Read An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 Online

Authors: Robert Dallek

Tags: #BIO011000, #Presidents & Heads of State, #Presidents, #20th Century, #Men, #Political, #Presidents - United States, #United States, #Historical, #Biography & Autobiography, #Kennedy; John F, #Biography, #History

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 (10 page)

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Jack’s queries were as sophisticated as those of professional journalists and diplomats in Europe. They were also part of an understandable search by a bright, inquiring young man for a niche that separated him from his father and elder brother and satisfied an affinity for critical thinking about public affairs. Joe Sr. was the family’s moneymaking genius and Joe Jr. might be slated for a meteoric career in U.S. domestic politics, but Jack could imagine himself as the
New York Times
man in a major European capital, probing current realities and educating isolationist Americans about a world they wished to ignore.

Given how much the French, Germans, Italians, and Spanish offended him, it is puzzling that Jack did not embrace the prevailing isolationism of his father and most Americans. This may have been a way to separate himself from his brother. But more likely, the trip to Europe schooled him in the satisfaction of forming independent judgments rather than giving in to easier clichés about those “foreigners.” He understood that despite the physical and institutional distance between the United States and Europe, European affairs had a large impact on the Americas. An affinity for analyzing and explaining current conditions trumped feelings of antagonism and bias, which he believed informed the way his father and other isolationists saw the world.

The trip also strengthened Jack’s sense of privileged status. He and Billings ended their travels in Britain, where Joe arranged for them to stay at palatial English and Scottish homes. “Terrific big castle with beautiful furnished rooms,” Jack said of Sir Paul Latham’s residence in Sussex. (One bedroom was forty yards long.) Likewise, the estate of Scottish nobleman Sir James Calder impressed Jack and amazed Lem, who spent their visit fly-fishing and shooting rabbit and grouse.

For Jack, the lifestyle of these British aristocrats was not so removed from that of his father. From July 1934 to September 1935, when he served as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Joe had lived in a sumptuous 125-acre Maryland estate half an hour’s drive from Washington. The thirty-three-room rented mansion had been built by a multimillionaire Chicago businessman, Samuel Klump Martin III, and rivaled the great homes of English aristocrats. The living room was the size of a hotel lobby, and the dining room was modeled after one built for King James I of England. Twelve master bedrooms, a recreation room with several billiard tables and three Ping-Pong tables, a hundred-seat movie theater, and a large outdoor swimming pool surrounded by guest bath houses provided all the modern amenities.

In 1937-38, at the age of twenty, Jack saw himself and his family as a kind of American nobility. On returning home in September, Jack learned that
Fortune
magazine had published a cover article about his father, who since March had been serving as the chairman of a newly created U.S. Maritime Commission. Then, during the fall term, Jack had a personal victory when he received an invitation to the Spee, one of Harvard’s eight elite clubs that included only about a hundred out of the thousand students in the class of 1940. It was an honor neither his father nor Joe Jr. had managed to win. “It was a status symbol for him,” one of Jack’s classmates believed, “that at last the Kennedys were good enough.”

And then, in December 1937, President Roosevelt appointed Joseph Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain, America’s most prestigious diplomatic post. By choosing a self-made Irish American as his envoy, Roosevelt assumed that he would not become a captive of England’s conservative government and its appeasement policy toward Hitler’s Germany.

Whatever the president’s political purposes, the appointment gave Joe and his family an uncommon degree of social prominence. “The moment the appointment was proposed,” Rose said, “Joe accepted. It was the kind of appointment he had been waiting for all along.” Indeed, he had lobbied Roosevelt for it. When the president tried to get him to become secretary of commerce instead, Joe told Roosevelt’s son James: “London is where I want to go and it is the only place I intend to go.” Interior Secretary Harold Ickes asked White House insider Thomas Corcoran why Kennedy was so eager for the London post. “You don’t understand the Irish,” Corcoran answered. “London has always been a closed door to him. As Ambassador of the United States, Kennedy will have all doors open to him.” Joe, who was not sure how long the assignment would last, told an aide who accompanied him, “Don’t go buying a lot of luggage. We’re only going to get the family in the
Social Register
. When that’s done we come on back.”

Joe’s appointment also gave Jack an uncommon opportunity to be, however temporarily, a part of English high society. In July 1938, at the end of his sophomore year, he traveled to London to spend the summer working at the U.S. embassy. The work itself was less memorable than the social whirl Jack enjoyed. He found a warm welcome from England’s aristocracy and had ready access to the teas, balls, dances, regattas, and races that were part of their summer ritual. Although Jack looked “incredibly young for his age at 21,” he engaged his English friends with his bright, quick mind, highly developed sense of humor, and vitality about everything. In August, the family fled London for a villa in the south of France near Cannes, where they socialized with members of the English royal family. A final few days in London at the end of August gave Jack a close-up view of an evolving European crisis over Czechoslovakia, which Hitler had provoked by demanding that Prague give up its Sudetenland territory. In August, with the crisis unresolved, Jack returned to the States for his junior year at Harvard.

His summer in Europe had fired Jack’s imagination, and he was determined to return to the Continent. He asked and received permission from his advisers to take six courses in the fall term of 1938 and a semester’s leave in the spring of 1939, which he planned to spend in Europe working on an honor’s thesis about contemporary affairs. He promised his Harvard adviser that during his time abroad, he would read several assigned books on political philosophy, including Walter Lippmann’s
The Good Society
. He also pledged to gather material for a senior thesis on some aspect of international law and diplomacy or the history of international relations, which were listed as his special fields of interest. As impressive, he turned from a C into a B student and excelled in his government classes during the fall term.

A. Chester Hanford, the dean of Harvard College and Jack’s instructor in Government 9a, a course on American state government, remembered “a rather thin, somewhat reserved but pleasant young man with an open countenance which often wore an inquisitive look. He . . . took an active part in classroom discussion in which he made pertinent remarks.” But much to Hanford’s surprise, the grandson of Honey Fitz showed little interest in state politics. He “was more interested in the changing position of the American state, in federal-state relations and state constitutional development.” Jack’s examination papers gave evidence of independent thought and made Hanford “wonder if he [Jack] might not become a newspaper man.”

Jack made an even stronger impression on Professor Arthur Holcombe, whose Government 7 focused on national politics and the workings of Congress in particular. Holcombe “tried to teach . . . government as if it were a science.” Each student was required to study a congressman and assess his method of operation and his performance. Holcombe urged the class to substitute objective analysis for personal opinions, and this “scientific method” greatly appealed to Jack, who believed that politics should rest less on opinion than on facts.

Holcombe assigned Jack to study Bertram Snell, an upstate New York Republican whose principal distinction was his representation of the electric power interests in his region. Holcombe said that Jack “did a very superior job of investigating, and his final report was a masterpiece.” Of course, Jack had some advantages. As Holcombe noted, “When Christmas vacation came, he goes down to Washington, meets some of his father’s friends, gets a further line on his congressman and on Congress.”

When he finished the fall term, Jack made plans to sail for Europe at the end of February. First, however, he flew to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where he was met at the airport by a girl he was dating and a Princeton friend, who was impressed that Jack had come by plane: “Not many people flew in those days,” the friend recalled. But Jack did, and then flew back to New York before boarding a luxury liner for Europe.

Although his father’s public image had taken a downturn in the fall of 1938, when he publicly expressed favor for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich, Jack felt no discomfort with his father’s political pronouncements or his family identity. Although his father’s pro-Chamberlain speech “seemed to be unpopular with the Jews, etc.,” he wrote his parents, “[it] was considered to be very good by everyone who wasn’t bitterly anti-Fascist.” A new play, which he saw in New York and included several references to the Kennedys, greatly amused Jack. “It’s pretty funny,” he reported in the same letter, “and jokes about us get the biggest laughs whatever that signifies.”

As soon as he arrived in London, Jack resumed “having a great time,” he wrote Billings. He was working every day and “feeling very important as I go to work in my new cutaway.” He met the king “at a Court Levee. It takes place in the morning and you wear tails. The King stands & you go up and bow. Met Queen Mary and was at tea with the Princess Elizabeth with whom I made a great deal of time. Thursday night—am going to Court in my new silk breeches, which are cut to my crotch tightly and in which I look mighty attractive. Friday I leave for Rome as J.P. has been appointed to represent Roosevelt at the Pope’s coronation.”

When he returned from Rome in late March, Jack reported to Billings that they had had “a great time.” His youngest brother, Teddy, had received Communion from the new pope, Pius XII, “the first time that a Pope has ever done this in the last couple of hundred years.” The pope then gave the Sacrament to Joe, Jack, and his sister Eunice “at a private mass and all in all it was very impressive.” For all the sense of importance Jack gained from his father’s prominence and influence, he kept an irreverent sense of perspective that allowed him to see the comical side of his family’s social climbing. He wrote Billings: “They want to give Dad the title of Duke which will be hereditary and go to all of his family which will make me Duke John of Bronxville and perhaps if you suck around sufficiently I might knight you.” (In fact, Joe had a sense of limits about what an American public official could do and had no intention of asking the required permission of Congress to accept a title of nobility.)

Jack’s letters to Billings over the next several months describe a young man enjoying his privileged life. On the way back from Rome, he had stopped at the Paris embassy, where he had lunch with Carmel Offie, Ambassador William Bullitt’s principal aide, and was invited by them to stay at Bullitt’s residence. He “graciously declined,” as he wanted to get back to London for the Grand National steeplechase before returning to Paris for a month and then traveling to “Poland, Russia, etc.” As of this writing in March, he was not doing “much work but have been sporting around in my morning coat, my ‘Anthony Eden’ black Homburg and white gardenia.”

Two weeks later, he told Billings that he was “living like a king” at the Paris embassy, where Offie and he had become “the greatest of pals” and Bullitt had been very nice to him. He had lunch at the embassy with the famed aviator and isolationist Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, “the most attractive couple I’ve ever seen.” He was “going skiing for a week in Switzerland which should be damn good fun.” Apparently, it was: “Plenty of action here, both on and off the skis,” he told Billings in a postcard. “Things have been humming since I got back from skiing,” he next wrote Lem. “Met a gal who used to live with the Duke of Kent and who is as she says ‘a member of the British Royal family by injections.’ She has terrific diamond bracelet that he gave her and a big ruby that the Marajah [sic] of Nepal gave her. I don’t know what she thinks she is going to get out of me but will see. Meanwhile very interesting as am seeing life.” And he was still living “like a king” at the embassy, where Bullitt “really fixes me up,” and Offie and he were served by “about 30 lackies.” Bullitt, Jack wrote, was always “trying, unsuccessfully, to pour champagne down my gullett [sic].”

But however welcoming Bullitt and Offie were, Jack did not like feeling dependent on their hospitality. He must have also sensed some hostility from Offie, who remembered “Jack sitting in my office and listening to telegrams being read or even reading various things which actually were none of his business but since he was who he was we didn’t throw him out.” Jack privately reciprocated the irritation: “Offie has just rung for me,” he wrote Lem, “so I guess I have to get the old paper ready and go in and wipe his arse.”

For all the fun, Jack had a keen sense of responsibility about using his uncommon opportunity to gather information for a senior thesis. Besides, the highly charged European political atmosphere, which many predicted would soon erupt in another war, fascinated him. However much he kept Lem Billings posted on his social triumphs, his letters to Lem and to his father in London were filled with details about German intentions toward Poland and the likely reactions of Britain, France, Russia, Romania, and Turkey. “The whole thing is damn interesting,” he told Billings. He found himself in the eye of the storm, traveling to Danzig and Warsaw in May, where he spoke to Nazi and Polish officials, and then on to Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, Bucharest, Turkey, Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, and Athens. He received VIP treatment from the U.S. diplomatic missions everywhere he went, staying at a number of embassies along the way and talking with senior diplomats, including Ambassador Anthony Biddle in Warsaw and Charles E. Bohlen, the second secretary in Moscow.

BOOK: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963
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