Joseph P. Kennedy, center, links arms with his sons, John F. Kennedy, left, and Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (AP Photo)
As we head toward the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination later this year, a new book has revealed the striking differences between JFK and his father, Joe Kennedy, on the bedrock fact of American politics during that era: the Cold War. JFK’s declaration in his famous inaugural address is well known: the US should “pay any price, bear any burden” to fight communism everywhere in the world. Virtually unknown, until now, is the fact that a decade earlier his father had declared the entire Cold War “politically and morally” bankrupt.
This story is told in the new book The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by my friend David Nasaw. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2012, but reviewers have barely mentioned Kennedy’s Cold War critique, focusing instead on his isolationist arguments at the outset of WWII.
Joe Kennedy’s position on the Cold War was simple: Communist rule of Russia and Eastern Europe, and also China and Korea, was terrible for the people who lived there, but not a threat to American security—and thus the US should not prepare to fight in all those places. Instead, American wealth and energy should be focused on developing the domestic economy.
Kennedy had been American ambassador to Britain before and during WWII and had been discredited and disgraced by his support for appeasement of Hitler. But with the beginning of the Cold War, he returned to public eye.
On March 12, 1947, Truman asked Congress to provide military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey—which, he said, where threatened by Soviet aggression and subversion. “The free peoples of the world look to us for support,” Truman said. Historians regard that speech as the opening shot of the Cold War, proclaiming the doctrine of containment, the commitment of the US to challenge the USSR everywhere in the world outside the borders settled on at the end of WWII.
The very day Truman addressed Congress, Joe Kennedy was featured in a New York Times column (by Arthur Krock) where Kennedy argued that the US should focus not on fighting communism abroad but rather on restoring its peacetime economy, which, he felt, could easily slip back into depression. He said the US should “permit communism outside the Soviet Union to have its trial”—a statement that today seems amazing. “In most of these countries,” Joe Kennedy said, “a few years will demonstrate the inability of communism to achieve its promises.”
The column “thrust Kennedy into the center of the national debate,” Nasaw writes. “His recommendations were immediately and universally condemned in editorial pages across the country as ‘the new appeasement.’” The only public support for Joe Kennedy in The New York Times was a letter to the editor from A.J. Muste, the pacifist and leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.