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.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Kennedys at War by Edward J. Renehan, Jr.. Copyright © 2002 by Edward J. Renehan, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.