Churchills and Kennedys

Churchills and Kennedys

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.

Presentation of Churchill's honorary citizenship, 9 April 1963. L-R: Acting Secretary of State George Ball, lady Ormsby Gore, British Ambassador Sir David Ormsby Gore, Winston Churchill (grandson), Naval Aide Tazewell Shepard, President Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Randolph Churchill. Photo by Cecil Stoughton.
Pre­sen­ta­tion of Sir Win­ston Churchill’s hon­orary cit­i­zen­ship, the White House, 9 April 1963. L-R: Act­ing Sec­re­tary of State George Ball, Lady Orms­by-Gore, British Ambas­sador Sir David Orms­by-Gore, Win­ston Churchill (grand­son), Naval Aide Tazewell Shep­ard, Pres­i­dent Kennedy, Jacque­line Kennedy, Ran­dolph Churchill. Pho­to from Cecil Stoughton.

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.”

41tJ+7rj5lL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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