Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
So today we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the gruesome and appalling assassination of JFK. This has produced a raft of new titles, and revivals of discussion about the various conspiracy theories. Much discussion too about what he did or did not do as president.
But what of the time before he was president? I should like to bring to your attention an often overlooked book he wrote: Why England Slept.
He spent 10 weeks in Europe in 1937, and then accompanied his father Joe, when the latter took up his appointment as ambassador in London. (American Presidents have a long history of giving plum diplomatic posts to those who have paid for their campaign, rather than to diplomatic careerists, or those that demonstrate some deep understanding of the foreign country to which they are sent). In 1939 Jack did another grand tour of Europe, including the Soviet Union, arriving back in London just before the outbreak of WW2.
The following year he submitted his Harvard thesis “Appeasement in Munich”. It was this that formed the basis of the published book “Why England Slept”. The self-assurance of a Kennedy with the ego of an aspiring politician must be the reasons for inflicting a student thesis on a wider public.
JFK published it partly also to stimulate a desire for re-armament in the US. Similar desires were held in the Sixties, when the title was republished. Henry Luce, in the preface, sets the tone:
“For Englishmen of all classes – rich and poor, intellectual and common man, Tory and left-winger – all of them contributed a full share to the failure and peril of Britain.” And
“There is at least one cruelly exact parallel today: even when they got around to a huge rearmament effort, the people of England refused to do anything about civil defense (sic); the same thing holds true in the US in 1961.”
Kennedy’s book is full of sweeping assertions, which are never backed up with references (which is particularly strange for something based on an academic treatise). “For the Englishman had to be taught the need for armaments; his natural instincts were strongly against them” – is a typical quote. This would be the same race that flocked to Hendon in the hundreds of thousands in the Thirties to thrill to the air displays put on by the RAF, and who took pride in the arrival of world beating fighters such as the Hurricane and later the Spitfire.
This public enthusiasm for aviation, both civil and military, just passes Kennedy by. He later asserts “To the average Britisher the Air was a branch [of the military] of which he had a vague and indefinite fear, more from a feeling of hopelessness of a successful defense than anything else.” What tosh.
Nowhere does JFK explore the way in which the psyche of Britain (and Europe) was scarred and changed by the experience of WW1. Neither does he capture the nuances of Britain’s relationship with France.
Some other contentious assertions:
“the extent of the pacifist movement in Britain which was stronger there after the war than in any other country.”
Clearly JFK had imbibed a distrust, bordering on loathing, of ‘England’ at the family dinner table in Regent’s Park. Shades of his father are evident in :
“No discussion of Britain’s psychology would be complete unless some mention were made of the natural feeling of confidence, even of superiority, that every Englishman feels and to which many Americans object. This feeling, while it is an invaluable asset in bearing up under disaster [strange turn of phrase that], has had great effect on the need Britain felt for rearming. The idea that Britain loses every battle expect the last has proved correct so many times in the past that the average Englishman is unwilling to make great personal sacrifices until the danger is overwhelmingly apparent. The notion that God will make a special effort to look after England, and that she will muddle through, took a great toll of the British rearmament efforts of the Thirties.”
Kennedy puts far too much emphasis on Baldwin’s speech in 1932 in which he asserted that the “bomber will always get through”, and JFK uses this as an explanation for Britain’s apparent reluctance to re-arm.
Strange he refers most of the time to England rather than Great Britain or the United Kingdom. One would have thought a politician would get the political entity correct.
The book carries no mention of Ireland – a nation at least equally keen to appease, and which, by the time the book was published had emerged as a ‘neutral’, but with arguable impartiality – clearly JFK did not want to risk losing the substantial body of Irish-American political support.
So overall the book does not advance the analysis of the build-up to WW2 one jot. If it has any interest to a ‘Britisher’, it is as an insight to an as yet not fully developed intellect, harboured by someone with an immense ambition.
It is difficult to imagine that his star would have remained so high in the current era of ubiquitous mobile phones and social media. His (prescription) drug addled state and sex-crazed behaviour would surely have resulted in an early exit from the White House.