Review: The Patriarch, by David Nasaw

I recently finished reading The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, a new biography by David Nasaw. It’s a good read, and it made me reconsider Kennedy’s pacifism, isolationism, and reputation for “appeasement.”

Previously, all I knew about Joe Kennedy came from biographies I’d read of his sons, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, as well as from random pieces of lore. I knew he was rich, probably antisemitic, smarmy, possibly corrupt, and maybe even a Hitler supporter.

I didn’t realize what a remarkably full life Kennedy led: an industrialist during World War I, a movie mogul during the 1920s, the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and then U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom at the beginning of World War II. (He resigned before the U.S. entered the war.) Nasaw debunks the myth that Kennedy was a bootlegger during Prohibition; he finds no evidence of this.

There are two things any biographer of Joseph P. Kennedy must deal with: his antisemitism, and his desire to appease Hitler.

Nasaw clearly shows that Kennedy was antisemitic. Like most antisemites, Kennedy thought that Jews controlled Hollywood and big business and had undue influence in government. He believed, with no evidence, that Jews were pushing FDR toward war. He also thought there was a Jewish conspiracy to tar his good name, even though one of his closest media allies was Arthur Krock of the New York Times — who was Jewish. Kennedy’s antisemitism is a stain on his life that can never be removed.

Nasaw perceptively relates Kennedy’s opinion of Jews to his identity as a Catholic, another religious minority that faced bias in the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes Kennedy wished Jews would do a better job of assimilating into American life, like he thought Catholics had. But when his son Jack ran for president, many influential Catholics opposed his candidacy. Kennedy wondered why American Catholics couldn’t get more organized, speak with one voice, and rally around Jack like he thought American Jews would do for a Jewish candidate.

In Kennedy’s favor, he did make some efforts to rescue Germany’s Jews and try to find a place for them in the British Empire — not out of humanitarian concern, but because he thought it might remove a cause for war against Hitler, a war Kennedy deeply feared.

Kennedy has gone down in history as a traitor, a Hitler-lover, an appeaser. This is a bit exaggerated; he wanted to prevent war because he loved his country. He thought Hitler was a man one could deal with, but so did many other officials. When he lived in Britain as U.S. ambassador, he supported Prime Minister Chamberlain’s attempts to make peace in Munich. He wrote ridiculously histrionic memos back home to the State Department, urging the U.S. to stay out of the war and predicting terrible consequences, such as worldwide economic devastation and a fascist American economy, if the U.S. went to war against Germany. It times it seemed like his greatest concern was keeping his eldest sons — Joe, Jr., and Jack — from having to fight and possibly die in a war. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened to his oldest son, Joe, Jr., who became a naval aviator during the war and died during a bombing run.

Of course, we won the war — World War II is seen as the last “good war” — and Kennedy is seen today as extremely wrong-headed and bizarrely pessimistic in his isolationism. But his pacifism continued into the Cold War; he opposed President Truman’s containment strategy against the Soviet Union and feared what it might do to our country.

When I read about his views on the Cold War, I started to think that maybe Kennedy was prescient. In a sense, he predicted what President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex” in 1961. As Nasaw writes of Kennedy:

The depression that he feared would result from escalating military spending overseas did not come to pass in his lifetime. The American economy would be transformed, as he predicted, but money spent abroad, much of it on military projects, would not destroy “economic well-being,” but rather stimulate growth and increase per capita income at home. Only over the long term would it become apparent that this Cold War spending spree might have had other, perhaps less positive impacts on American “economic well-being” by diverting capital from infrastructure, nonmilitary industrial modernization, and social welfare projects.

It’s easy to look back and say that Joe Kennedy was an idiot for opposing our involvement in World War II. But look at Darfur and other places in modern times: many Americans, including myself, would like to “stay out of it.” Of course, we live in a different era, when the United States has overextended itself across the world. It didn’t have to be this way, but that’s what happened. If I were alive in the 1930s and not Jewish, what would I have felt about the idea of fighting the Nazi empire? I can’t know. I’d be living in a different time, with different memories, and different assumptions about the world.

As for the Cold War, Kennedy certainly seems prophetic. By the time the U.S. escalated its involvement in Vietnam, ostensibly to fight communism, Kennedy had suffered a debilitating stroke that kept him from communicating complex thoughts to anyone. It seems likely he would have opposed (or did oppose) that war, and he would have been right.

There’s more to this book besides antisemitism and isolationism and other “-isms.” Nasaw brings Kennedy to life as a person: his marriage to Rose; his affairs; his pride in, and concern and love for, his nine children (at times it becomes hard for a reader to keep track of them all); his great wealth; his influence; his ego. After reading this book, I don’t like Kennedy more than I used to, but I don’t dislike him any more either. I just feel like I understand him better — which is what a good biography should do.