Arriving at London in early 1938, newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy took up quickly with another transplanted American.
Viscountess Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor assured Kennedy early in their friendship that he should not be put off by her pronounced and proud anti-Catholicism. “I’m glad you are smart enough not to take my [views] personally,” she wrote.
Astor pointed out that she had a number of Roman Catholic friends – G.K. Chesterton among them – with whom she shared, if nothing else, a profound hatred for the Jewish race.
Joe Kennedy, in turn, had always detested Jews generally, although he claimed several as friends individually. Indeed, Kennedy seems to have tolerated the occasional Jew in the same way Astor tolerated the occasional Catholic.
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As fiercely anti-Communist as they were anti-Semitic, Kennedy and Astor looked upon Adolf Hitler as a welcome solution to both of these “world problems” (Nancy’s phrase). No member of the so-called “Cliveden Set” (the informal cabal of appeasers who met frequently at Nancy Astor’s palatial home) seemed much concerned with the dilemma faced by Jews under the Reich. Astor wrote Kennedy that Hitler would have to do more than just “give a rough time” to “the killers of Christ” before she’d be in favor of launching ”Armageddon to save them. The wheel of history swings round as the Lord would have it. Who are we to stand in the way of the future?” Kennedy replied that he expected the “Jew media” in the United States to become a problem, that “Jewish pundits in New York and Los Angeles” were already making noises contrived to “set a match to the fuse of the world.”
During May of 1938, Kennedy engaged in extensive discussions with the new German Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Herbert von Dirksen. In the midst of these conversations (held without approval from the U.S. State Department), Kennedy advised von Dirksen that President Roosevelt was the victim of “Jewish influence” and was poorly informed as to the philosophy, ambitions and ideals of Hitler’s regime. (The Nazi ambassador subsequently told his bosses that Kennedy was “Germany’s best friend” in London.)
Columnists back in the states condemned Kennedy’s fraternizing. Kennedy later claimed that 75% of the attacks made on him during his Ambassadorship emanated from “a number of Jewish publishers and writers. … Some of them in their zeal did not hesitate to resort to slander and falsehood to achieve their aims.” He told his eldest son, Joe Jr., that he disliked having to put up with “Jewish columnists” who criticized him with no good reason.
Like his father, Joe Jr. admired Adolf Hitler. Young Joe had come away impressed by Nazi rhetoric after traveling in Germany as a student in 1934. Writing at the time, Joe applauded Hitler’s insight in realizing the German people’s “need of a common enemy, someone of whom to make the goat. Someone, by whose riddance the Germans would feel they had cast out the cause of their predicament. It was excellent psychology, and it was too bad that it had to be done to the Jews. The dislike of the Jews, however, was well-founded. They were at the heads of all big business, in law etc. It is all to their credit for them to get so far, but their methods had been quite unscrupulous … the lawyers and prominent judges were Jews, and if you had a case against a Jew, you were nearly always sure to lose it. … As far as the brutality is concerned, it must have been necessary to use some ….”
Brutality was in the eye of the beholder. Writing to Charles Lindbergh shortly after Kristallnacht in November of 1938, Joe Kennedy Sr. seemed more concerned about the political ramifications stemming from high-profile, riotous anti-Semitism than he was about the actual violence done to the Jews. ”… Isn’t there some way,” he asked, “to persuade [the Nazis] it is on a situation like this that the whole program of saving western civilization might hinge? It is more and more difficult for those seeking peaceful solutions to advocate any plan when the papers are filled with such horror.” Clearly, Kennedy’s chief concern about Kristallnacht was that it might serve to harden anti-fascist sentiment at home in the United States.
Like his friend Charles Coughlin (an anti-Semitic broadcaster and Roman Catholic priest), Kennedy always remained convinced of what he believed to be the Jews’ corrupt, malignant, and profound influence in American culture and politics. “The Democratic [party] policy of the United States is a Jewish production,” Kennedy told a British reporter near the end of 1939, adding confidently that Roosevelt would “fall” in 1940.
But it wasn’t Roosevelt who fell. Kennedy resigned his ambassadorship just weeks after FDR’s overwhelming triumph at the polls. He then retreated to his home in Florida: a bitter, resentful man nurturing religious and racial bigotries that put him out-of-step with his country, and out-of-touch with history.