Written for The Churchillian, Spring 2015
When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, by Thomas Maier. New York: Crown Publishers, 784 pages, $30, Kindle Edition $11.99.
The most touching and durable vision left by Mr. Maier comes toward the end of this long book: the famous White House ceremony in April 1963, as President Kennedy presents Sir Winston Churchill (in absentia) with Honorary American Citizenship—while from an upstairs window his stroke-silenced father, Joseph P. Kennedy, watches closely, with heaven knows what reflections:
Whatever thoughts raced through the mind of Joe Kennedy—the rancor of the past, the lost opportunities of his own political goals, and the tragic forgotten dreams he had once had for his oldest son, could not be expressed. His weak, withered body, with its disfigured mouth, no longer served him…could say nothing in his own defense. (581)
This is a readable book, elegantly written, which commits some errors and says much about Churchill that is known, except perhaps for encyclopedic revelations of which Churchills and Kennedys were sleeping with whom for nigh onto four decades. In some ways one is reminded of a description applied by Warren Kimball to Volume 3 in the William Manchester Churchill trilogy The Last Lion: “A nice cruise down a lengthy river you’ve sailed before.”
The biographies of Churchill, Kennedy and their progeny surround occasions when the two families meet (or collide): 1933, 1935, 1938, and so on. Much of what we read about John F. Kennedy’s remarkable affinity for Churchill has been recorded earlier, by Barbara Leaming, in Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman (2006).
Along the way are interesting takes. Churchill’s interest in secret intelligence, for example, is traced to the Boer War, when young Winston “performed a bit of reconnaissance work, posing as a civilian riding a bicycle” in the Boer capital of Pretoria (191). Mr. Maier tracks the Joe Kennedy-Churchill relationship thoroughly, establishing that it began in 1933 (five years before JPK became Roosevelt’s Ambassador to Britain), when he and Churchill did some joint business involving the liquor trade. This, he suggests, might today be termed influence peddling—but Churchill held no office from 1929 to 1939.
Mr. Maier gets quite a few Churchill points wrong. There’s an incomplete account of the scandal involving Lord Alfred Douglas, who in 1916 libeled Churchill (“short of money and eager for power”), accusing him of manipulating war news to benefit his mentor Sir Ernest Cassel. Maier might have added that Churchill sued and won…or that in 1941, when Douglas published a sonnet praising the now-prime minister, Churchill forgave him on the spot, saying, “Time ends all things.”
Perhaps it is hard nowadays to credit many people with kindness and altruism, like Sir Henry Strakosch, who took over Churchill’s portfolio and preserved WSC’s dwindled finances. Maier calls this a “bailout plan…considered more a gift than graft by Churchill and his benefactors….” But “graft” is defined as “the unscrupulous use of a politician’s authority for personal gain”; Strakosch never made one demand of Churchill. He acted only in appreciation for the man and the leader.
Churchill the imperialist is not ignored: “Winston showed little enthusiasm for the revolutionary spirit of independence among those living in former colonies of the British Empire such as India, South Africa, Kenya, or even neighboring Ireland,” Maier writes (497). Churchill is not so easily pigeon-holed. What about his post-1935 encouragement to Gandhi and Nehru; his loyalty to Smuts, who opposed Apartheid; his praise of locally-ruled Kenya in 1908; his instrumental role in the 1921 Treaty that brought independence to Ireland? Against such omissions, the canard that Churchill wanted to use “poison gas” against Iraqi tribesman stands in some contrast.
Mr. Maier is equally hard on Joseph P. Kennedy—of whom I am no student, so let me stick to Churchill. In World War II, Maier writes, “when the Communist guerrillas threatened to take control of Yugoslavia, Churchill underlined his concern by sending his only son” (370-71). No: Churchill had determined that Tito’s Communists were “killing more Huns” than the royalists, and sent his son to aid Tito. And Tito was not a “Soviet puppet” (478).
Even by V-E Day in 1945, we are told, Joe Kennedy “continued to bitterly blame Roosevelt and Churchill for the death of his son Joe Jr.” (398). There is no specific evidence for this, other than Joe’s laments for his first-born.
A media kerfuffle was raised by the book’s reort report that after the war, WSC told Senator Styles Bridges (R., N.H.) that America should nuke Moscow before the Russians got their hands on the bomb (434-35). This was perfectly legitimate for Mr. Maier to record, but raised shock headlines among the ignorant media. As noted elsewhere, the story is not new. Churchill often voiced apocalyptic notions to visitors to observe their reaction. He never made that proposal to any plenary U.S. authority. As Graham Farmelo wrote in Churchill’s Bomb: “This was the zenith of Churchill’s nuclear bellicosity.” He soon softened his line, telling Parliament in January 1948 that the best chance of avoiding war was “to arrive at a lasting settlement” with the Soviets. Maier doesn’t acknowledge Churchill’s change of view until 1952, and adds that Churchill “would drop the bomb if he could.” (456) That is simply not so.
Other basic errors include the assertion that Winston’s father never visited him at school (20), that Churchill’s war memoirs comprised four volumes (465), that the Munich Agreement was in 1939 (471), that Egypt was a former British colony (508). Among the trivial are mistitling a Churchill article and identifying “Toby” the green parakeet as Churchill’s “white canary.”
Churchill’s description of Munich as a “choice between War and Shame” (145) was not said in Parliament; “MBE” does not stand for “Member of the British Empire” (374). There were no persons called Lord and Lady Churchill (21-22), Lady Nancy Astor (137) or “Sonny” Marlborough (522). Both Winston’s and his daughter’s nannies are misnamed: Elizabeth Everest (not “Everett,” 18) and Marriott Whyte (not “Madeleine White,” 622).
The book finishes with thoughtful reflections. Jack and Bobby Kennedy got on much better with their father than Randolph with his, Maier suggests, even though the Kennedy sons were far from their father in outlook and policy. After Joe’s stroke, “Jack and Bobby interacted with their father as they always did, as if he might suddenly talk back to them,” while poor Randolph Churchill just talked back. “I do so very much love that man,” Randolph says in tears, after being pointedly ejected from the Onassis yacht following a flaming attack on his aged father, “but something always goes wrong between us.”
Did Winston spoil Randolph to the point of disaster, or did he subconsciously communicate a wish that Randolph could never be his equal? Did the more realistic Joe Kennedy accept early on that great political prizes would not be his, but might be for his sons? Mr. Maier leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions. His summary is well crafted:
This legacy between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the eternal questions about families and fate, and our lasting impression of greatness, were all part of the shared experience between the Churchills and the Kennedys. In the twentieth century, no two families existed on a bigger world stage, epitomizing the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ over four decades. With courage, wit, and unforgettable determination, both Winston S. Churchill and John F. Kennedy helped define and save the world as we know it today.
That is a bit of overreach perhaps, comparing the lengths of their respective careers and the scales of the two salvations. But save it they did.