Book Reviews


Kennedy and Roosevelt

By Michael Beschlossn

Review by Richard Sheppard


When people hear "Roosevelt," they will often think first of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the multi-term chief executive who tangled with the Great Depression and ultimately with the Germans and Japanese. Some will think of FDR's predecessor and distant cousin, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, a notable and noteworthy familial FDR predecessor of strong historical presence. 

When people hear "Kennedy," their first impression is likely of assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Some will think of assassinated presidential candidate Robert "Bobby" Kennedy. Fewer, and all younger, will think of current Senator Edward "Teddy" Kennedy, at least as compared with Jack and Bobby. Teddy K. is also the unfortunately wretched "default" Kennedy who embodies that family's star-crossed legacy. Women who have no interest in politics may be inclined to think of, "Jackie Oh!" when the Kennedy name comes up. 

But before there was John F., Bobby, and Ted, there was the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. Joseph P. in his day was every bit as name-recognized as John F. or his other sons are in theirs and ours. Joseph P. Kennedy was the son of an East Boston ward heeler, a rapaciously successful businessman who fully and lucratively engorged in vast self-enriching equity pools that were the fleece-du-jure of the Roaring Twenties. Kennedy was a significant figure in early Hollywood, especially as it pertained to the talent in dresses. But it was always money first and Kennedy was surely among the richest men in America in his times. Presciently, he was out of the market when it crashed in 1929. With cash on hand, Kennedy and his growing clan were insulated from the harsher if any aspects of the Depression. With ready money, Kennedy's was able to become richer still. An ambitious and hard-working man with ambiguous ambitions of his own, it was perhaps inevitable that he would seek real power to accompany his money: he'd give public service a try, but obviously he would get involved considerably above the level of his ward heeler father.

Roosevelt the Politician Drawn to Joe Kennedy the Business Tycoon

FDR, a well-descended Hudson River Dutch patroon, likewise handily weathered the Crash, but wasn't nearly as rich as Kennedy. And just as Kennedy would ultimately enter the political arena, FDR did make some half-hearted and none-to-successful attempts in the business realm. Neither was comfortable outside the respective "sweet spots" of their talents, and so it was natural for Roosevelt the politician to be drawn to Kennedy the business tycoon (and vice-versa) for each man to round up skills they didn't have.

The Roosevelt/Kennedy relationship went back to the early 20's, when Kennedy was a shipyard manager and FDR a powerful and politically savvy Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. From the start, each took the measure of the other, and while Kennedy often belittled Roosevelt, he recognized a figure who could advance Kennedy's rapacious business interests and set the stage for the political ascension of Kennedy's male offspring. 


Therefore Joseph Kennedy was one of FDR's strongest political and financial backers when FDR became president in 1932. Kennedy's reward was to head the Maritime Commission, where he spiffed up that agency while often clashing with Roosevelt's controversial New Deal policies. Following that, Kennedy became the head of the brand new Securities and Exchange Commission, a New Deal agency created specifically to regulate the types of stock market manipulation and rigging of the sort Kennedy used to generate his vast wealth. (In addition to bootlegging as Kennedy legend holds).) In addition to regulating markets, Kennedy was FDR's ambassador to America's business elites, assuaging their fears of socialistic leanings and assuring them of FDR's benign intentions. This role didn't appeal to Kennedy much, but FDR and Kennedy remained if not friends, "allies," recognizing the significant advantages of their complementary relationship.

Kennedy walked a tricky line in fulfilling his myriad ambitions, both for himself in his times, and his sons' (especially his namesake Joseph Jr.), for their futures. Roosevelt was surrounded by ambitious and competitive aides. Some, including Kennedy, being close to the ultimate power, occasionally had inklings of challenging or succeeding FDR.

FDR constantly juggled his appointments and assignments both to keep his strongest supporters happy and to diffuse any challenges to his own office. Kennedy's plum position was Treasury Secretary, but FDR picked otherwise. Instead, FDR gave Kennedy America's top diplomatic assignment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James: a historic coup for a second-generation son of Eire.

Charles Lindberg and the Isolationists

But if FDR thought he solved the issue of giving Kennedy and hi-profile position and sending him across the sea "out of sight," things didn't work as planned. FDR had won the 1940 presidential election by promising American neutrality as Europe descended into WW2. Many were wary of this promise, including British Ambassador Kennedy, who, along with Charles Lindbergh and several powerful Washington figures, was a prominent isolationist. 

Kennedy was a prescient man; perhaps he foresaw that his offspring, especially his oldest male offspring Joseph, would play hazardous roles. Such was often the fate of the well born of those who sought ascendance in all facets of American society. Joseph Kennedy, Jr. served with distinction before dying in a bomber explosion; Kennedy's daughter Kathleen would die in a plane crash. John Fitzgerald would barely escape a similar end when a Jap destroyer rammed PT-109. JFK's heroics in that incident would propel him to the presidency in 1960. 

It was not a good idea to have an isolationist Kennedy in England at a time when Europe was being overrun and Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Kennedy was not a man to mince words even if he thought that best, and his views were at serious odds with FDR's attempts provide as much "neutral" aid as he could to England. Likewise, while the British recognized his closeness to FDR and the occasional advantages of having an ambassador with close presidential access, they also recognized Kennedy as an obstacle to increasing American aid. Everyone, not least Kennedy, knew FDR was running America's American-Anglo diplomacy from Washington. Eventually, a dissatisfied Joseph Kennedy was phased-out and returned from England by unspoken mutual agreement. 

Burdens of WW2 Fell to Kennedy's Offspring

When Pearl Harbor and Hitler's subsequent declaration of war on America ended American neutrality, Kennedy hoped for a prestigious wartime assignment. But Kennedy's occasional hints of backing other candidates (or becoming one himself), combined with his outspoken neutrality stance, had ended his usefulness to FDR. The burdens of WW2 fell to Kennedy's offspring. Kennedy undertook a minor government position, briefly. But the Roosevelt/Kennedy alliance cooled, both recognizing the limits of two ambitious men occasionally overstepping their natural talents. But in their days of accord, their relationship was a fascinating combination of an awesome political talent and nearly unbridled executive/business talent; a combination which unquestionably boosted the respective fortunes of both men. For Roosevelt, the immortality of wartime leadership and a vast monument in Washington. For Kennedy, a mixed legacy, that did ultimately include presidential son in JFK, a highlight among some unfortunate, less worthy and tragic descendants.