Joseph P. Kennedy, who lived to see his son John elected president and his two sons Robert and Edward elected to the United States Senate, was born into a second generation Irish American family in East Boston, Massachusetts. The son of a Catholic saloon keeper, political boss, and state assemblyman, young Joe Kennedy graduated from Harvard determined to make his first million by the age of thirty-two, a goal he quickly surpassed. By 1932, Kennedy had served as a president of a bank, managed a major shipyard, and helped facilitate the merger that salvaged the American film industry and, in the process, developed a national reputation as a shrewd, somewhat ruthless financier.
Kennedy and FDR's combative relationship dates back to 1917 when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt ordered the Marines to seize ships manufactured in Kennedy's shipyard which Kennedy had refused to release until the Navy paid for them. Roosevelt's determination impressed Kennedy and he diligently supported FDR in 1932, lobbying friends, raising funds, and persuading William Randolph Hearst to shift his support to FDR, thereby ensuring FDR's nomination. Kennedy hoped that his support would encourage FDR to appoint him treasury secretary only to be bitterly hurt when the appointment went to William H. Woodin. An angry Kennedy remained in Boston until June 1934 when FDR tapped him to head the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, rebuffing criticism the appointment generated by retorting it was effective to "set a thief to catch a thief." Kennedy excelled in the position, gathering widespread praise for his management of the agency and enforcement of securities regulation. He resigned a year later to return to private business, continued to act as FDR's intermediary with Catholics, financiers, and major businesses, and write I'm for Roosevelt to win business votes for FDR in the 1936 election. In February 1937, he returned to the administration to chair the first Maritime Commission and help revive the American shipping industry.
Their relationship began to fray in 1938 after Kennedy successfully lobbied FDR to appoint him ambassador to Great Britain. FDR, who thought America might have to come to the aid of Britain if Hitler continued to capture Europe, hoped Kennedy's appointment would help counter the anti-British sentiment among Catholics in the Northeast. Kennedy, however, was not used to taking orders and, after he developed a close relationship with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Kennedy angered FDR by urging him to support the Munich Pact. When Hitler violated the pact and invaded Poland and France, Kennedy decided the British could not repel a German invasion and publicly urged FDR not to come to Britain's aid. By October 1940, Kennedy threatened to endorse Wilkie and reveal FDR's secret cooperation with Churchill. However, after a tense face-to-face meeting with a furious FDR later that month, Kennedy endorsed FDR in an extremely effective October 27 radio address. Their relationship dissolved after the election, when Kennedy resigned and testified against Lend-Lease and FDR refused to give him another significant appointment. Only their last face-to-face meeting in 1944 prevented Kennedy from opposing FDR's re-election.
Joseph Kennedy curtailed his own ambitions when his son John decided to run for Congress in 1946 and mobilized his considerable influence and fortune to support his son's political career. By the time John decided to run for the senate in 1952, father and son had developed such a friendly relationship with Joseph McCarthy that the Wisconsin senator refused to campaign in Massachusetts for his colleague and supporter, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., whose seat Kennedy won with 51.5 percent of the vote from a district that overwhelmingly supported Eisenhower's presidential bid. A few months after JFK's inauguration, a massive stroke struck Joe Kennedy, leaving him paralyzed and mute, but mentally alert. Before his death November 9, 1969, he suffered in silence as his sons John and Robert were assassinated and threats against his son Edward escalated.
Eleanor Roosevelt's opinion of Joseph Kennedy was shaped by his combative relationship with FDR, his endorsement of Chamberlain, and his cordial relationship with McCarthy. These three factors spurred what Democratic Advisory Council chair Robert Benjamin called her "great suspicion" of Joseph Kennedy's "instincts."
Sources: Michael R. Beschloss, Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980), passim; Otis L. Graham, Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander, eds., Franklin D. Roosevelt: His Life and Times (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1985), pp. 223-234; Allida M. Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 172-72, 175.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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