Some time ago I discussed the book JFK and the Unspeakable (2008) by James Douglass. The author’s thesis was that John F. Kennedy developed a greater and greater sense of a calling to be a statesman and humanitarian, to choose a path of pushing the world powers toward ending their dependence on nuclear weapons and toward détente, and more and more answered that call before he was cut down by his assassination.
To help make his case, Douglass made reference to Barbara Leaming’s book John F. Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman (2006) in providing an important component of this development in Kennedy’s character, namely, his British connections. Intrigued, I decided to read Leaming’s book.
Early on, Jack Kennedy developed a fascination with Winston Churchill and read about him voraciously. His sister Kick’s friends in the British aristocracy, developed when their father served as ambassador to England, provided Jack with an insider’s opportunity.
Quickly taken in by Kick’s circle of friends, Jack got to observe first-hand not only Churchill but also many of the leading British figures of the interwar years such as Sidney Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and to compare notes on them with his British contemporaries.
What he learned by this front row seat became the basis of Jack’s Harvard senior year thesis, published as Why England Slept. It also provided his initial public notoriety in the United States. Some of these friendships developed into important public relationships with the British government during his presidency, most importantly among them David Ormsby Gore and Harold Macmillan.
Throughout Kennedy’s political career, beginning with his election as U.S. Representative from the 11th Congressional District of Massachusetts in 1946 and culminating in his successful bid for President in 1960, the events of the late 1930s were apparently ever-present to John F. Kennedy. They provided the framework for his analysis of the Cold War issues which confronted him during his presidency. His inaugural address was shot through with Churchillian bravado.
It boiled down to two pairs of competing opposites, namely, statesmanship versus political gain and appeasement versus the determination to fight to the death.
A prime example of the first pair was how Stanley Baldwin lulled the post-World War I British public into torpor by reassuring them that Hitler posed no threat. He told them what they wanted to hear in order to get elected. This resulted in a Britain unprepared to stare Hitler down.
The polar opposite in this case was Churchill’s unsettling and unpopular call for rearmament. He knew this would not bring him into office but it was the bitter truth about the threat posed by Nazism.
Neville Chamberlain’s agreement to cede the Sudetenland to Hitler was the prime example of the latter pair of opposites. Met with wide acclaim in Britain, this act only fed the fire of Hitler’s ambition, extended British unpreparedness, and resulted in the greater conflagration of world war.
Despite his admiration of Churchill, Leaming posits that Kruschev assessed the vulnerability of Jack Kennedy to considerations of domestic politics and used it against him by his belligerent antics.
Knowing that a second term in office was ever-present in Kennedy’s mind, Kruschev heightened the difficulty of Kennedy’s playing the statesman by provoking his more virulently anti-Communist opponents—both Republicans and Democrats—in the United States.
David Ormsby Gore and Harold Macmillan constantly challenged Kennedy to see the necessity of exercising statesmanship in the face of the ever-present possibility of nuclear disaster. Because of this, Kennedy moderated his responses to Krushev’s bullying tactics and steered a rational, though politically vulnerable, course.
This resulted in a positive outcome in the Cuban missile crisis and a strong, well-developed position on West Berlin. A month before his assassination, Kennedy’s statesmanship won the double prize of a limited nuclear test ban treaty agreed to by the Russians and ratified by the United States Senate.
Such progress was exactly what Churchill had maintained was the only course to steer through the dangerous sea of Cold War realities.
Kennedy’s admiration for Churchill and other British leaders who put the preservation of all humankind before considerations of personal advancement had finally trumped his political ambition and let him achieve in part the noble agenda he had articulated in his inaugural address.
Leaming’s book makes a convincing case for this influence on Kennedy, a factor of which I was totally ignorant. It created in me a heightened interest in British influence on American policies during and after World War II.