A sympathetic reappraisal of Joseph P. Kennedy’s controversial tenure as America’s ambassador to Britain.
With the European dictators Mussolini and Hitler becoming increasingly belligerent, Kennedy’s 1938 appointment to the Court of St. James’s came at an especially dangerous time. The first Irish-Catholic ever to fill the distinguished position, the successful businessman actively sought the honor. Despite friends’ warnings that his background, temperament and talents ill-suited him for the job, Kennedy headed for London intent on keeping the United States neutral in the war everyone feared was approaching. At first, along with his large and attractive family, he charmed all of London. In a detailed text that never becomes tedious, Swift (The Roosevelts and the Royalty, 2004, etc.) explains how it all turned sour and how the ambassadorship quickly morphed from a glittering culmination into the sad undoing of Kennedy’s public-service career. While he concedes that Kennedy’s own ambition, independence, pride, stubbornness and thin skin contributed to his failure, Swift insists, for the most part persuasively, that the old fox was himself outfoxed by FDR, who knew precisely how to manipulate him. Kennedy’s isolationism, his fear of the devastation that would be wrought by a second world war, Swift reminds us, perfectly mirrored popular opinion in the United States. Focusing primarily on how the ambassador gradually lost the confidence of both the U.S. and British governments, Swift also pays significant attention to Rose, who reveled in the social status accorded the ambassador’s wife; to daughter Kathleen, who became something of a debutante sensation; to sons Joe Jr. and Jack, who served intermittently as aides to their father; and to an array of famous names—Nancy Astor, Clare Booth Luce, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Pope Pius XXII—who were all part of the Kennedys’ orbit.
An admirably balanced assessment of an enormously complicated man who, wrongly but not ignobly, stood athwart history.