The Place to Find All Things Churchill

The Statesman John Kennedy Admired Most

Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06

Page 24

The Statesman John Kennedy Admired Most

By Fred Glueckstein

Mr. Glueckstein is a Maryland writer. His “Winston Churchill and Colonist II” appeared in FH 125, Winter 2004-05. We thank Churchill Centre Trustee Christopher Matthews, author of Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America, for kindly reviewing this manuscript and allowing quotations from his book. The drawing on this spread is by Curtis Hooper, commissioned by Sarah Churchill for her series of intaglio prints, “A Visual Philosophy of Sir Winston Churchill,” 1970s. (See FH 117, 120.)

IN DARK DAYS AND DARKER NIGHTS, when Britain stood alone, and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life, he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.”1
—President Kennedy proclaiming Churchill an honorary citizen of the United States, 1963

On leave from Harvard University to work on his honors thesis, John Fitzgerald Kennedy spent most of 1939 in London. When Hitler invaded Poland in September and England and France declared war, Kennedy, his parents Joseph and Rose, brother Joe, and sister Kathleen, were seated in the gallery at Parliament, where they intently listened to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and others including Winston Churchill, explain the British government’s decision to go to war.

“Churchill’s speech,” Kennedy historian Robert Dallek wrote, “giving evidence of the powerful oratory that would later inspire the nation in the darkest hours of the war, left an indelible impression on Jack.”2

Even as a youngster, John F. Kennedy had been a Churchillian. Kay Halle, a Kennedy and Churchill family friend, recalled visiting Jack in hospital when he was a teenager. She found him in bed reading Churchill’s memoirs of World War I, The World Crisis.

Kennedy’s interest in Churchill was rekindled in 1937 when, at the age of twenty, he and a friend traveled throughout Europe. Fascinated by the dynamics of European politics and the threat of war, he returned to England in 1938 to work with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had been appointed Ambassador to Great Britain by President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1937. Traveling around the European continent, Kennedy met with high-level U.S. officials, who did so as a courtesy to his father. His travels led him to become a student of European politics.

With war on the horizon, Ambassador Kennedy, who had a reputation for pacifist leanings, was convinced that England would be defeated by Germany. This outraged Churchill, as witnessed by Harold Nicolson on 14 June 1939 while dining with Churchill, Kenneth Clark, Julian Huxley and his wife, and Walter and Helen Lippmann. Nicolson later wrote: “Winston is horrified by Lippmann saying that the American Ambassador, Joe Kennedy, had informed him that war was inevitable and that we should be licked. Winston is stirred by this defeatism into a magnificent oration. He sits hunched there, waving his whisky-and-soda to mark his periods, stubbing his cigar with the other hand.

“It may be true, it may well be true,” he says, “that this country will at the outset of this coming and to my mind almost inevitable war be exposed to dire peril and fierce ordeals…. Yet these trials and disasters, I ask you to believe me, Mr. Lippmann, will but serve to steel the resolution of the British people and to enhance our will for victory. No, the Ambassador should not have spoken so, Mr. Lippmann; he should not have said that dreadful word.”3

An independent thinker uninfluenced by his father, young Jack was mesmerized by Churchill’s speech in defense of the government’s decision to go to war. The result was immediate. With the help of Arthur Krock, a family friend and New York Times columnist, Kennedy turned his Harvard senior thesis, “Appeasement at Munich,” into a best-seller titled Why England Slept in 1940. It has been reported that Joseph Kennedy, more interested in promoting his son’s career than even in promoting appeasement, purchased thousands of copies of the book which helped propel its heavy sales.

Of more note, however, was John Kennedy’s disclosure that his title, Why England Slept, was inspired by Churchill’s 1938 work, While England Slept (the American title of Arms and the Covenant). Later in 1955, Kennedy published another book, Profiles in Courage, which some considered a work along the lines of Churchill’s Great Contemporaries.

Jack Kennedy did not have a chance to meet Churchill until twenty years after Why England Slept was published. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. described the circumstances: “He and Jacqueline had a house in Cannes in the late Fifties with William Douglas-Home, the playwright, and his wife. One evening they dined with Churchill on the Onassis yacht. It was not altogether a success. Churchill, now an old man, had a little difficulty in distinguishing which of the group that came aboard was Jack Kennedy, and when this finally sorted out, the conversation was hard going. He had met his hero too late. But Churchill remained his greatest admiration.”4

Christopher Matthews, broadcaster, journalist and Churchill Centre Trustee, wrote in his Kennedy and Nixon what happened immediately after Kennedy’s unsuccessful meeting with Churchill at Cannes. “Jacqueline Kennedy couldn’t resist teasing her husband, who had made a point of wearing a starched white dinner jacket for the occasion. ‘I think he thought you were the waiter.’”5

Interestingly, Jackie had met Churchill before her marriage to Jack. During her first trip to Europe, a seven-week excursion in July and August 1948, Jacqueline Bouvier, 19 years of age, spent some of her time in London. Historian and biographer Sarah Bradford, in her book America’s Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, wrote of the encounter: “The highlight was seeing her wartime hero, Winston Churchill, at a Buckingham Palace garden party: she stood in the reception line twice for the repeated thrill of shaking the great man’s hand.”6

On 15 July 1960, Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Kennedy said in part:

The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high, to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: If we open a quarrel between the present and past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.7

The 1960 Presidential campaign, which pitted Kennedy against Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, captured the interest of Americans—and others. Across the Atlantic, Sir Winston Churchill, now 85 but still a keen observer of American politics, carefully followed the unfolding events. At that time, some fifteen years after the end of World War II, Churchill was well aware that the threat of Soviet expansion endangered the security of America and her allies.

Kennedy, some observers have remarked, ran to the right of Nixon. Churchill would not have been surprised to read that Kennedy invoked WSC’s words to buttress his position on the major foreign policy issue: Soviet expansion and the threat of nuclear war. There are many, incidentally, who believe that Churchill had an affinity—never displayed publicly, of course—for Democratic candidates and their views of world affairs. Always to the chagrin of Republicans, Richard Langworth, editor of Finest Hour, has suggested that “if Churchill had the vote he would have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last twelve elections of his lifetime.”8

A review of Kennedy’s speeches, remarks, statements, and press conferences during the 1960 presidential campaign showed that the Democratic contender quoted Churchill no fewer than nine times. As an example, on 26 August, just over a month after accepting his party’s nomination, Kennedy addressed the convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Detroit. He noted it this was a time “…where the nation is treated with less respect and more arrogance by its enemies around the world, and regarded with such doubt by friends.” He talked about the threats posed by the communists to the security of the United States, which included the proximity of “enemy rockets” off the coast some ninety miles away.

“These are unpleasant facts, unpleasant to face,” Kennedy continued. “But face them we must; for as Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons, in a period of similar peril for Great Britain: ‘We shall not escape our dangers by recoiling from them.’”9

Toward the end of the campaign on 2 October, Kennedy appeared with former President Harry S. Truman and other dignitaries at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Kennedy told the gathering: “…in 1946… President Truman brought to Fulton one of the great figures of the English-speaking world, and on that historic day in March Winston Churchill bluntly confronted our nation and the world, with the fact that from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain had descended across the continent.”

Churchill, Kennedy continued, “warned the world that time is plenty short, that we cannot, and I quote him, ‘take the course of allowing events to drift along until it is too late,’ and that ‘our difficulties and dangers will not be removed by closing our eyes to them or by merely waiting to see what happens.’

“He [Churchill] called for action to establish conditions of freedom throughout the world, to strengthen our western alliances and the United Nations, and he particularly emphasized these words which have meaning for us today. ‘From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they so much admire as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness. We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.’”10

On October 27th Nixon (a longtime friend and admirer of Kennedy, as Chris Matthews points out) issued a statement on the topic of freedom. It contained the only known reference to Churchill in Nixon’s official speeches or statements during the campaign: “Back in 1940, in the darkness of WW2, Winston Churchill spoke with brave contempt of the day when the corroding finger of Hitler would be scourged from the face of this planet, and when men and women and children would climb again to the sunny uplands of peace.”11

Speaking about the satellite nations of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Rumania, Nixon then invoked Churchill’s earlier words: “Twenty years later, in this year 1960, those of us who are free are resolved that the day shall surely come where everywhere people shall have a free choice of freedom and the corroding finger of communism shall be gone from the earth.”12

By 1960, Nixon had met Churchill twice. The first time was on 25 June 1954, and again in 1958, when he visited WSC in London. Nixon wrote of that first encounter in 1954: “I still remember the eager anticipation, even the excitement, that I felt that day as I waited for his plane to come into view. I had already traveled extensively abroad. I had met many national and international leaders and many famous celebrities. But none matched Churchill as a larger-than-life legend.”13

But Nixon’s carefully planned 1954 welcome took an unexpected turn, as Chris Matthews’ book describes: “Vice President Nixon stood on the tarmac at National Airport as… Churchill walked right past him to the microphones. The young American vice president had lost the chance to deliver to his hero a welcoming speech he had sweated the entire night to prepare.”14

On the last evening of Churchill’s three-day 1954 visit, Nixon joined Churchill at a dinner given at the British Embassy. During private discussions, Nixon asked WSC about his views regarding talks with the Soviet leaders that had succeeded Stalin. Nixon wrote: “He said that the West must have a policy of strength and must never deal with the communists on a basis of weakness.”15 Interestingly, this was that theme espoused by Churchill—to deal with the Soviets from strength rather than weakness—that Kennedy would effectively articulate, using Churchill’s words, six years later in the Presidential campaign.

On 8 November 1960, John F. Kennedy won the presidency by just over 100,000 votes of a record 68.8 million cast. In a letter dated December 2nd, to Consuelo Balsan, formerly Duchess of Marlborough, Churchill wrote: “Kennedy certainly has tremendous tasks before him.” He added: “I had a friendly exchange of letters with him after his election.”16

While visiting the United States for the last time in April 1961 aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, Christina, President Kennedy telephoned and invited Churchill to Washington to spend a couple of days. WSC’s Private Secretary Anthony Montague Brown took the call and declined the invitation, telling the President that Sir Winston, now 86 and in frail health, could no longer undertake such a journey.

Two years later, on 9 April 1963, President Kennedy proclaimed Churchill the first honorary citizen of the United States by Act of Congress. Again Churchill was too frail to come to Washington, and watched the ceremonies on television. His son Randolph and grandson Winston appeared on his behalf at the White House. In what must also be viewed as a personal and heartfelt tribute to a man he greatly admired throughout his life—and whose words he used so purposefully in the electoral campaign three years earlier—Kennedy said of Churchill in his own eloquent manner:

…We meet to honor a man whose honor requires no meeting—for he is the most honored and honorable man to walk the stage of human history in the time in which we live. Whenever and wherever tyranny threatened, he has always championed liberty. Facing firmly toward the future, he has never forgotten the past. Serving six monarchs of his native Great Britain, he has served all men’s freedom and dignity. In the dark days and darker nights when Britain stood alone—and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life—he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.

Given unlimited powers by his citizens, he was ever vigilant to protect their rights. Indifferent himself to danger, he wept over the sorrows of others. A child of the House of Commons, he became in time its father. Accustomed to the hardships of battle, he has no distaste for pleasure. Now his stately Ship of Life, having weathered the severest storms of a troubled century, is anchored in tranquil waters, proof that courage and faith and the zest for freedom are truly indestructible. The record of his triumphant passage will inspire free hearts for all time.


1. “President’s Remarks and Proclamation,” The New York Times, 10 April 1963, 27.

2. Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), 58.

3. Richard Hough, Winston & Clementine: the Triumphs & Tragedies of the Churchills (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 387.

4. Arthur M, Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), 69.

5. Christopher Matthews, Kennedy & Nixon, The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 130.

6. Sarah Bradford, America’s Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (New York, Penguin Books, 2000), 40.

7. Theodore C. Sorenson, “Let The Word Go Forth”: The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy (New York: Delacorte Press, 1988), 96.

8. Richard M. Langworth to the author.

9. Speeches, Remarks, Press Conferences, and Statements of Senator John F. Kennedy, August 1 through November 7, 1960. Final Report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office), 972.

10. Ibid., 446.

11. Speeches, Remarks, Press Conferences, and Study Papers of Vice President Richard M. Nixon, August 1 Through November 7, 1960.” Final Report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office), 820.

12. Ibid.

13. Richard M. Nixon, Leaders. Profiles and Reminiscences of Men Who Have Shaped the Modern World (New York: Warner Books, 1982), 15.

14. Matthews, op. cit., 103.

15. Nixon, op. cit., 12.

16. Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston S, Churchill. Volume VIII. “Never Despair” 1945-1965. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 1318, n. 6. Letter of 6 December 1960: Churchill Papers 1/80.

17. “President’s Remarks and Proclamation,” The New York Times, 10 April 1963, 27. The phrase, “he mobilized the English language and sent it in to battle,” was believed to have originated with broadcaster Edward R. Murrow; but historian Paul Addison, in his book, Churchill: Unexpected Hero, ascribes its first appearance to the English journalist Beverley Nichols.

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