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Mis-remembering Joe Kennedy

The gist of today's Kevin Cullen column is that British critics of Ted Kennedy's recent knighthood are distorting Kennedy's relationship with the Irish Republican Army. Cullen makes this argument pretty effectively. But in the process, he also gripes that some Brits just don't like the Kennedys, period:

Kennedy-haters in England, like those on these shores, love to bring up Chappaquiddick. But British animosity toward Kennedy goes back much further and is often as much about his father as it is about him. British Kennedyphobes like to say old Joe Kennedy made his fortune as a bootlegger and, as US ambassador to the Court of St. James's, was a Nazi sympathizer. Like the critique of his son, British complaints about Joe Kennedy don't let facts get in the way of a perfectly good ideological screed. [emphasis added]

Problem is, this defense of Joe K. actually weakens Cullen's case.

Let's take the bootlegging first. No, we can't definitively say that Joe Kennedy made a killing peddling illegal booze. But as biographer Cari Beauchamp notes in Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, there's incriminatory as well as exculpatory evidence on that count. And Beauchamp seems inclined to think Joe was up to something sketchy during prohibition:

Picturing Joe Kennedy standing on the shores unloading crates from boats or hopping on the running board of a car speeding from a raid stretches the imagination beyond credulity. However, put him at a dining room table, cajoling and thoroughly enjoying himself with men of the underworld in an atmosphere of mutual respect, or on the phone, finding, allocating and financing an activity offering real and immediate profits, and the image comes into clearer focus.

The case for Joe being a Nazi sympathizer is far less speculative. Here, for example, is how Edward Renehan Jr., author of The Kennedys at War, describes Joe Kennedy's 1938 interactions (as ambassador to Great Britain) with Hitler's own ambassador:

During May of 1938, Kennedy engaged in extensive discussions with the new German Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Herbert von Dirksen. In the midst of these conversations (held without approval from the U.S. State Department), Kennedy advised von Dirksen that President Roosevelt was the victim of "Jewish influence" and was poorly informed as to the philosophy, ambitions and ideals of Hitler's regime. (The Nazi ambassador subsequently told his bosses that Kennedy was "Germany's best friend" in London.) 

And here, in late 1940, is Joe expounding on the absolute necessity of keeping the U.S. out of the war, as recounted by the Boston Globe's Louis Lyons:

"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."...

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....

"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."

Finally, here's Beauchamp's description of a speech Kennedy made on the "European Situation" to a group of Jewish film moguls in California in 1940, immediately following his resignation as ambassador:

Going beyond his isolationist position, Joe sounded as if he were speaking of the world after Hitler's victory. He appealed to what he saw as the studio heads' basic economic interest: Hitler liked and appreciated films, but in order for him to allow them to be shown, "You're going to have to get those Jewish names off the screen." Charlie Chaplin had just released The Great Dictator and Kennedy warned the assembly that they had to "stop making anti-Nazi pictures or using the film medium to promote or who sympathy to the cause of 'democracies' verus 'the dictators.'

Joe Kennedy's defenders might say he was an appeaser--and/or a pessimist, and/or an anti-Semite, and/or naive--but not a Nazi sympathizer. Whatever. The fact remains that Kennedy--at a crucial point in history, and in a position of great power--grievously misunderstood the Nazi threat and was far too willing to passively accept it. If the British Kennedyphobes understand this, good for them.

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