The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s 1938-1940, by Susan Ronald

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Susan Ronald, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I have long been a fan of the Kennedy family, perhaps America’s first political dynasty. While much of my focus has been on JFK and his assassination, Susan Ronald opened my eyes to another angle worth exploring. Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedys, used power and influence to sway opinions, both in and out of the political arena. When he was given the role of US Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (United Kingdom), it was the job of a lifetime. However, as Ronald argues effectively throughout this tome, it came with significant consequences for the country, the president, and world history. Ronald puts forth strong arguments and keeps the reader enthralled throughout as she lay the groundwork for how Kennedy’s ambassadorship changed history, not entirely for the better.

Susan Ronald opens the book offering the reader some great backstory on the Kennedys and how Joseph helped build his empire on both American coasts. His love of the movie industry helped make him a household name, though his focus was making money rather than making sure every American could recite his name at the drop of a hat. As his family grew, Kennedy found ways to build walls around himself, keeping his wife, Rose, at a distance when it suited him. However, He always wanted his eldest, Joe, Jr., and John (Jack) close to the action, hoping to pave the way for their successes in the years that followed.

With his eye on the ambassadorship in the United Kingdom, Kennedy lobbied Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the appointment. Many people know Kennedy was wealthy, but a position like this would require more than cutting a cheque to cover the costs. He would need to be a diplomat and one with power to persuade. Kennedy did all in his power to show that his influence could be used properly in Europe and that his connections would effectively help the Americans build stronger ties with their allies. Reluctantly, FDR agreed to the appointment in 1938, but tried to leash Kennedy to ensure things flowed smoothly.

While Kennedy was keen to use his new role to cement European connections, he was fond of offering his opinions when it came to the brewing unrest on the European continent. As the Germans and Italians rose to power, Kennedy repeatedly espoused views that fascism was not entirely problematic, as long as it kept communism from rising. This was not official American foreign policy and there are numerous instances when FDR offered angered rebukes about his ambassador. Kennedy was, perhaps indirectly, trying to formulate US policy on his own and speaking as the government mouthpiece while doing so. Using his ties within the British government, Kennedy sometimes could be seen to shape politics at Westminster in a time when a united front was needed against the boisterous Germans and equally troubling Italians.

Appeasement appeared to be the theme of the day, as Kennedy supported his British counterparts while they dealt with the fascist uprising. FDR did not take the easiest approach and recall his ambassador, for many reasons. With an upcoming election in 1940, FDR sometimes surmised that it was better to keep Kennedy away, so as to prevent him from making a run for the Democratic nomination. While war inched closer, Kennedy pushed his views, but was eventually rebuffed when FDR-supported Churchill returned to the prime ministership. Kennedy was no longer the great political statesman and bided his time while FDR turned attention elsewhere. Kennedy had overstayed his welcome and was soon on his way back, with little to show and no overt support from his own government.

Ronald effectively portrays Joseph P. Kennedy’s rise to power as being one in which the man thought that he could use his influence to change opinion, no matter what his superiors wanted. While this did occur repeatedly, the clash between Kennedy and official US foreign policy never seemed to be properly resolved. Kennedy dictated what he wanted, the State Department issued their version, and the two wafted next to one another, while Europe stood on shaky ground. Ronald shows how this gamble to send Kennedy to Europe paid off more to keep him out of the Administration’s hair than to keep things steady and calm. Joseph Kennedy had an agenda and would not leave without pushing it in one direction or another. That it caused a great deal of turmoil in the late 1930s is clear to many, though could it have been halted without ruining FDR’s chances at an unprecedented third term in office? That’s a mystery best left to the alternate historians.

While this was by no means a light and quick read, Susan Ronald makes it highly enjoyable for the reader who has an interest in this sort of thing. Her attention to detail and thorough analysis provides the reader with something intriguing to read. Much of the instability within Europe is well-known, but Ronald’s perspective offers readers a great insight into what happened and how Kennedy played a key role in its development. With chapters that are easily digested and a captivating narrative, the story advances well and the curious reader is provided some wonderful nuggets. Susan Ronald is clear in her arguments and does leave the reader with something on which to chew as they consider what might have been. I’d gladly read more of her work, as this offered a great perspective on pre- and early-war analysis.

Kudos, Madam Ronald,, for an insightful book. I am glad I took the time to read it and hope to find more of your work soon.

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