A Fresh Look at the Churchills and Kennedys by Thomas Maier

A Fresh Look at the Churchills and Kennedys by Thomas Maier

When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, by Thomas Maier. New York: Crown Pub­lish­ers, 784 pages, $30, Kin­dle Edi­tion $11.99. Writ­ten for The Churchillian, Spring 2015.

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.

This is a read­able book, ele­gant­ly writ­ten, which com­mits some errors. It con­tains 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.”

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Meetings and consequences

The biogra­phies 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. 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.”

Balanced criticism

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 “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. Churchill is not so eas­i­ly pigeon-holed. What about his post-1935 encour­age­ment to Gand­hi and Nehru; his loy­al­ty to Smuts, who opposed Apartheid; 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.

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.” 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.”

Kennedys and Winston

We are told that Joe Kennedy “blamed Roo­sevelt and Churchill for the death of his son Joe Jr.” There is no spe­cif­ic evi­dence for this.

A media ker­fuf­fle was raised by the book’s 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. This was per­fect­ly legit­i­mate 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. He adds that Churchill “would drop the bomb if he could.” That is sim­ply unproven. And unlikely.

* * *

Oth­er basic errors include the asser­tion that Winston’s father nev­er vis­it­ed him at school, that Churchill’s war mem­oirs com­prised four vol­umes, that the Munich Agree­ment was in 1939, that Egypt was a for­mer British colony (508). Among the triv­ial are mis-titling 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” was not said in Par­lia­ment; “MBE” does not stand for Mem­ber of the British Empire. There were no per­sons called Lord and Lady Churchill, Lady Nan­cy Astor or “Son­ny” Marl­bor­ough. Both Winston’s and his daughter’s nan­nies are mis­named: Eliz­a­beth Ever­est (not “Everett”) and Mar­riott Whyte (not “Madeleine White).”

Fathers and sons

The book fin­ish­es with thought­ful reflec­tions. Jack and Bob­by got on much bet­ter with their father than Ran­dolph with his, Maier sug­gests. Yet 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.” But 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 Joe Kennedy accept ear­ly on that great polit­i­cal prizes would not be his, but  for his sons? Mr. Maier leaves his read­ers to draw their own con­clu­sions. His sum­ma­ry well craft­ed summary:

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…. 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: com­par­ing the lengths of their careers and the scales of the two sal­va­tions. But save it they did.

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