Cover image for The Kennedys at war, 1937-1945
The Kennedys at war, 1937-1945
Renehan, Edward, 1956-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2002.
Physical Description:
353 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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E747 .R46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E747 .R46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E747 .R46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E747 .R46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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A dramatic, fascinating--and revisionist--narrative detailing how America's first family was changed utterly during World War II. First-rate history grounded in scholarship and brought to life by a critically acclaimed author. From breathless hagiographies to scandal-mongering exposés, no family has generated more bestselling books than the Kennedys. None of them, however, has focused on the watershed period of World War II, when the course of the family and its individual members changed utterly. Now, in an engaging narrative grounded in impeccable scholarship, Edward J. Renehan, Jr., provides a dramatic portrait of years marked by family tensions, heartbreaks, and heroics. It was during this time that tragedy began to haunt the family--Joe Jr.'s death, the untimely widowhood of Kathleen (a.k.a. "Kick"), Rosemary's lobotomy. But it was also the time in which John F. Kennedy rose above the strictures of the clan and became his own man. In the late 1930s, the Kennedys settled in London, where Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was serving as ambassador. A virulent anti-Semite and isolationist, Kennedy relentlessly and ruthlessly fought to keep America out of the war in Europe. His behavior as patriarch in many ways mirrored his public style. Though he was devoted to the family, he was also manipulative and autocratic. In re-creating the intense and tension-filled interactions among the family, Renehan offers riveting, often revisionist views of Joseph Sr.; heir apparent Joe Jr.; Kick, the beautiful socialite; and Jack, the complex charmer. He demonstrates that Joe Jr., although much like his father in opinion and character, was driven to volunteer for a deadly mission in large part because of his fury at Jack's seemingly easy successes. Renehan also delves into why Kick, a good Catholic girl, chose to abandon her religion for the chance to enter the fairytale world of the British aristocracy, only to suffer a horrendous tragedy. It is Renehan's reassessment of Jack, however, that is particularly striking. In subtly breaking away from his domineering father over the issue of World War II, Renehan argues, Jack began to forge the character that would eventually take him to the Oval Office. Going behind the familiar (and accurate) image of JFK as a reckless playboy, Renehan shows us a young man of great intelligence, moral courage, and truly astonishing physical bravery.

Author Notes

Edward J. Renehan Jr. is a fifth generation New Yorker. He now lives in coastal Rhode Island.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Veteran biographer and historian Renehan (The Lion's Pride, etc.) presents a well-written, well-researched account of the Kennedys in the years leading up to and during WWII. Renehan begins with the ambitious patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., his ambiguous relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt and his disastrous turn as ambassador to Great Britain. Kennedy's fervent isolationist views, combined with both anti-Semitic and pro-fascist leanings, made him an ardent supporter of Neville Chamberlain's disastrously failed policy of appeasement. Not long after WWII broke out, the ambassador resigned, to FDR's relief. Rehehan is most revealing on the way the sinking of son JFK's boat, the fabled PT 109, was turned from a disaster into a public relations triumph: initially, JFK was to be blamed for not noticing advancing enemy vessels, one of which rammed his boat, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur "is supposed to have said that Jack should have been court-martialed." However, molded by sympathetic journalists like the New Yorker's John Hersey, the PT 109 saga benefited from early public relations "spin" and boosted JFK's later political career. JFK's brother Joe Jr., the family's heir apparent, was killed in 1944 during a mission over France. Tragedy struck the family again when sister Kathleen's new husband was killed fighting in Belgium. Renehan argues quite convincingly that the war was the transformative experience of young JFK's life, and set the tone for both the triumphs and tragedies that would mark the family for the rest of the century. This is a worthy installment in the always-popular Kennedy saga. (Apr.) Forecast: A Broadway Books paperback is already scheduled for 2003 for this BOMC and History Book Club featured selection. Expect very strong sales among Kennedy watchers, a considerable contingent. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Renehan presents an interesting thesis, albeit with minimal academic significance. While the narrative is true to the title, many of the Kennedys are minor players. The key characters are the father Joseph, Joe Jr., Jack, and to a lesser extent, Kathleen. The author discusses extensively Joe Kennedy, Sr., ambassador to Great Britain, detailing as part of a negative portrait his isolationist position, antiprotestant bias, antagonism toward President Roosevelt, political alignment with British Prime Minister Chamberlain, and distaste for Churchill. His string-pulling efforts to keep Joe and Jack out of harm's way are contrasted with Joe's and Jack's determination to be centrally engaged in the war effort. In their ongoing intense sibling competition, Jack consistently emerged the victor, outranking Joe and being the first to achieve heroic status. Joe's military aviation career, which ultimately resulted in his death, is chronicled, as is the well-known story of Jack and his PT 109 boat, the latter serving as a major ingredient in Jack's successful campaign for the presidency. Interest is reduced by irrelevant discussion of costumes adorning Kathleen and her friends and details of social events. Unfortunately, the notes offered at the conclusion of the volume only reference quotations. Nevertheless, this is a well-written and interesting work for general readers. J. Stanley Towson University

Booklist Review

Biographies of the Kennedy clan have become their own category of niche publishing. This latest entry begins with Joseph Kennedy's stint as ambassador to Great Britain and continues through World War II. An unrepentant isolationist, Kennedy tried to keep both England and America out of the war. He failed, of course, and to his utter despair, his worst fear was realized: his eldest son, Joe Jr., was killed in the war, and Jack, next eldest, narrowly escaped the same fate. Other family members are not forgotten in the narrative, especially daughter Kathleen, who married a Protestant scion amidst much familial turmoil. An engaging and forthright biographer, Renehan is not afraid to state his opinion about his subjects. The reputation of Kennedy Sr. as an anti-Semite is well known, but Renehan paints him as particularly callous about the fate of European Jewry. Joe Jr and Jack don't fare much better in that regard, but Renehan argues persuasively that Jack grew in unexpected ways from his war experiences, paving his way to the presidency. A fine addition to the Kennedy canon. Ilene Cooper.

Library Journal Review

The Kennedys have long fascinated the American public and accordingly there is a virtual tidal wave of books about their lives and exploits, yet Renehan's (The Lion's Pride) addition to this field is fresh and interesting because he focuses his study. One theme that runs throughout this work is Kennedy patriarch Joseph P.'s stint as Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to Great Britain. The elder Kennedy's isolationist stance was passed to the children. Also, the author spends time on anti-Semitism, the flaws and ambitions of the family, their joys and tragedies, and the too often overlooked Kennedy sisters, among other topics. When son Joe Jr. was killed, the hopes and dreams of the family were assumed by second son Jack. JFK's war experiences in the South Pacific are explored as helping to shape the emerging character of this future President. The narration by Richard Poe is excellent and adds another dimension to this above-average work. Recommended for all libraries.-Scott R. DiMarco, Herkimer Cty. Community Coll., NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 Kennedy Confidence Asked in 1959 how he had come to be a war hero, Senator John F. Kennedy quipped ironically: "It was easy--they sank my boat." Several years later, referring to the tale of PT 109 as related in the film starring Cliff Robertson, President Kennedy told a friend that the popularly accepted account of his heroics in the Solomons was more screwed-up than Cuba. Still, those who studied Kennedy closely understood that his time in the service always remained an important part of him, regardless of how glibly he sometimes appraised it. "Everything," wrote Los Angeles Times journalist Robert T. Hartmann, "dates from that adventure." Hartmann perceptively added that Jack's several days of pure survival after the loss of PT 109 were "the only time Kennedy ever was wholly on his own, where the $1 million his father gave him wouldn't buy one cup of water." Likewise Hartmann noted that "Kennedy's superabundant charm is never more engaging than when he leaps back to wartime reminiscence with a receptive veteran of the Solomon campaign." Of course, Jack Kennedy's war record provided a great practical political benefit. Every campaign he ever ran emphasized his status as a warrior and a hero. He displayed his Purple Heart and his Navy and Marine Corps medal in each of his several offices. He kept on his desk, preserved in plastic, the coconut shell on which he had scratched his dramatic--if redundant--rescue plea after the sinking of PT 109. A float in his inaugural parade featured a full-size replica of the vessel he'd made famous (or was it the other way around?). And male visitors to the Kennedy White House routinely received PT-boat tiepins as souvenirs. But it would be a mistake to believe Kennedy looked back on his experience of the war cynically, or viewed it as little more than a useful PR tool. Quite the contrary. He considered World War II to have been the seminal, defining event in his life. "I firmly believe," he once wrote, "that as much as I was shaped by anything, so was I shaped by the hand of fate moving in World War II. Of course, the same can be said of almost any American or British or Australian man of my generation. The war made us. It was and is our single greatest moment. The memory of the war is a key to our characters. It serves as a breakwall between the indolence of our youths and earnestness of our manhoods. No school or parent could have shaped us the way that fight shaped us. No other experience could have brought forth in us the same fortitude and resilience. We were much shrewder and sadder when that long battle finally finished. The war made us get serious for the first time in our lives. We've been serious ever since, and we show no signs of stopping." Elsewhere Jack commented that though the war might have made him, it had "savaged" his family. "It turned my father and my brothers and sisters and I upside down and sucked all the oxygen out of our smug and comfortable assumptions. We still, with the old battles long over, have great confidence: great Kennedy confidence, which is the main strength of our tribe. But we sons and daughters no longer have that easy, witless, untested and meaningless confidence on which we'd been weaned before the war. Our father had us pretty well trained to appear to ourselves and others as unbeatable and immortal--a little bit like Gods. Now that's over with. Now, after all that we experienced and lost in the war, we finally understand that there is nothing inevitable about us. And that's a healthy thing to know." Writing in 1999, Richard D. Mahoney said World War II breached the Kennedy family--and, most important, its patriarch--"like a wrecking ball." This book tells the story of that breach, an act of destruction that enabled the redefinition of a family and the making of a man. Who were the Kennedys before the breach? How did others see them? How did they see themselves? What testimony do we have about this vivacious and sometimes conflicted clan who seemed so full of real yet unexamined and unreflective promise in the years before the war? They were, indeed, an unambiguously confident bunch--those young people who rushed so happily through the 1920s and early 1930s with no thought of any destiny other than one defined by wealth, comfort, and--of course--conquests. Eunice Kennedy Shriver--the fourth of the nine Kennedy children, born 1921--recalls the family motto as "Finish First. . . . I was twenty-four before I knew I didn't have to win something every day." The family filled its summer days at Hyannis with a succession of races: swimming, running, sailing. "And if we won," remembers Eunice, "[Daddy] got terribly enthusiastic. Daddy was always very competitive. The thing he always kept telling us was that coming in second was just no good." A close family friend recalls Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.--iconoclastic investor, entrepreneur, and sometime public servant--as someone who "didn't like anyone to be second best, and he expected you to prepare yourself better than the other fellow and then try harder than he did. Any other course of action in his mind suggested stupidity." As Jack--the second-eldest, born 1917--recollected during his presidency, "[My father] could be pretty caustic when we lost. He scared some of my contemporaries who visited the house." Joseph Kennedy's most astute biographer, Ronald Kessler, has likened him to a coach, and his children to a football team. "The aim," writes Kessler, "was to win at everything, no matter what." The coach did not pride himself on his patience, nor was he known for his honesty. He once lashed out bitterly at Joe Jr.--the eldest child, born 1915--when the boy lost an important sailboat race. Then, by way of making up for his outburst, he purchased his namesake a new mainsail. Young Joe promptly started winning again. Later, Joe Jr. discovered that the new main ran nine inches too high, giving him an unfair advantage against other boats. The episode foreshadowed much of what was to come. Joe Sr. would always do whatever it took to improve his children's odds--lengthening their sails in many different ways throughout their lives. Only with the world war would he bump up against a contest he could not fix to the certain advantage of his offspring. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., seems to have been at once awesome, terrifying, demanding, and benevolent: driving his children to compete and win with the same great ruthlessness he brought to bear in his pursuits of money, power, social prestige, and beautiful women. Every day in summer he would sit in his "bullpen" outside his second-story bedroom at Hyannis and bark loudly into his telephone as he negotiated a steady string of big-money deals in stocks, films, real estate, and the wholesaling of liquor. His loud voice carried over the beach and water, where his busy children could hear his incessant banter. They knew he was up there, watching them play their ceaseless contests, keeping his own score. Football games sometimes concluded with fistfights between Joe's highly competitive sons. "It's touch," commented one guest, "but it's murder. If you don't want to play, don't come. If you do come, play, or you'll be fed in the kitchen and nobody will speak to you." Besides losing, the other unforgivable sin among the Kennedys was to refuse a challenge--any challenge. "I grew up in a very strict house," Jack would recall, "and one where . . . there were no free riders, and everyone was expected to do, give their very best to what they did. . . . There was a constant drive for self-improvement." All the children rose to the occasion again and again: all except Rosemary. Joseph and Rose Kennedy's eldest daughter (born 1918, one year after Jack) remained on the periphery of the active and energetic family in her early teen years: a disconnected presence seemingly dumbstruck by the flurry of activity on which her brothers and sisters thrived. Nineteen years old in the summer of 1937, Rosemary--who had suffered brain damage during a botched delivery--barely possessed the mental capacity of a fourth-grader. Her brothers and sisters (eventually even the youngest, fourteen years Rosemary's junior) acted at various times as her protectors and caregivers. Eunice Kennedy Shriver recalls: "We all had the feeling [Rosemary] was just a little slow, so [we always made it a point to] jolly Rosemary along. . . . Then, also, the boys were very good with her. Like Jack would take her to a dance at the club, and would dance with her and kid with her and make sure a few of his close pals cut in, so she felt popular. He'd bring her home at midnight. Then he'd go back to the dance." Those who knew the family best described the oldest boy, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., as the son most like the father. Handsome and athletic, Joe Jr. had a short temper and a penchant for fistfights. He often behaved like a bully, as even his adoring little brother Ted could attest. On one occasion Joe threw the boy into the ocean during an outburst after the two had lost a sailboat race. "On the way home from the pier," Teddy recalled, "he told me to be quiet about what had happened that afternoon." Throughout his adolescence and young manhood, Joe regularly appeared content to gain superiority by knocking others down rather than elevating himself. He was careful, however, not to show this face to the tutors and instructors at his school--Choate (now Choate Rosemary Hall), in Wallingford, Connecticut. He was not at Choate long before he emerged as a star on campus: playing varsity football, editing the school newspaper, and generally performing well in the classroom (though this took great effort). He seemed the golden boy and--at a casual glance--popular. Nevertheless, a number of lowerclassmen--among them brother Jack--breathed a sigh of relief when he graduated. He did not, like so many others in Choate's class of 1933, proceed directly to Harvard. Those in a position to know--even the Choate tutors who loved him--agreed the eighteen-year-old was just not ready. His father's alma mater would eat him alive. Better for him to spend a productive year sharpening his wits in the company of a tutor who could challenge and enlighten him. Then, if the gods took pity, he might just find himself in shape to face the rigors of an elite college. Heartily endorsing this plan, family friend Felix Frankfurter (of Harvard Law) suggested the one man he considered the greatest teacher on the planet: Harold Laski, socialist economist at the London School of Economics. British by birth and Jewish by upbringing, Laski embraced not only socialism but also atheism, and said he considered the Roman Catholic Church one of the "permanent enemies" of all that was "decent in the human spirit." Joseph Kennedy, Sr., told stunned friends that he was sending his son to the unlikely Laski in order that the boy might become versed in the ideology and methods of the have-nots, the left, the enemy. Once ensconced in London for the academic year 1933-34, Joe Jr. struck Laski as an amiable but unbrilliant fellow: a student always anxious (though often unable) to please. "He was with me during a year when the three outstanding students in my department all happened to be at once Socialists and poor Jews from the East End of London," recalled Laski. "Nothing was more admirable than Joe's attitude toward them, a deep respect for their ability, an ardent promise that one day he would know enough to argue with them on equal terms. . . ." The day, as Laski implies, never came. Both in the classroom and during Laski's many famous Sunday teas--where he encouraged his generally precocious students to debate on a range of subjects--Joe repeatedly proved unable to hold his own. "I am just getting to the point," he wrote (optimistically) after several months in London, "where I can discuss matters intelligently and not be like a dumb ham." In the midst of his year abroad, Joe Jr. went with Laski on an extended trip to the Soviet Union, where he saw little that he liked. Then, over Easter weekend of 1934, he journeyed with roommate Aubrey Whitelaw to visit Hitler's Germany. "I had been to Laski's many times to tea," he wrote his father, "and had heard him and many German socialists tell of the frequent brutalities in Germany." Nevertheless, Joe came to admire Hitler's program once he saw it up close, and he quickly adopted the Nazi version of recent history as his own. They had tried liberalism, and it had seriously failed. They had no leader, and as time went on Germany was sinking lower and lower. The German people were scattered, despondent, and were divorced from hope. Hitler came in. He saw the 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. It's a sad state of affairs when things like that can take place. . . . As far as the brutality is concerned, it must have been necessary to use some, to secure the whole-hearted support of the people, which was necessary to put through this present program. Joe took his favorable impression of the Third Reich with him when he entered Harvard five months later. He also, of course, brought along the memory of the poor Jews from the London slums who so frequently made him out a fool in Laski's living room. Several years later, during the autumn of 1944, Jack would question Laski's memory of the deep respect with which the normally truculent Joe had approached the Jewish students who were so clearly his academic superiors. "Is that really the way it was?" Jack asked Laski in a letter. "Or are you being generous?" Jack told the professor he thought it would have been "surprisingly out of character" for Joe to appear "at all gracious about not measuring up. He was, at heart, highly-competitive. And he usually had but one obvious wish for anyone who showed him up at anything: destruction." A friend from Joe's Harvard years recalls him mentioning that he did not mind Jews but, like his father, hated Kikes. One wonders, given his experiences among Laski's students and his positive reaction to Hitler's Germany, just how Joe Jr. defined the difference between the two. Excerpted from The Kennedys at War, 1937-1945 by Edward J. Renehan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 Kennedy Confidencep. 1
2 The Ambassadorp. 15
3 Rotten Rowp. 27
4 A Wonderful Timep. 36
5 Worthy Successorp. 46
6 Peace with Honorp. 59
7 Unrelenting Antagonismp. 72
8 An Era Endingp. 83
9 Upstart Ignoramusp. 97
10 Fortune Subsidingp. 107
11 A Combination of the Holy Ghost and Jack Dempseyp. 117
12 Charadesp. 130
13 Jackals and Betrayersp. 141
14 Dummyp. 152
15 "Democracy Is All Finished in England"p. 165
16 Neither One Thing nor Anotherp. 179
17 The Most Dangerous Thing There Isp. 187
18 Backwaterp. 201
19 Rather like Choatep. 216
20 "Shafty" Kennedyp. 227
21 Tulagip. 238
22 Life in Addition to Fortune Knows Godp. 246
23 Survival Timep. 256
24 A Great Deal in the Way of Deathp. 274
25 Just like Lazarusp. 282
26 Squaring the Circlep. 289
27 Anvilp. 297
28 Nothing Will Ever Be the Samep. 308
Acknowledgmentsp. 319
Source Notesp. 321
Indexp. 341