Book review of The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald

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“The first time he opens his mouth and criticizes me, I will fire him,” the president reassured advisers. Whatever FDR’s threat, Kennedy, who had always been a monomaniacal isolationist, voiced his personal opinions without reservation, while the president was noncommittal in public. He had to be, even as German troops stormed across Europe. The U.S. military was unprepared for war, Americans were reluctant to enter it, and Roosevelt didn’t have permission to declare it. Congress, determined to keep America out of another foreign war, had responded to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 by passing three Neutrality Acts. Roosevelt tried to work around these nonintervention efforts, offering England advice and military supplies. The ambassador, meanwhile, spent his days “sticking a knife into the presidential hide,” as Ronald puts it, a practice he extended to the British, too. Stop “resisting Hitler,” Kennedy urged them. He told an adviser to Roosevelt that the British should “let Hitler take over all of Europe.” If it didn’t work out, America could assassinate the Fuhrer, reasoned Kennedy — who all the while was trying to secure a personal meeting with him. Fascism was the future, he believed, and neutrality best for the American economy. Democracy was dead in England and would soon be everywhere else, too. Kennedy made these arguments in opposition to his sponsor and to morality; details about every stage of the Nazi persecution of Jews, from pogrom to concentration camp, flooded his embassy from the day he arrived in London.

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