received a transatlantic phone call from an uncharacteristically contrite Kennedy. Because of Tyler Kent's treachery, the Gray code, through which the President and Churchill communicated, had been compromised, the ambassador informed FDR. An American assistant secretary of state, Reckoning Long, reckoned the cost of Kent's disloyalty in his diary: "Appalling ... it means that not only are our codes cracked a dozen different ways, but that our every diplomatic maneuver was exposed to Germany and Russia. It is a terrible blow - almost a major catastrophe."

Tyler Kent was tried in secret in the Old Bailey on October 23, 1940, charged with violating Britain's Official Secrets Act and the Larceny Act for stealing the documents. Kent's defense attorney, a London barrister, Maurice Healy, argued that this court had no jurisdiction over an American whose arrest and trial were "entirely contrary to the general principles of international law and the comity of nations." After four days of testimony, however, it took the jury of twelve Englishmen only twenty-five minutes to find Kent guilty of endangering their Country. He was sentenced to seven years and, with equal secrecy, packed off to the windswept Isle of Wight, to a camp for political prisoners. In a separate trial, Anna Wolkoff received ten years.

The Churchill government found in the Kent-Wolkoff scandal just the provocation it wanted. Within forty-eight hours of Kent's arrest a massive roundup of British fascists took place, including the Jew-baiting Captain Ramsay. The Low Countries had fallen to Germany within days, and on June 20, France surrendered after only a shocking six weeks' struggle. Obviously, British leaders believed, Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and France could not have fallen under Hitler's heel simply because they were weak. Fifth columnists had to be the answer. The British were convinced that Norway had been flooded with German "tourists" before the invasion. German parachutists who dropped into the Netherlands were rumored to have been guided by enemy agents signaling them from the ground. The contagion of suspicion crossed the Atlantic, and FDR eagerly embraced the conspiracy rationale.

(2) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001)

The President may have had an ulterior motive. Joe Kennedy had proved something of a misguided missile in Washington. The right wing saw him as a renegade, a businessman who attacked his own kind. The left painted him as a man who could be troublesome for labor. Within the administration, he was counted a power-hungry publicity hound, a harsh critic of the administration when it suited him, and a man whose business dealings might not stand up to close scrutiny. Henry Morgenthau met with the President shortly before Kennedy's appointment became official and recorded in his diary a presidential display that astonished him. "I have made arrangements to have Joe Kennedy watched hourly," FDR said, "and the first time he opens his mouth and criticizes me, I will fire him." He repeated several times, Morgenthau remembered, "Kennedy is too dangerous to have around here." Thus the bootstraps Irishman, snubbed while a student at Harvard, still socially banging on society's door, attained the most prestigious American appointment in international diplomacy.

Kennedy turned out to be a smash choice from the moment of his arrival in 1938 at the palatial thirty-six-room embassy residence on Grosvenor Square. The British public embraced Kennedy, his appealing wife, Rose, and brood of nine handsome children. The luck of the Irish held as the ambassador scored a hole in one on his first round of golf at the Stoke Poges course in Buckinghamshire. Joe Kennedy's London life appeared charmed.

He may have been a favorite of the British people, but Joe Kennedy was not popular in government circles. Early in 1939 he angered FDR by attempting to consort with Nazis. Helmuth Wohlthat, an economic advisor to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, wanted to meet with Kennedy to consider an American gold loan to Germany. Kennedy's request to see the man was instantly turned down by a horrified FDR. Unabashed, Kennedy repeated the request, and again the President refused. Kennedy then, in direct contradiction of FDR's orders, allowed Wohlthat to come see him in London. Learning of the ambassador's insubordination, Roosevelt put a stop to any further encounters....

Ironically, during that May 20 encounter between Tyler Kent and Kennedy, an American ambassador who himself did not believe in the war, who ridiculed Britain's chances of' survival, and who practiced his own brand of anti-Semitism berated a lowly code clerk who shared both his politics and his prejudices. Kennedy treated the matter as he always did when his principles collided with his survival. He pulled the rug on Kent. Two days after his talk with the ambassador, Kent was fired by the State Department. Kennedy denied him diplomatic immunity, and the code clerk remained in the custody of the British. In this matter, at least, the President showed no disagreement with his ambassador's conduct. Kent's loss of immunity was instantly approved in Washington. Kennedy declared that if the United States had been at war during Kent's betrayal, he would have recommended that he be sent home and shot by a firing squad.

FDR had just returned from a dip in the White House pool when he received a transatlantic phone call from an uncharacteristically contrite Kennedy. Because of Tyler Kent's treachery, the Gray code, through which the President and Churchill communicated, had been compromised, the ambassador informed FDR. An American assistant secretary of state, Reckoning Long, reckoned the cost of Kent's disloyalty in his diary: "Appalling ... it means that not only are our codes cracked a dozen different ways, but that our every diplomatic maneuver was exposed to Germany and Russia. It is a terrible blow - almost a major catastrophe."

Tyler Kent was tried in secret in the Old Bailey on October 23, 1940, charged with violating Britain's Official Secrets Act and the Larceny Act for stealing the documents. Kent's defense attorney, a London barrister, Maurice Healy, argued that this court had no jurisdiction over an American whose arrest and trial were "entirely contrary to the general principles of international law and the comity of nations." After four days of testimony, however, it took the jury of twelve Englishmen only twenty-five minutes to find Kent guilty of endangering their Country. He was sentenced to seven years and, with equal secrecy, packed off to the windswept Isle of Wight, to a camp for political prisoners. In a separate trial, Anna Wolkoff received ten years.

The Churchill government found in the Kent-Wolkoff scandal just the provocation it wanted. Within forty-eight hours of Kent's arrest a massive roundup of British fascists took place, including the Jew-baiting Captain Ramsay. The Low Countries had fallen to Germany within days, and on June 20, France surrendered after only a shocking six weeks' struggle. Obviously, British leaders believed, Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and France could not have fallen under Hitler's heel simply because they were weak. Fifth columnists had to be the answer. The British were convinced that Norway had been flooded with German "tourists" before the invasion. German parachutists who dropped into the Netherlands were rumored to have been guided by enemy agents signaling them from the ground. The contagion of suspicion crossed the Atlantic, and FDR eagerly embraced the conspiracy rationale.