Toward the end of 1940, with Nazi troops occupying Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France, and German bombs falling on London and other British cities, the Axis war machine looked formidable.
In the Boston Sunday Globe of November 10, 1940, Ambassador Joe Kennedy shared his opinion: “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here.” His controversial views would make national news — and permanently damage his hopes for elected office.
Kennedy Says Democracy All Done
Pinch Coming in U.S. Trade Loss
Ambassador Asks Aid to England Be Viewed as “Insurance;” Begs America Wake Up, Give More Power to Mobilize Industry. By Louis M. Lyons
Joseph P. Kennedy was sitting in his shirtsleeves eating apple pie and American cheese in his room at the Ritz-Carlton. His suspenders hung around his hips.
It was the setting for an interview that every American reporter has known 1000 times in interviewing the visiting head of the Elks, or the Rotarians, or the Lions Clubs — as American as the apple pie.
Mr. Kennedy’s own words cut sharply across this picture when he lifted the telephone to say, “This is the Ambassador.” But his next words brought us back where we were. “O hello Bob, how are y’?”
He and Editor Sees Eye-to-Eye
A journalistic colleague from St. Louis who shared the interview — Ralph Coglan, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — liked Joe Kennedy from the first look at him. He liked him more every minute and every sentence of the hour and a half that Joe Kennedy poured out to us his views about America and the war in a torrent that flowed with the free, full power and flood of the Mississippi River.
My Missouri friend’s eyes flashed in response to Kennedy. He was seeing eye to eye with the American ambassador as he hadn’t been able to do with any of the intellectual leaders of Boston and Cambridge he’d seen in his crowded visit. As these two glowed together in the discussion, it struck me that Joe Kennedy of Boston birth probably comes closer to representing the Mississippi Valley, the great heart of America, than any ambassador the Court of St. James has had the luck to meet in modern times.
Would Spend All to Keep Out
“I’m willing to spend all I’ve got left to keep us out of the war,” Kennedy flashed toward the end of his talk.
“There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag.”
Keep U.S. Out of War, Educate America to Defense Peril — Kennedy
He’s started already on a quiet but determined and fighting crusade, to “keep us out.” He’s just gone to California to see on of America’s influential publishers. He’s already seen others and he means to see more, and let them have it straight and tough, as he sees it.
He’s talked to Congressmen and Senators and means to see more. “They’ve got to understand it, “ he says, with passion. He’s been amazed at how little — so it seems to him — the Congressmen who’ve visited with him so far do understand the war and America’s relation to it.
“I know more about the European situation than anybody else, and it’s up to me to see that the country gets it,” he says in explanation of the role of carrying the torch that he has cut out for himself.
U.S. Changes of Peace Better
Coglan asks what he thinks are the chances of our keeping out.
“Better than they were three months ago,” says Kennedy.
“I’m so happy to see you aren’t another Walter Hines Page,” says the St. Louis editor, as we leave. (Page was our Ambassador in the crucial 1916-17 period who made it his crusade to see that President Wilson appreciated the British side of the war.)
Kennedy laughed. “Americans find it hard to understand that a man can be in that atmosphere and not succumb to it,” he said.
“A couple of years ago I told my friend Joe Patterson,” a reference to the New York publisher, “that the Queen was one of the most intelligent women I ever met.”
“He said 'O, now I know you’ve succumbed to their blandishments, Joe. If you’d said most gracious, or most charming, but most intelligent — ' Well, he saw her on her American tour which presented her a tremendously difficult problem that she handled magnificently. After that he told me he was half willing to admit her intelligence. This time I saw him he said, after following her conduct in the war, he’d go all the way with me.
Queen Called Great Woman
“Now I tell you when this thing is finally settled, “ Kennedy declared, “ and it comes to a question of saving what’s left for England, it will be the Queen and not any of the politicians who will do it. She’s got more brains than the Cabinet.
“It’s partly because she wasn’t born into the Royal Family. Her background is of the people. She’s an omnivorous reader. Daladier told me, after he’d first met her, that she knew more about French history than almost any Frenchman.”
“What do you say about Eleanor Roosevelt?”
“She’s another wonderful woman. And marvelously helpful and full of sympathy. Jim will tell you,” as he turned to Dean James M. Landis of the Harvard Law School, coming in as we were going out, “that she bothered us more on our jobs in Washington to take care of the poor little nobodies who hadn’t any influence, than all the rest of the people down there together. She’s always sending me a note to have some little Susie Glotz to tea at the embassy.”
Coglan and I rushed for a cab to get to an office where we could compare notes and save every crumb we could of Kennedy’s talk. Coglan, an editorial writer, wanted it only for background. He didn’t have a story to write.
“I wouldn’t be in your shoes,” said Coglan. “How do you know what you can write. He just puts it up to you to follow your own conscience and judgment and protect him in his diplomatic capacity.”
“Well, last time I interviewed him in 1936 he poured himself out just like this, without laying any restriction on me, and I wrote every bit of it, and it went all over the country — the interview in which he said why he was for Roosevelt. And he said it was the best interview he’d ever had. But he wasn’t an Ambassador then.”
“It all depends on how you handle it,” advised Coglan. Any story can be told if it’s told right.”
Running Over the Notes
Well then, with all care, but without losing the color and force and pungency that makes Joe Kennedy one of the leading figures on the world stage today; we’ll run over the notes. Charles Edmondson, Nieman fellow from Coglan’s editorial staff, who arranged the interview for his visiting boss while I was arranging it for myself, comes in and checks my notes again.
“Don’t forget,” he said, “Lindbergh’s not so crazy either,” he reminds me. Edmondson has been carrying on a running debate from the Mississippi Valley point of view with his interventionist friends in Cambridge all Fall.
The Ambassador had just finished his physical checkup at the Lahey clinic when we saw him. “They say I’m in better shape than I was last time,” he told me.
“It’s a funny thing. I slept through the anti-aircraft guns in London. But when I got out to Lisbon the auto horns kept me awake.”
Can’t Get Used to Bombing
“But don’t let anybody tell you can get used to incessant bombing. There’s nowhere in England they aren’t getting it. The people are standing up to it. They go to work the next day. They have to let them off two hours early to get to shelters. Of course transportation is interrupted. I could tell you it takes seven hours to deliver a telegram and often two hours to get down town. Plenty of that. But it doesn’t help to emphasize that.
“Their shipping losses are greater this time because they haven’t so many destroyers and what they have they have to divide in the Mediterranean and for defending England, besides convoys. Our 50 destroyers filled a great need. And the German submarine bases are nearer the traffic lanes this time.”
“Hitler has all the ports in Europe, you see. Never forget that. The only reason the English haven’t taken over the Irish ports is because of American public opinion.
If We Get In, Democracy Ends
“People call me a pessimist. I say, 'What is there to be gay about? Democracy is all done.’”
“You mean in England or this country, too?”
“Well, I don’t know. If we get into war it will be in this country, too. A bureaucracy would take over right off. Everything we hold dear would be gone. They tell me that after 1918 we got it all back again. But this is different. There’s a different patter in the world.
“What about British democracy?” Edmondson asked. “Is there real opportunity there or does the aristocracy keep a rigid class structure that keeps the common man down?”
“When there’s a strong upsurge from beneath you can’t stop it,” Kennedy replies. “You can’t blame the aristocracy for keeping it down if it doesn’t come up.”
“Well, what does it mean to have labor men now at the center of government?” I ask.
National Socialism for England
“It means national socialism is coming out of it,” says Kennedy flatly.
“You don’t see much then in the picture H. G. Wells and Harold Laski give us a developing democracy as a new permanent basis of British society?”
“You’ve picked the two worst possible examples to take. Laski is greatly overrated over here. He doesn’t represent anything.”
“Democracy is finished in England. It may be here. Because it comes to a question of feeding people. It’s all an economic question. I told the President in the White House last Sunday, 'Don’t send me 50 admirals and generals. Send me a dozen real economists.’
“It’s the loss of foreign trade that’s going to threaten to change our form of government. We haven’t felt the pinch of it yet. It’s ahead of us.”
Why He Supported Roosevelt
“Did you support Roosevelt with some misgivings?” Coglan asked.
“No. I supported Roosevelt because I feel he’s the only man who can control the groups who have got to be brought along in what’s ahead of us.”
“You mean the men who control industry?”
“No. They have a stake that they’ve got to defend. I meant the have-nots. They haven’t got to take it in whatever faces us.
“It’s all a question of what we do with the next six months. The whole reason for aiding England is to give us time. Whatever we give England, we shouldn’t think of getting it back. It’s insurance. We can pull the teeth of the William Allen White Committee and of the anti-English groups, too, by just not arguing at all. We can just accept whatever they say, and our answer is, 'It’s just one question, self-preservation for us, England is doing everything we could ask. As long as she is in there, we have time to prepare. It isn’t that she’s fighting for democracy. That’s the bunk. She’s fighting for self-preservation, just as we will if it comes to us.’
“I don’t draw any line on how much aid. It is a practical question of judgment, how much to send. It is a question of how long England can hold out. If she collapses soon, then stop.
Any More Loans — Insurance
“If we went in we’d just be holding the bag. I tell everybody, 'Don’t expect to get the World War debts paid. We’ll never get that back. But we must see that they don’t wind up this time holding all our securities and we with a long debt. We’ll take it from them while they can pay for what they need. But when they get through, give it to them. Mark it off, as insurance.”
He wouldn’t venture a judgment on how the war was coming out. But he felt the months just ahead would tell.
“The Blitzkrieg won’t beat the British,” he said, positively. “Their danger is from movement. A march on Gibraltar through Spain. The march for Irak and for Cairo…”
“Then what abut Canada if the worst comes to England?”
“Well, were’re sucked in on that, and the Monroe Doctrine and all.
“The thing is, what we do with the next six months. It would be fatal to let it go by without making the most of every working day for defense. We aren’t doing the maximum now. We’ve got to. We’ve got to realize it. Nobody could handle industrial mobilization but Jesus Christ with any legislative power we’re willing to give him now. We’ve got to educate America to the need for defense. Fast too.”
Wheeler and Kennedy Buddies
Coglan asked what Senators Kennedy had in mind seeing. He asked about Burton K.Wheeler who has been rated a strong isolationist.
“But Wheeler and I are buddies,” Kennedy said. “Why I financed his campaign with LaFollette.”
We must have gaped at that. The LaFollette-Wheeler third party contested the Presidential election of 1924 against Calvin Coolidge, Republican, and John W. Davis, Democrat. That was on the crest of the “Coolidge Boom” and Joseph P. Kennedy was riding it with others in Wall Street.
Wasn’t aid to England likely to draw us in, as in 1917, asked Edmondson, mentioning Walter Millis’ “Road to War.”
“No,” said Kennedy positively. “Not if we know the answer. Not if we are coldly realistic and for America all the time. If they ask us to get in more than is safe for us, we ask them, 'What do you want us to do? How can we send troops over when Hitler has the ports? Why do you ask for men when you haven’t called up all your eligible men? If they want us to patrol the Atlantic by taking our navy out of the Pacific, we answer that would bring a howl clear across America to California. If they want aviators, what ships are they going to fly in? As to ships, we haven’t got any. I know about ships. We couldn’t send an army anywhere right now. It would be senseless to go in. What would we be fighting for?”
Aid England as Far as We Can
“If Hitler wins the war,” Coglin asks, “ do you believe we wouldn’t trade with Europe?”
“That’s nonsensical,” Kennedy replied. “But the thing, now, is: aid England as far as we can; that’s our game. As long as she can hold out give her what it takes, whatever we don’t have to have, and don’t expect anything back…”
My American Experience
We invite you to tell us your own stories - whether you lived through a tumultuous time period or learned about it from a relative, a book or a movie.