Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

John F. Kennedy

The American Presidents Series: The 35th President, 1961-1963

The American Presidents

Alan Brinkley; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

Times Books


The Irish Prince

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into an Irish American world that his family helped change forever. For generations, Americans of Irish descent had faced almost insuperable boundaries to their aspirations. Until the first decades of the twentieth century, most Irish Americans lived in insular communities and were largely excluded from many professions. They attended Catholic schools and—for those who chose to enter politics—ran for office in Irish wards and won votes from mostly Irish voters. Rarely did they attract support from outside their own communities. But the two families who gave birth to the first Irish American president broke new ground.
One of John Kennedy's grandfathers, John F. Fitzgerald, was himself a politician who crossed the boundaries that had limited Irish American ambitions. He was a charming, garrulous, energetic man who graduated from Boston College, enrolled briefly at Harvard Medical School, and was elected to Congress in 1894. Twelve years later, he became the first Irish American mayor of Boston, serving three terms between 1906 and 1914. For years, he remained one of the best-known political figures in the city. (He lived long enough to see his grandson elected to Congress, and he predicted that he would become president.) Fitzgerald's wife and second cousin, Mary Josephine Hannon, gave birth to six children. The eldest of them was Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, born in 1890.1
The future president's other grandfather was Patrick J. Kennedy, who left school at fourteen to support his large and struggling family. But despite his scant education and his impoverished beginnings, he saved his earnings and bought a small string of taverns and bars. Later he opened a liquor importing company and later still bought substantial interests in a coal company and a bank—enterprises that made him a wealthy and substantial figure in the Irish American community. His wife, Mary Hickey, was herself the daughter of a prosperous tavern owner. She had four children—among them Joseph P. Kennedy, born in 1888.2
Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph Kennedy were exceptional young people within this enclosed world. Rose's eminent political family made her something of a celebrity at a young age. She attended elite Catholic schools and took an extensive tour of Europe. By the age of eighteen she had abandoned her early hopes to attend Wellesley College to join her father's political life.3
Joe Kennedy, although from a less eminent family than Rose's, was more ambitious—and more successful—than almost anyone else in the Irish community. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, graduated from Harvard, and moved into banking. By the age of twenty-five, he was the president of Columbia Trust, a modest bank in which his father had once invested. Joe quickly doubled its accounts.4
Rose and Joe had become attracted to each other as early as 1906, when she was sixteen and he eighteen. Rose's father had another suitor in mind for his daughter—a wealthy contractor and friend of the family—and Fitzgerald tried for years to keep her apart from Joe. But Rose found Joe a much more compelling figure than her father's choice, and she wore him down. They were married in 1914, and they broke with tradition by moving to a house in Brookline, then an almost entirely Protestant community. Their first son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., was born in 1915. Two years later, on May 29, 1917, their second son—John Fitzgerald Kennedy—was born.5
* * *
Life in the Kennedy family was dominated by Joe's social ambitions and his spectacular financial success. His marriage to the mayor's daughter was only one of many steps that would lead him and his children well beyond the Irish world in which they were born. Joe was smart, ambitious, and often ruthless—determined not only to accumulate wealth but also to gain power. Banking, he believed, was the key to the kind of success he sought. "I saw, even in my limited dealings, that sooner or later, the source of business was traced to the banks," he wrote later. Banking, he claimed, "could lead a man anywhere, as it played an important part in every business."6
It was not just power and wealth he sought. He could have had a prosperous career as the most eminent Irish banker in the city, but he aspired to rise higher. He wanted to move into the great world of finance—a world dominated by old Yankee families in Boston and New York. World War I interrupted his plans. He left the bank and became a manager of war production at the Bethlehem steel yards in Quincy, Massachusetts. When the army tried to draft him, the Bethlehem executives fought to keep him, calling him indispensable. His success in a world of Yankee businessmen helped draw him into larger and larger worlds. "The key to Kennedy's spectacular financial success," one of his colleagues later said, "was his anticipation of the future … his vision of what lay down the road, a vision that was always there, sustaining him and guiding him—that vision was simply phenomenal."7 In the heady days of the stock market boom in the 1920s, he joined a Brahmin brokerage house, where he expanded his connections in the financial world and became one of the canniest and most successful investors of his era. By 1927, he had relocated his family to Riverdale, just north of Manhattan, where he could be closer to Wall Street. Even before the family's move, he had accumulated over $2 million, which was only the beginning of his extraordinary rise.
Joe's remarkable success created problems for Rose. She wanted an ordered and respectable domesticity. But Joe was not much of a partner in the home—traveling constantly, working late, and always looking for new connections and new opportunities. That left Rose alone in a large and complicated home. By the early 1930s, there were nine children: Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted. It was a loud, boisterous, and at times chaotic household that never lived up to Rose's hopes—perhaps in part because Rose herself was either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy for the first seventeen years of her marriage. After the family moved to Riverdale, they retained a foothold in Massachusetts. Joe purchased a large property in Hyannis Port that became the family's most enduring home. The celebrated pictures of the Kennedy family in later years—sailing off the coast of Cape Cod, playing touch football on the lawn—were a reminder of decades of outdoor activity and competitive sports. Long before the Kennedys became politically active, the family had already become among the most famous Irish American families in America—a result of Joe's enormous and conspicuous wealth, and also because of the attractive image of the Kennedy tribe.8
But the attractive, even idyllic, images of this apparently golden family disguised its share of troubles. Rose remained overwhelmed by her large family, particularly after their first daughter, Rosemary, was diagnosed as mildly retarded. Rose had few friends and few activities in New York beyond taking care of her growing family. She distanced herself from her husband sexually except for procreation and traveled extensively around America and Europe to escape the pressures of home. Her absence dismayed her children (and especially Jack). Joe Sr. was still mostly away, traveling on business and expanding his business empire—including an investment in the movie industry. He also maintained an extramarital sexual life—most conspicuously with the actress Gloria Swanson. The children grew up supervised for long periods by servants and relatives.9
Rosemary aside, Jack had the most difficult life of the family. He was under the shadow of his older brother, Joe Jr., who was the recipient of his father's greatest hopes. Jack developed a competitive relationship with his older brother, who almost always won whatever contests they waged. But a more important part of his youth—and indeed of much of his life—was the long history of illness that began shortly after birth. He was restless and fitful even as a baby, had trouble digesting milk, and suffered frequent stomachaches. By the time he was three, he had experienced scarlet fever, causing his mother "frantic terror" and leading his father to spend hours praying (uncharacteristically) in the Catholic Church, which he rarely attended.10 This frightening illness was followed by other debilitating diseases (chicken pox, ear infections, and undiagnosed stomach, intestinal, and other ailments that made it difficult for him to eat and sometimes left him so weak that he could hardly stand). Sickness plagued him into adolescence and beyond, baffling his doctors, his family, and Jack himself. For months at a time, he was gaunt, pale, and weak. Multiple and often mistaken diagnoses added to his ordeal. Treatment for one problem created problems elsewhere, and there was no definitive explanation of what ailed him. Jack liked to joke about his frequent illnesses, and he tried to disguise the pain and fear that he often felt. But there were also periods of near despair, especially when he was in hospitals for weeks, submitting to endless tests, and still failing to get any answers to what his problems were.11
His illnesses inevitably affected his schooling. Shortly after the family's move to New York, Jack was enrolled in the Riverdale Country School. But at the age of thirteen, with his grades an undistinguished C+ average, his parents decided he should go to boarding school. Rose Kennedy was especially eager to get the boys out of the house because she felt so overwhelmed by her many children. Jack expected to follow Joe Jr. to Choate, the distinguished boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, but Rose—on her own—decided in the fall of 1930 to send him instead to Canterbury, a Catholic school for boys in New Milford, Connecticut. He suffered there not only from his chronic ailments but also from homesickness. He complained to his family about the "whole lot of religion" and the isolation of the school. ("The only time you can get out of here is to see the Harvard-Yale and Army-Yale [games].")12 Much of the time he was in the local hospital, and he spent the last months of the academic year at home, with tutors.13
The following fall, he enrolled at Choate, which he found more tolerable because his brother Joe was already there. Jack remained a lackluster student. He was constantly reprimanded by his teachers and the headmaster, who considered him "one of the most undependable boys" in his grade. He lacked "application." He was "careless" with his work. He was notoriously "casual and disorderly" in a school committed to order.14 He insisted that he was "trying to be a more socially minded person."15 Everyone agreed that he was intelligent, but that made his scholarly "mediocrity" all the more damning.16 Inattention was only one of his problems, for he fell victim soon again to his puzzling and often debilitating illnesses. At one point, according to his lifelong friend Lem Billings, he "came very close to dying."17 He was in and out of the infirmary and local hospitals, trying to lead a normal life, and struggling to keep up with his work. Through it all, he forced himself to remain cheerful, funny, and almost irresistibly charming. "I've never known anyone in my life with such a wonderful humor—the ability to make one laugh and have a good time," Billings once wrote.18 "Jack didn't like to be too serious," the Choate headmaster said long after Jack left the school. "He had a delightful sense of humor always … He was a very likeable person, very lovable."19
Living in the shadow of his older brother was difficult. Joe excelled in athletics, discipline, and leadership. Jack could not compete. He did not like Choate very much more than he had liked Canterbury, and he often described it as a prison. But he made his way through his school years with garrulous charm and wit. It was not surprising that his jokes were often dark, because his health continued to deteriorate. He spent weeks at the Mayo Clinic, where he submitted to what seemed endless, humiliating tests. But as usual in his letters to Billings he treated it all as a joke. "I'm still eating peas and corn for food and I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde," he wrote. "That, my sweet, is the height of cheap thrills."20
Partly to compensate for his inability to thrive in sports or academics, he developed a new sexual prowess that lasted through the rest of his life. Like his father, he treated sex as a kind of sport—casual, frequent, mostly unconnected to affection or romance. Most of his trysts were one-night stands, and he sometimes forgot the names of his sexual partners. The constricted world of Choate did not make sexual activity easy, but he found ways to get around the boundaries of the school in the same way he got around his illnesses.21
Jack's disaffection—his illnesses, his poor academic performance, and his disdain for the stuffy traditions of the school—led him to join a group of similarly alienated students to form "the Muckers Club." (Mucker was a term coined by the faculty to describe rebellious students with little respect for the "Choate culture." Jack's father, somewhat in sympathy with his son, later noted that if he had organized the club, its name would not have begun with an M.) The Muckers composed and sang vaguely obscene songs, sometimes about teachers. They organized pranks that mocked the staid habits of the school. The headmaster called them "a colossally selfish, pleasure loving, unperceptive group" and nearly expelled the entire group. Rose Kennedy, horrified by Jack's rebelliousness, liked to believe that this confrontation with the headmaster was a turning point in his life—that he had learned to respect authority and to live by the norms of the school. But Jack was far from tamed. He avoided the more dangerous behavior that had created trouble for the Muckers, but he could not resist a final challenge to the Choate establishment by launching a successful campaign for the title of "Most Likely to Succeed," using his popularity to defeat the more obvious candidates.22
* * *
Jack's path to college was as rocky as his path through prep school had been. He enrolled at Harvard for the fall of 1935, then withdrew before the term began to go to England to spend a year at the London School of Economics. But the onset of another mysterious illness, and his disappointment with the LSE, drew him back to America, where—weeks after the term had begun—he enrolled at Princeton, primarily because Lem Billings and other friends were already there. His enthusiasm for Princeton soon cooled. He found it provincial and oppressive—with its Protestantism, its small-town environs, and its eating-club culture that did not often welcome Catholics. "I think he was a little disenchanted with the country-club atmosphere of Princeton," one of his friends later wrote.23
Before he finished his first term, he was rushed to Boston and was hospitalized with yet another apparently undiagnosable illness. After weeks of invasive and humiliating tests—"the most harrowing experience of all my storm-tossed career," he wrote to Billings—he was diagnosed with leukemia. "Took a peek at my chart yesterday and could see that they were mentally measuring me for a coffin," he reported.24 But he refused to take the diagnosis seriously. He was vindicated when the doctors finally admitted that they had been in error. He spent the rest of his aborted academic year trying to restore himself to health—through vacations at Palm Beach, a few Teddy Roosevelt–like months on a ranch in Arizona, and a libidinous week in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1936, he was accepted again to Harvard. "To be a ‘Harvard Man' is an enviable distinction," he wrote on his application.25 The Admissions Committee said of him, "Jack has rather superior mental ability, without the deep interest in his studies … He can be relied upon to do enough to pass."26 His father wrote the dean saying much the same: "Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things he is interested in, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested. This is, of course, a bad fault."27
He was happier at Harvard than he had been at any of his former schools. Although he left behind his closest friend, Lem Billings, he found new friends at Harvard—many of them through his older brother. Joe Jr. was, as usual, serious, ambitious, and hot-tempered, always striving to attract the admiration of his father. His greatest ambition was to win a Harvard football letter, a goal he never achieved. Jack was more easygoing. In better health than he had been in some time, he tried out for football himself but never expected to remain on the team. He was also an avid swimmer and boxer. As at Choate, he was a popular figure among his contemporaries—witty, lively, irreverent, and highly social. He was a more serious student in his first year at Harvard than he had been at Choate or Princeton. His mediocre grades obscured his avid reading, especially during his frequent hospital stays. (He remained a fervent reader, especially of history, throughout his life.)28
Despite his mother's belief that Jack's near-expulsion from Choate was a defining moment in his life, a more plausible turning point was his summer-long European trip in 1937 after his freshman year at Harvard. He and Billings sailed to Europe on July 1 and returned in September—the longest trip either of them had ever made. It revealed the multiple roles that were coming to shape Jack's young life. He was the privileged and dutiful son, who traveled with his way paved by his father to meetings with statesmen and audiences with the pope and with Cardinal Pacelli (soon to become Pope Pius XII). Joe Kennedy's friends and colleagues assisted him everywhere he went. Jack was also the reckless playboy, chasing fun, and women, in bars and cafés in Paris, the Riviera, and Biarritz. He was also becoming a serious and ambitious student of the political world. He kept a diary of the places he visited, showing a particular interest in the fascist countries. He was eager to see Spain, but the civil war there prevented him from entering the country. Instead, he sought out soldiers fleeing into France and asked them questions about the fighting. Kennedy and Billings found Italy impressively prosperous and orderly ("Fascism seems to treat them well," Jack wrote of the Italians).29 In Germany, Billings wrote that they both "had a terrible feeling about … the ‘Heil Hitler' stuff."30 Jack was more ambivalent. He too hated the German arrogance and deplored the growing persecution of the Jews, but he was impressed by what he considered German efficiency. "All the towns are very attractive," he recorded in his diary, "showing that the Nordic races certainly seem superior to the Latins. The Germans really are too good—it makes people gang against them for protection."31 "Isn't the chance of war less as Britain gets stronger?" Jack wrote after his return to Harvard. "Or is a country like Italy liable to go to war when economic discontent is rife? Wouldn't Mussolini go if there was a war—as in all likelihood Italy would be defeated in a major war?"32 These questions would increase his serious study of history and politics.
Back at college in the fall, Jack was at least as eager to be a social success as to be a successful student. His greatest ambition in his sophomore year was to be elected to one of the university's exclusive final clubs. Neither his father nor his brother had succeeded in getting elected to a club—largely because of anti-Irish prejudice. But Jack worked hard to be accepted. Despite his uncertain health, he continued to try out for football and the junior varsity swimming team, but failed to win letters. He became a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and wrote occasionally for the Harvard Crimson. But his most important strength was his popularity. His loyal friends helped him get elected to the Spee Club. He so valued his acceptance that he spent almost all of his free time in the elegant clubhouse.33
After a term taking courses in political science and international relations (and receiving better grades than in the past), he took a leave in the spring of 1939, his junior year, to do research for a senior thesis. But his thesis took second place to a great event in the Kennedy family. His father had been appointed the United States ambassador to Great Britain in 1938. It was a position of particular pride to Joe given the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon appointments of ambassadors. Jack was drawn to England for research for his thesis topic. But he was also drawn to the dazzling new life of his family in London. Jack toured the capitals of eastern Europe and the Middle East, cared for at each stop by American diplomats. He spent much of his time in Paris, "living like a king" and staying at the American embassy.34 The beleaguered diplomats working feverishly in the shadow of war were often irritated to have to serve the needs of what seemed a pampered son of a wealthy and powerful man. But they gave him material and arranged interviews, nevertheless. Jack also found time, as he always did, for "recreation"—including a luxurious September vacation in Antibes, where he learned of the outbreak of war.35 He returned to Harvard as determined as before to understand the crisis in Europe.
Joe Kennedy, like most Americans, was opposed to U.S. intervention in the European war. And, not surprisingly, Jack shared Joe's belief that neither Britain nor America was equipped to defeat Germany. Jack argued for a negotiated end to the war, mediated by President Franklin Roosevelt, which would allow the Third Reich to survive and grow but would permit Britain and France to remain independent. With this unpromising premise, Jack began to write his senior thesis, which he called "Appeasement at Munich." Characteristically, he enlisted help from a network of helpers: his father's diplomatic colleagues, who scoured libraries and research centers in Britain for materials to send him; research assistants, who did his legwork in Harvard's Widener Library; typists and stenographers, who helped him write the manuscript.36
The final draft of his thesis was respectable and impressively ambitious—better than most of his earlier, mostly undistinguished academic work. His advisers admired the importance of the topic and the intelligence that went into the thesis. But it was also cumbersome, with a somewhat muddled argument and a text filled with grammatical and punctuation errors. Some of his readers found it excessively wordy, and none of them imagined it to be a significant work of scholarship. "Badly written, but a laborious, interesting, and intelligent discussion of a difficult question," his advisers wrote. He received a magna cum laude grade for the effort.37
The thesis had two major assets. One was its timing. He finished it in the midst of a global crisis, and despite its weaknesses it addressed a critical question: "Why was England so poorly prepared for the war?" The other asset was his connections—the efforts by his father and many colleagues and friends who gathered around on Jack's behalf and helped him make a "typical undergraduate effort" (as one historian wrote at the time) into a published book.38 Jack, somewhat presumptuously but characteristically, drew distinguished people to his assistance. "Arthur Krock … feels that I should get it published," he wrote his father.39 Krock, an eminent columnist for the New York Times with many lucrative ties to Joe Kennedy, helped rewrite the thesis (how substantially is not known) and provided a new title—Why England Slept, derived from a contemporaneous book title of Winston Churchill, While England Slept.40
Jack, for his part, revised his argument about Britain's lack of preparedness. Originally, he had said that the British public was the source of the problem because voters were unwilling to support strengthening the military. Democracy "may be a great system of government to live in internally," he wrote, "but its weaknesses are great."41 In the book, Jack shifted more of the blame to Britain's leadership—Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, both friends of Joe Kennedy. He was moving away from his father's increasingly controversial views. Even as most Americans were becoming more supportive of Britain, Joe was becoming an increasingly entrenched isolationist. Without informing Washington, Joe was looking for compromises with Hitler, even unsuccessfully seeking meetings with him. By November 1940, President Roosevelt recalled Joe from London—creating a deep and permanent rift between them and destroying what Joe had hoped would be a dazzling political career.
Jack, however, was moving along with most of the public toward a belief in the importance of supporting the war against Germany. He never openly repudiated his father, but he slowly distanced himself from Joe's unpopular stances on the war. His increasing internationalism encouraged Krock to provide Jack with an agent, who passed the manuscript around through many rejections until the small publishing house of Wilfred Funk agreed to publish it. The publishers were much encouraged by an admiring introduction from Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life magazines. "I cannot recall a single man of my college graduation," Luce wrote, "who could have written such an adult book on such a vitally important subject during his Senior year at college."42 By then, the writing was smoother, the argument clearer. But its timeliness may have been its most important strength. It was well reviewed and widely read. It helped establish Jack Kennedy—after years of mediocrity in multiple schools—as a serious thinker and an emerging leader of his generation.43
At the core of Why England Slept were Jack's first significant steps toward the muscular vision of American power that would characterize his future career. Jack stopped short of advocating American intervention in the war (although he was beginning to see it as inevitable). He made a strong case that Britain and the United States could become together the great world powers to defend against the spread of totalitarianism. But most of all, he laid out what he considered the great challenge of democracy. How can a free society mobilize its citizens for war? How can it "compete with the new totalitarian system based on an economy of rigid state control?"44 Britain's failure to prepare, he wrote, was in part "a great lack of young progressive and able leaders"—a statement that irritated some of Joe's friends in the diplomatic corps.45 But again and again, Jack returned to the "weaknesses" of democracy in the face of crisis. Dictators, he warned, have almost always been ahead of democracies in preparing for war. "To say that democracy has been awakened by [the fall of France] … is not enough. Any person will awaken when the house is burning down. What we need is an armed guard that will wake up when the fire first starts, or better yet, one that will not permit a fire to start at all."46
It was a measure of how little intellectual power had been targeted toward the strengthening of democracy against totalitarianism that a young college graduate could attract so much attention to a modest book. But it was also an early sign of what would become a hallmark of Kennedy's mature career: his strong belief in the importance of a robust democracy for what he later called the "long twilight struggle" against the growing power of the communist world.
* * *
The success of his book did little to settle Kennedy's plans. He briefly considered enrolling in law school. He spent a few months at Stanford University, hoping to improve his once-again deteriorating health and applying to Stanford Law School (as he had done at Yale Law School before). He traveled with his family and vacationed at Hyannis Port. But like many other young men in the year before Pearl Harbor, he was waiting for what he now understood to be the inevitability of America joining the war. He worried that his poor health would bar him from the military, and his fears were justified when he failed the physical exams for both the army and the navy in early 1941. But a few months later, Joe Kennedy arranged for another physical exam for his son, this time clearly rigged, that found no serious health issues. In October, he entered the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington.47
The work was dull, he told Billings, but he was enjoying an active social life, including his first serious romance—a relationship with a Danish journalist, Inga Arvad, who had become a friend of Jack's sister Kathleen. Arvad was a beautiful woman (rumored to have been a Miss Denmark). She was a few years older than Jack. She was married, but in the process of divorce—a fact that, had Rose Kennedy known, would have horrified her. More important, however, were the growing rumors that Arvad was a spy—a rumor that had emerged from her assignment as the German correspondent for a Danish paper and her appearance in a few photographs with Hitler and Göring. There was no evidence that she was engaged in espionage, but the likelihood of a scandal grew once the FBI became interested. With Joe Kennedy's encouragement, the navy quickly moved Jack out of Naval Intelligence and to the navy yard at Charleston, South Carolina, leaving Arvad behind. Their relationship soon ended painfully.48
By then, the United States was at war with the Axis powers, and Jack was eager to be assigned to combat duty. New bouts of illness—severe back problems, continuing stomach problems, and other ailments, some of them hidden from the naval doctors—kept him out of active duty. But in July 1942, he entered midshipman's school to train as a combat officer.
His hope was to be the commander of a PT boat, a small and flimsy wooden craft that carried torpedoes and searched for Japanese vessels to attack. It was a prestigious assignment for a young novice officer, in part because of the heroic record of earlier PT commanders and in part because of the danger in serving on the fragile boats. Jack's health problems seemed almost certain to bar him from active duty. But his father intervened, once again providing more misleading medical records and convincing the PT officers that his presence would bring publicity to the fleet. That was not the last of the influential interventions that helped Jack on his way. Unhappy to be assigned to the Panama Canal, far from the fighting, Jack appealed to Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts, who arranged for him to be assigned to the South Pacific. Jack believed it was his duty to fight. He also knew that action in the war would help him in whatever career he might choose. In his competitive, achievement-oriented family, it was almost unthinkable for him to spend the war anywhere but the front.49
In the spring of 1943, Kennedy took command of PT 109 and soon found himself in a fleet of fifteen PT boats sent to torpedo a Japanese fleet trying to escape from the American navy. The attack was disastrous. The PT boats failed to damage any of the Japanese ships. One night, Kennedy's boat—alone without radio or radar communication in the dark of night—was idling with only one of three engines running as it awaited the enemy. Suddenly, a Japanese destroyer, fleeing the U.S. attacks, appeared out of the dark on a direct path to PT 109. Kennedy had no time to move his sluggish, underpowered boat out of the destroyer's way, and the Japanese ship cut the U.S. craft in half—killing two of Jack's crew, with the remaining men clinging to the hull of the boat or floating aimlessly around it. Kennedy swam out to help guide the remaining men back to the hull, surrounded by oil fires, tugging a badly injured sailor with him. By the early afternoon of the next day, with the hull slowly sinking, Kennedy organized his men in groups to head toward the nearest island. It was a five-hour swim, during which he continued to drag his injured crewman with him, fighting exhaustion. The remaining crew made it to shore. When they encountered an English-speaking native with a canoe, Jack carved his location on a coconut shell and requested a boat to rescue them. Seven days after the collision, with the coconut message delivered, they were once again on a PT boat returning to their base.
Almost immediately, the PT 109 rescue became a highly publicized event—driven by the drama of the crew's harrowing ordeal and the eminence of Kennedy's family. (Headlines almost invariably referred to him as "Kennedy's Son.") The story of his heroism became a staple of the press for weeks after his rescue, enhanced by his famous family. John Hersey chronicled the PT 109 story in the New Yorker in 1944 (decades later it was the basis of a successful film); Hersey portrayed Jack as a modest, self-deprecating hero.50
Absent from these accounts were elements that did not fit with either Jack's or Hersey's needs. Jack's heroic rescue of the crew might have been even more impressive if his physical problems had become part of the story, but he had hidden his pain when he joined the navy and had no wish to reveal his chronic illness and his deceptive health report. Hersey also ignored the murky circumstances that led to the destruction of Kennedy's PT boat and ignored criticisms, many of them unfair, that—as Jack's superior officer later said—"he wasn't a particularly good boat commander."51 It was in everyone's interest to shape the story as a tale of heroism and survival. Jack himself did little to tout his sudden fame. He had no need to do so. His shipmates, the navy, the press, and his father did it for him.
* * *
Only ten days after his rescue, Jack returned to duty, back on PT boats. But by December 1943, his health was deteriorating again, and he was ready to go home. His doctors agreed. He left the Pacific front in December, arrived in San Francisco in early January, and a few days later checked into the Mayo Clinic once again, the beginning of several months of off-and-on hospitalization to deal with his many problems. The worst, as usual, was his back—a problem that was not caused by the PT 109 ordeal (although it had aggravated the already-existing pain), nor by playing football at Harvard (as his mother told reporters). It was an earlier chronic problem made worse by several failed operations and frequent treatments with steroids. But he received a much greater blow that summer. On August 12, 1944, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.—Jack's brother, role model, and avid competitor—piloted a bomber dangerously packed with TNT destined for Germany. The plane exploded before it left Britain. Joe's body was never recovered.52
The death devastated the family. Joe Sr. was inconsolable. For weeks, he stayed alone in his room in Hyannis Port, hardly seeing his wife and children. When he emerged from his solitude, he was a broken and embittered man who blamed his son's death on Roosevelt's march to war. Joe Sr. may also have feared that his son had taken this terrible risk in part to help restore his father's reputation. Jack was shattered too, perhaps worried that Joe's reckless flight was partly an effort to outdo him. ("Where the hell were you when the destroyer hove into sight … and where the hell was your radar?" Joe Jr. had written Jack after reading the Hersey New Yorker article, still competing.)53 To console himself, Jack set out to assemble a privately published book of remembrances of his brother, As We Remember Joe.54
In the face of his grief over Joe's death, the end of his active duty in the war, the loss of his relationship with Inga Arvad, and his continuing health problems, Jack was uncertain what to do next. He was officially discharged from the navy in March 1945, somewhat aimless. A few months later, he traveled to San Francisco to write for the Hearst newspapers about the creation of the United Nations. And shortly after that he flew to Britain to begin a tour of Europe that, once again, drew him into the world of politics and diplomacy.55
He kept a diary of his experiences. He was skeptical of the United Nations treaty, which "suffered from inadequate preparation and lack of fundamental agreement among the Big Three … I doubt it will prove effective."56 In Britain, he followed Winston Churchill's doomed campaign for reelection, noting that the Labour victory was "a good thing" because it would require the party to make peace with capitalism.57 In Ireland, he was disturbed by reports of President Eamon de Valera's wartime hostility to Britain. And he joined a tour of the postwar ruins of Germany with Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. He was impressed by the "perfect" discipline of the American occupation troops, and he noted the disappointment of Germans that the U.S. Army had not occupied eastern Germany before the Russians did: "One opinion here is that the Russians are never going to pull out of their zone of occupation but plan to make their part of Germany a Soviet Socialist Republic."58 But he was not uncritical of the American troops in Germany either. "Americans looted towns heavily on arrival," he noted. He was fascinated by his visit to Hitler's destroyed home in Berchtesgaden, and he was strangely interested in Hitler himself.
You can easily understand how that within a few years Hitler will emerge from the hatred that surrounds him now as one of the most significant figures who ever lived.
He had boundless ambition for his country which rendered him a menace to the peace of the world, but he had a mystery about him in the way that he lived and in the manner of his death that will live and grow after him. He had in him the stuff of which legends are made.59
Kennedy was not an admirer of Hitler. But this strange diary entry suggests his interest in the exercise of power—an interest that almost allowed Hitler's historical importance to overshadow the horrors of his regime.
Kennedy returned from Europe still uncertain about what to do with his life, but gradually it dawned on him that his future might be in politics. Joe Jr.'s death inevitably elevated Jack to become the carrier of the family's hopes. Despite Joe Sr.'s doubts about his second son's political skills, he began encouraging him to take Joe Jr.'s place and run for office. Jack was skeptical at first, but he soon began thinking about a political career himself. He had considered and rejected a career in the law. He had tried journalism and decided it was not for him. ("A reporter is reporting what happened. He is not making it happen," he said years later.)60 "Nothing could have kept Jack out of politics," Lem Billings wrote. "I think this is what he had in him."61 Jack had spent his young years thinking about and studying politics and international relations, and he was now beginning to consider a life dealing with the great challenges facing the country in the aftermath of the war.
Jack may not have needed pressure from his father to choose a career in politics, but he continued to need Joe Sr. to make that career possible. Late in 1944, Joe began quietly negotiating with James Michael Curley, the colorful former mayor of Boston who was now serving in Congress. Curley, not for the first time, was having trouble with both money and the law. Kennedy offered to pay off Curley's debts and help him with his legal problems in exchange for vacating his seat in the House of Representatives. Jack may not have known about his father's intervention with Curley, but he understood that without his father's help the likelihood of political success would be slim. "I just called people," Joe later told a journalist asking about the beginnings of Jack's political life. "I got in touch with people I know. I have a lot of contacts."62 In December 1944, his father's support assured, Jack wrote Billings, "I have my eyes on something pretty good now if it comes through."63

Copyright © 2012 by Alan Brinkley