THE CAMELOT-CHEQUERS AXIS
Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain
Christopher Sandford, Lebanon, N.H.: ForeEdge, 2017, hb. 300pps
Cultural historian Christopher Sandford’s enquiring eyes range widely, playing over everything from cricket to Kurt Cobain, the Great War to The Great Escape, Conan Doyle to Eric Clapton, and countless other late nineteenth and twentieth century Anglosphere interests. Although conservative in some ways, he empathises easily with un-conservative subjects, or at least is able to tease out counter-intuitive realities from modern myths. So in Satisfaction, his 2003 biography of Keith Richards, he revealed such shocking truths as that the counter-cultural icon ne plus ultra likes few things better than Surrey and evensong, and that the large beakers of lethal-looking liquid carried ostentatiously onto many a reputation-tarnishing/burnishing chat-show are actually iced tea.
In his 2014 Harold and Jack, he inspected the unexpectedly warm relationship between the stuffily Conservative Harold Macmillan and J.F.K., the acronymed epitome of Sixties chic and ‘radicalism’. Now he plumbs more deeply into Kennedy’s background, character and development, underlining his earlier findings that the demi-god of old Democrats was more manager than moralist, so anti-communist that he supported Joseph McCarthy, pragmatic on ‘civil rights’ and heedless of early-onset feminism, romantically attached to certain traditions, and conservatively conscious of what he described as “the abyss under everything”. All this is intrinsically interesting, and objectively important, as Kennedy’s attitudes help explain the whole course of postwar history, especially the persistence of the globally crucial US-UK alliance notwithstanding Suez and other potential points of cleavage. It is also elegantly told, full of sage asides and amusing observations, such as on Alec Douglas-Home, “whose misfortune it was in the television age to resemble a prematurely-hatched bird”.
At the kernel of this story is the at times ambivalent relationship between J.F.K. and his bluntly outspoken father, whose 1938 appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James seemed inexplicable even at the time. By October 1940, when he was replaced in this most important of postings by John Gilbert Winant, Kennedy père had made himself deeply unpopular with the British media, politicians and even the public, called “Jittery Joe” for acerbities about British preparedness and his advocacy of accommodating dictators, sneered at as likely crooked, an arriviste as well as a snob. His views were perhaps predictable from the head of a clan most of whose members clung onto old Irish-American, anti-W.A.S.P. resentments, and never relinquished them, at least as late as the time of Ted Kennedy. J.F.K. himself could switch on the Irish angle for domestic political purposes, and sometimes drew parallels between the Irish-American and other immigrant experiences – but he simultaneously, noted Hugh Sidey,
…delighted in the romantic accounts of the rise of the British Empire, and the great figures on the battlefields or in parliament who made it possible.
His sympathy for those who felt alienated by W.A.S.P. America was always tempered by distrust of their occasional overreaction, what he called the “venom and bitterness” of Leftists like Harold Laski. In 1958, he would write (perhaps that should be type) a booklet called A Nation of Immigrants, but like his equally insulated youngest brother he did not foresee what venomous and bitter use would be made of such vapidities.
Maybe it was also predictable that some of Joe’s high-spirited and intelligent offspring should have asserted their independence against so prickly a patriarch, with both Jack and his older sister Kathleen footing it featly across high society dance floors and (sometimes literally) into the arms of the aristocracy. Kathleen was dubbed “Debutante of 1938” by the press, and in 1944, she would assimilate so far as to marry “Billy” Cavendish, Lord Hartington, against the wishes of her parents, who disapproved of both his Conservatism and his Protestantism. (The marriage ended in the worst way after only four months, when he was killed by an S.S. sniper in Belgium.)
That same season which saw Kathleen’s coming out also stood her younger brother in good social stead, although one dance partner, Deborah Mitford, later the Duchess of Devonshire and a close friend, found him “rather boring but nice”. (Her mother was astuter, saying “Mark my words, I won’t be surprised if that man becomes President of the United States”.) Jack found he fitted in with a certain type of upper-class Englishman, sharing their sensibilities and tastes, sometime even outdoing them in stereotypical English attributes – lightly-borne education, social ease, understated emotion, self-deprecating humour, easy-going sexual mores. Even at times of near-catastrophe, he kept himself in check, for example saying of the overnight appearance of the Berlin Wall or the discovery of the Cuban missile emplacements that things were “quite tricky”. As the author observes,
There was a part of America’s thirty-fifth President, whether innate or acquired, that was more ‘English than the English’
Kennedy seems to have seen aspects of himself in the great English Whigs, re-reading David Cecil’s 1939 masterpiece The Young Melbourne almost annually, Victoria’s future first prime minister rather foreshadowing Kennedy’s flexibility, priapism and privilege.
Like his historical hero, the clubbable, libidinous Kennedy had a serious side, many remarking on his ability to switch in an instant from connubiality to Czechoslovakia, or the weather to the Wehrmacht, reading hungrily, meeting everyone who was everyone, watching Commons debates, and travelling on the continent. His ideas did not always diverge that much from his father’s – Sandford cites an October 1939 Harvard Crimson editorial by J.F.K. which called for compromise with “Hitlerdom” – but just two months later he was at work on what would become 1940’s Why England Slept, a perfectly-timed anti-appeasement tract which became a bestseller. The book, written in a style which, Sandford notes, “could be suggestive of a light fog moving over a hazy landscape”, and edited heavily by New York Times writer Arthur Krock, might never have been published had Kennedy’s father not promoted it (including, according to Paul Johnson, secretly buying up thousands of copies to be cached at Hyannis Port) – an example of the anomalies in their relationship, great loyalty despite geopolitical disagreements.
The friendships J.F.K. forged before the war, the insights he accrued, go a long way to explain his indulgence of Britain at times when other Presidents might have lost patience. None of this means that the U.K. was ever anything other than a junior partner in the relationship, but possible Airstrip One humiliation was avoided thanks to Kennedy’s understanding of Britain’s cultural-political position, and his ability to be able to pick up a hotline direct to Macmillan (who was Kathleen’s uncle by marriage) or spend weekends with David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador whom he had befriended in prewar London (to the disgust of Lyndon Johnson). Washington’s ambassador to London, David Bruce, was also congenial to Macmillan, the two reportedly beguiling lulls between Cuban Missile Crisis phone calls by reading Jane Austen to each other.
The President’s pragmatic and – occasionally – generous approach to British needs was facilitated by Macmillan’s answering pragmatism, with both leaders agreeing on the awfulness of the Soviet system, the need for arms control and orderly British decolonisation, the desirability of closer ties with Europe. Besides, Britain was genuinely useful, with its global reach and sense of history. Dean Rusk and other close observers also agreed on the importance of Macmillan’s and Ormsby-Gore’s advice and support during the Missile Crisis (although Kennedy did not inform Macmillan for five days). The President, Robert Kennedy remembered,
needed to unburden himself and listen to the man he’d come to privately know as ‘Uncle Harold’
There seems little doubt that Macmillan made a signal contribution, if an unquantifiable one, during those “quite stressful” (this understatement is Macmillan’s) days. The goodwill engendered lingers in the Anglo-American ambience, even if the actual achievements of that period are few in number (Sandford suggests 1963’s Partial Test-Ban Treaty may be the only “imperishable event”).
The last chapter is dominated by an outline of Kennedy’s last visit to England, in June 1963, peccant in its descriptions of dinner at Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peaks”, in a fug of damp labradors and cigars, poignant with the President’s visit to Kathleen’s grave at Edensor, laying flowers and praying in the Derbyshire drizzle – poignant also because we know the closing of his chapter is just five months away. As Macmillan recalls watching his “Dear friend” ascending by helicopter into a cloudless summer sky at the conclusion of his visit, it seems to him in retrospect almost as if he had witnessed a transfiguration. All that charisma, energy and intelligence, just lifted away – and leaving so little behind.
This review first appeared in the November 2017 Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission