The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded – Ronald Kessler

Kessler-sinsoffatherWhen we think of political dynasties in America, perhaps no other name has had as big of an impact as the Kennedys.  They are both admired and loathed but their importance to  the American experience cannot be understated. The patriarch, Joseph (“Joe”) P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) was once one of the wealthiest men in America.  Yet for all of his financial success, controversy followed him and his family for years after his death.  The family’s success undoubtedly reached its highest peak with second son John F. (“Jack”) Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected in 1960 as the next President of the United States.  For Joe, it was a dream come true and reaffirmed his mantra that “Kennedys don’t lose”.  To most of the public, the Kennedys seemed like figures out of a story book and the media’s creation of the term “Camelot” that was given to the Kennedy White House, further enhanced the family’s mythical status.  The image presented to the public gave the impression of a fairytale marriage that any single person would envy.  Today, we know through the benefit of hindsight that the truth is far less glamarous and behind the scenes, there were dark storm clouds gathering as infidelity, old man Joe’s influence and one foreign crisis after another made life as the first family strenuous to say the least.  Rumors have persisted over the years that Joe Kennedy provided the money for all of his sons’ political campaigns and that the money he provided was used in several places to swing the election to his son Jack.  And while there has never been documented evidence of such, statements have been made by many individuals that action were taken to give Kennedy the election.  All knowledge of what really did happen went with Joe Kennedy to the grave and I doubt that even his sons knew the whole story.  He was a master at compartmentalization and for years, remained chameleon like figure.  Ronald Kessler decided to take another at Kennedy’s life and what he found has been compiled into this book that peels back the layers that have shrouded the Kennedy family is mystique for several decades.

I should point out that the book is not about the Kennedy presidency nor is it focused on Jack’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. In fact, the murder receives only a small section in the story.  Joe Kennedy is the center of the story and the author takes us deep inside his world in a time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started a second world war. the stock market was less regulated, Hollywood was for the taking and the 1919 National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) turned bootleggers into millionaires.  Joe’s numerous ventures both legal and illegal are discussed in the book and show that he was not above defying the law in order to reap hugh profits.  After providing background information on the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, Kessler shifts gears and the story picks up pace as Joe begins to implement his vision for financial success and political fame.  Kennedy had always portrayed himself as the Irishman who overcame bias and adversity to rise high in American society.  It is a moving story but there were many things he left out and Kessler leaves no stone unturned.  The real Joe Kennedy is revealed here and what we learn may prove to be more than some readers have bargained for.  If you hold the Kennedy family in high regard, then this book might cause you to re-evaluate your views of them while inducing feelings of bewilderment, sympathy and in some cases, pity.

There is no question that Kennedy was shrewd and domineering businessman, never afraid to throw his weight around.  And those abilities would bring him into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) whose relationship with Joe takes up a significant portion of the book.  Historians know very well the story of the “appeasement at Munich” where Czechoslovakia was carved up on a silver platter for Adolft Hitler by former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) with the full support of U.S. Ambassador Kennedy.  But when Hitler decided to invade neighboring Poland on September 1, 1939, it became hauntingly clear that the appeasement was a distraction from Germany’s master plan.  Kennedy’s view that England would lose the war by 1940 caused consternation and outrage in Britain and Washington.  And it would put a deep strain to develop in the relationship between Kennedy and Roosevelt. Drawing upon written correspondence and statements by those with knowledge, the book reveals the high level of contempt in which Kennedy was held by many in government. Roosevelt himself does not spare Kennedy his wrath and it is an interesting look behind the scenes as the German army rolled across Europe.  Some readers might be puzzled by Kennedy’s behavior.  One possible explanation can be found in Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which discusses the link between Nazi Germany and American bankers and investors.   I personally wondered why Roosevelt tolerated Kennedy as long as he did.  There is a good explanation for that as well which is provided within the story, further highlighting the fact that politics is a ruthless business.   As the war rages on, Kennedy eventually moves back to the United States and like a piece of chessboard, he is moved from one position to another but never attains a position within the White House. He would live vicariously through Jack who’s victory over Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the moment Joe had been waiting for.

I have often heard of the Kennedy curse and tragedy did follow the family constantly.  The deaths of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s (1890-1995) children affect both deeply and the mantra of “Kennedys don’t cry” comes off more as a slogan than a way of life.  In spite of Joe’s antics throughout the book, there did exist a very personal side to him that was often unseen and rarely revealed.  The memories provided by his former mistress Janet DesRosiers shows him in his most humble state and also provokes more questions about the marriage between Joe and Rose which comes off as more than unorthodox.  What we learn about their union sheds light on the difference between liberal and puritanical views.  Stories of the Kennedy men and their love lives is nothing new and in the case of Joe, he certainly had his fun.  But while reading the book, I asked myself if he would have behaved in the same manner had his marriage to Rose taken a different course? We can only speculate but what is clear is that “love” is not always what we think it is and many secrets always exist behind closed doors. On occasion in the book, statements by their children regarding their childhood provide a very sobering picture of life at home and there are very few positive comments about their mother Rose, who is more like a visiting relative than full-time mother.  They do however, show the utmost respect and admiration dad Joe who emerges as the glue that holds the family together.

Far from being “Camelot”, the family was more like an episode of reality television gone wrong. However, there is no question that the Kennedy possessed enormous ambition and it propelled them to high places.  For them, losing was not an option.  And John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most beloved presidents.  Aside from Joe, the author does discuss incidents that arise in the lives of the children, most of which are highly serious.  Ted (1932-2009) as the family called him, has a series of incidents that severely injured or took the life of someone in his company.  Yet his accidents are only a few in a long series of events in the Kennedy family that involved tragedy due to recklessness or substance abuse. And no story about the family is complete without a discussion regarding the missing sister, Rosemary (1918-2005) who outlived all but one of her brothers.  Her story is perhaps one of the most tear-jerking parts of the story and I warn readers who are sensitive or may know someone labeled as having a mental disability that this part of the book might be difficult.  But, the discussion presented by Kessler points out some things about Rosemary’s intellect that show just how primitive the mental health field in the 1940s. Today, I believe that had she been born in another era, she would have lived a far different and close to normal life. But sadly, she was born in a time where most doctors did not understand what her condition actually was and resorted to drastic measures that changed her life permanently and served as a major source of regret throughout Rose’s life.

To say that the story by Kessler is unbelievable would be an understatement. This is a raw and unfiltered look at the life of Joe Kennedy and his family whose name is a crucial part in the our nation’s past. Some readers may be surprised at what Kessler reveals and others may feel indifference.  As time moves forward, the  Kennedys will be remembered at best, a dynasty from another era that continues to fade into the distance.  Admittedly, I was aware of a good number of the facts revealed by the author and had no illusions about how fierce and ruthelss Joe Kennedy could be.  I believe it is for that reason that I was never shocked while reading the story.  However, I did learn more about the the level of dysfunction that existed within the home and how unusual family ties were.  For further reading, I do recommend that readers consider Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot  , in which the author explores many alleged family secrets. The book is controversial but overall very well written and I do believe Hersh was right about some things but not about everything. However, it is still a good read and completely breaks down the myth of “Camelot”. I have no doubt that there are many family secrets that remain carefully guarded.  In the end, no family or individual is perfect and this story is proof of that.  Further, we can have all the material items we want in life and still suffer from loneliness.  Joe comes to understand this quite well and his unguarded moments show that even those of us with a strong facade are at times highly vulnerable on the inside.  Regardless of your opinion of him, Joe Kennedy remains firmly entrenched in American history as the founder of a dynasty that once captivated an entire world.  And if you decide to read this book, be aware that there is far more to the man you may have ever imagined.

ASIN : B006YC7AH4

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris

ethelI am constantly amazed that in spite of all of the things I learned in school and through my own studies, that there are endless stories from the Civil Rights Movement that are continuing to be told.  Amazon recommended this biography of Ethel Lois Payne (1911-1991) and as I looked at the cover, I recalled the name but the face did not ring a bell.  My curiousity continued to pull me in and I knew that I had to learn more about this intriguing woman.  Author James McGrath Morris has called her the first lady of the Black press.  It is quite the title but as I learned while reading the book, the title was not only earned but it may in fact may be an an understatement.

Payne’s story begins in Chicago, in the year 1911 when she enters the world becoming the fifth child of William and Bessie Payne.  Jim Crow and segregation were alive and well making life for Blacks unbearable at times.  And although racism does exist today, the America in which we live stands in stark contrast to the America in which Payne navigated as she made a name for herself as a respected journalist.  Chicago is a rough city but those of us familiar with it already know that.  And putting aside the modern day shootings that place, violence has been a part of Chicago’s history for well over 100 years. Morris recounts some dark moments in the city’s history which show the tense racial climate the pervaded throughout the city and America.  But Payne is unfazed and determined to blaze her own path.  After the conclusion of World War II breaks, the military comes calling and Payne finds herself as foreign correspondent in Japan. This first major assignment would kickstart the career that lasted until her final days in 1991.

Upon returning to the United States, she accepted a post with the Chicago Defender and eventually earned her White House press credentials.  The act in itself was almost unheard and Payne wasted no time in stirring the pot.  A tense question and answer session with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) brings her more press than she could have bargained for but at the same time, earned her the wrath of supervisors.  Nonetheless it was the point of no return and Ethel Payne kept moving forward.  And what followed is a journey across several continents that included meetings with U.S. Presidents, foreign leaders and activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). It was an incredible journey, beautfilly told here by Morris.

I also found that the book provided interesting tidbits about American history.   And while the author does not present the book as a reference book for American history, he does bring the events of the past back to life which highlight the progression in civil rights made by America in the past several decades.  Surely, there are dark moments in the book where progressive minds come face to face with hardened racists.  Birmingham and Little Rock are just two cities whose names will be burned in the memories of readers.  The acts that are committed are horrific and will make some readers pause.  Personally, I find it difficult to fathom why people were filled with so much hate towards each other solely based on differences in physical characteristics.  But that was how things were and sadly, the events detailed in the book did happen and many lives were lost in the struggle for equality.  Payne’s voice through the Chicago Defender, was a bastion of hope that America was listening to what its black citizens were trying to say.

Throughout the story, there are big name figures who helped changed the course of American history.  Some are former presdients John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).  Further, the passage of the almost powerless Civil Rights Bill of 1957 is addressed as American continues to struggle with equality.   The back stories to the public facades are interesting and Payne’s obversations are spot on.  She possessed incredible acumen about the Washington and future of American’s black citizens.  In fact, as we see in the book, there were times where she was correct in her analysis without even knowing the underlying facts that proved her to be correct.

In later years after she moved away from Washington, her work was not done and Morris shows her continuing efforts at promoting civil rights not just at home but wherever possible.  And although her physical descent becomes apparent towards the later part of the book, she never slows down but instead keeps going as she always has.  Admittedly, the end of the book is without question the saddest as Morris chronicles here life that increasingly fades away from the spotlight.  And in her final moments, the reality of where she ended up is strikinigly real.  And I found myself scratching my head and the direction her life had taken as she continued to age.  However, that is only small part of a life that was nothing short of incredible.

What I did notice in the book is that Payne never married nor did she have children. She did however, care of a nephew for a short time but he was not totally reliant upon her.  The lack of a love interest becomes apparent in the story but the topic is only lightly discussed.  That might be due to Payne keeping her persona life highly guarded or in the alternative, her busy life made romance impossible.  I did feel a bit down regarding this part of the story and wished that she could have found someome to share her life with.  But she is long gone and the reasons she had for her single life have gone with her to the grave.  Notwithstanding this side-story, the book is still a very uplifting account of Payne’s accomplished life.

James McGrath Morris has certainly provided us with a fitting biography of Payne’s life that was a mixture of success, tragedy and defining moments in history.  Today her name is never mentioned and younger generations will most likely have the faintest idea about who she was and why she was important.  But I encourage anyone interested in American history and in particular the American Civil Rights Movement to read this book.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B00KFFROFE

The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War- Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and James L. Greenfield

ellsbergThe names of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that are found on the memorial in Washington, D.C., are a reminder of a conflict deemed by many to be the worst the United States has ever been involved in.  The withdrawal of U.S. forces in March, 1973, brought a sigh of relief to the American public which had long grown tired of a war with no end in sight.  The dark truth which we now know is that we did not by any means accomplish the mission.  And the mighty American war machine failed to secure a victory. I have met many veterans of the war and have an uncle who served.  What I recall most about all of them is that they do not speak of their experiences while in combat.  I know the memories are there and for some of them, they were unable to leave parts of the war behind.  Today we call it PTSD, but back then you simply found a way to move forward in life.   But why were they in Vietnam to being with?  Was the domino effect really a threat to the United States?

On May 11, 1973, Daniel Ellsberg found himself the talk of the town as charges pending against him for espionage were dismissed by U.S. District Judge William Byrne. He had been indicted for leaking what became known as The Pentagon Papers, the subject of this book and the topic of the movie The Post starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.  The New York Times, after several battles in court, was finally allowed to move forward with its plan to publish The Pentagon Papers and contained in the pages of this book are the documents that the U.S. Government tried in earnest to hide from the American public under the guise of “national security”.   Ironically, the facts that are revealed in this book have absolutely nothing to do with national security but rather several presidential administrations that failed to find a workable solution to Indochina.

The late Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) has been called the architect of the war and was loathed by many because of it. However, the title is misleading and in some ways unfair. The war had many architects either by wishful thinking, uncontrolled ego or naiveté.  What is truly ironic is that as the war waged on, McNamara became a strong voice of dissent.  And in spite of what we have been led to believe, our existence in Indochina began many years before 1965.  The story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is a long tale, filled with hard truths, false truths, deception and ultimately failure.  But this is how it happened and why.

The papers are divided into several sections which correspond to a different aspect of the conflict.  The administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson are examined to understand what each cabinet did and did not do as it grappled with the growing headache.   Step-by-step Southeast Asia opens up as black hole as more advisors are committed, instability rages in South Vietnam and war hawks finally get their wish as the United States jumped nearly feet first into a jungle conflict that proved to be nothing short of disastrous.  Rolling Thunder, troop deployments and South Vietnamese politics are just some of the issues that antagonized Washington for nearly a decade.

If you served in Vietnam, I forewarn you that the book might anger you in many ways. For others, this is a critical source of information in order to understand the war from a behind the scenes view.   We are often told that the military fights to protect the country and our freedoms that we take for granted.  But did a nation over 13,000 miles from U.S. soil really pose a threat to the most powerful nation on earth at the time? And what would we have accomplished if we had in fact won the conflict?   Perhaps Vietnam would have become a second Korea, partitioned between a communist controlled North-Vietnam and a U.S. controlled South-Vietnam.   Following the U.S. withdrawal, Saigon fell and the North achieved its goal of reunification.  Today the war is a distant memory for young Vietnamese but for the older generation, many painful memories remain.  The figures in the book are long gone but their actions will stay with us and the Vietnam war will always be a regrettable example of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.

ISBN-10: 1631582925
ISBN-13: 978-1631582929