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A Dreamer Wide Awake

July 2024
8min read

In March, 1942, John F. Kennedy was a twenty-four-year-old ensign in the United States Navy, doing administrative chores at Charleston, South Carolina, and chafing to get into action. It would be over a year before PT-Boat 109 went down in the South Pacific; meanwhile Kennedy spent some of his restlessness reading books on current affairs. One of them was Boom or Bust , by a Washington news correspondent named Blair Moody—himself later to become a senator from Michigan. Some of Moody’s observations stirred Kennedy, for they bore on what had recently become, for him, a most engrossing topic: international affairs. He sat down at a typewriter and knocked out a letter to Moody—not without some errors of typing and spelling—in which he challenged certain ideas about the causes of World War II, particularly with reference to German and British failures in armament policy that led (inevitably, Kennedy thought) to the infamous Munich Pact.

There is no evidence that Moody ever answered the letter: apparently he was too busy, or felt that its author was not important enough. Actually, young Kennedy was not altogether unknown, quite aside from his family connections. As a senior at Harvard in 1940 he had written a remarkable thesis on the same subject taken up in his letter to Moody: “Appeasement at Munich.” It was so good that it earned him a cum laude in political science; what was more unusual, it was published as a book, Why England Slept , in the fall of 1940. Detractors have suggested that Kennedy’s book was largely written for him by Harvard mentors and by editors. His letter to Blair Moody, which we reproduce on the following pages exactly as he typed it, is a lively refutation of that charge: both in its tightly reasoned structure and its resilient prose it is much like Why England Slept .

Just when John Kennedy began to think of a career in American politics is a matter of some dispute. But it is easy to feel that a young man capable of this letter may already have cherished dreams of helping to lead his nation, especially in the troubled realm of foreign policy, on a course that would profit from the mistakes of the past. Henry R. Luce, who wrote an almost prescient foreword to Why England Slept in 1940, had this to say: “If John Kennedy is characteristic of the younger generation—and I believe he is—many of us would be happy to have the destinies of this Republic handed over to his generation at once.”

The original letter is in the Michigan Historical Collections of the University of Michigan, where it was deposited by Senator Moody’s widow after his death in 1954. It is reproduced by AMERICAN HERITAGE by permission of the University and with the consent and approval of Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

—The Editors

Navy Yard

Charleston, S. C.

March 10, 1942


Mr. Blair Moody

Druell, Sloan & Pearce - Publishers

New York, New York


Dear Mr. Moody:

I have just finished reading “Boom or Bust,” and I wanted to congratulate you. I found the book tremendously interesting, and it is aided immeasurably by the excellent choice of documentation. You have handled “loaded” subjects with an impartiality and general fairness that increases its value 100% for a reader with no very set opinions.

As I enjoyed your book so much, I am taking the liberty of disagreeing with you in regard to two minor points which, while they have little significance for your thesis as a whole, yet may be of some interest to you. The first is your statement on page 12 that “Had men like Gustav Stresemann, the No. 1 German of the 1920’s, been permitted to solve the domestic problems of the German Republic, the Great Dictator would still be a non entity.” I disagree with the word “domestic.” Although I agree with you that it was lack of support by the European powers of the moderate regimes of men like Stresemann and later Bruening that paved the way for Hitlerism, yet, I do not think it was in the domestic sphere as much as in the International that the great failures occurred. It was partly the failure to work out an equitable solution to the International problem of reparations, but even more important, the failure to solve the problem of mutual disarmament that doomed the Moderates. By the Allies’ failure to carry out the provisions of General Disarmament of the three great Peace Documents, the Versailles Treaty, the League Covenant, and the Fourteen Points, they made it easy for Hitler to speak of “broken pledges.” All three of these documents called for a general disarmament after German Disarmament had been completed. In spite of later attempts to deny it, the Allies’ obligation was clearly contractual, and the great aim of German policy during the 20’s was to force the Allies to live up to this contract.

In 1926, when led by Stresemann, Germany entered the League. Her central theme was that the Allies should grant her equality by carrying out the provisions of their written documents. Only thus could Germany escape the humiliation forced on her by the “war guilt” clause. And that the Allies refused to do. With the single exception of Britain, no country in the post-war period reduced their armament expenditures, and England’s were chiefly nominal. In the early 30’s, however, there was a growing realization that unless Germany was granted armament equality, the sands of the uneasy post-war peace would swiftly run out. It was this realization that accounted for the almost hysterical importance countries like Britain attached to the disarmament conferences of 1932-1934. And it was the failure of the Conference of 1932, that really doomed peace for our time.

I do not think it unreasonable to say that the great crises in the diplomacy of the last decade was not reached at Manchuria, or at the Rhineland, or Spain, or Munich, which are popularly believed to be the great might-have-beens of the democracies. Rather, it came in the spring of 1932, when the German Moderates led by Bruening came with their hats in their hands to ask not for an actual equality of armaments, but only that equality be conceded in principal, while ample safeguard would be granted the French to insure them practical superiority. If the French, who were naturally the great opponent to the concessions to Germany had been willing to accept this compromise, it would have strengthened the German Moderates at home immeasurably. Bruening, with this great victory under his belt, a victory which would have raised the prestige of Germany through the world, and that if his own administration at home, might well have had the political ammunition to blow the rising forces of Nazism off the face of the earth.

Instead, the French refused. Chiefly was this due to the unwillingness of the French leader, Tardieu. His great objection seems to have been based on the purely domestic consideration that the French public was swinging to the Right, and that if he conceded to the German request, he would be defeated in the forthcoming General Election. Ironically enough, Tardieu misjudged the temper of the French swing. It was to the Left, not the Right, and he lost the election.

The French then made advances. It was too late now; Bruening had been thrown out on his return to Germany with his failure, and had been succeeded by von Papen and Schliecher. The German price was up. Nazism was on the march to complete power. The Germans, despairing of achieving equality through negotiation, decided to gain superiority through force. And so for want of an election, peace was lost; and Mr. Bruening teaches at Harvard, while Hitler rules Europe.

The second point I thought I would mention concerns your statement on page 13 in regard to the “British upper-crust,” who “nearly ‘appeased’ their nation into destruction.” You imply that the bases of the appeasement policy was the British Aristocracy’s fear of a Red revolution at home. It is true, of course, that the thought of Communism kept British Tories awake at night, but they were not alone. That feeling permeated the entire country; witness the ejection of Sir Stafford Cripps from the Labour Party. It is also true that a fundamental of British foreign policy during the 30’s was to see that Hitler never forgot that his principal objective, as set down in his Kampf, was Russia. From the British point of view this was not completely unsound. But, granting that the fear of a Red revolution was great, to say that this is what led to the appeasement policy is not quite correct.

I think that there was, and is, a great misconception in this country regarding British appeasement. It has been damned so much that no one wants to discuss it too closely for fear of becoming identified with it. And yet, British appeasement wag as much an effect as a cause—it was the effect of Britain’s failure to provide armaments. And for this failure— all  must bear their share of the responsibility. British Laborites, who, while they attacked Nazism in bitter terms, yet voted with sickening regularity year in and year out, were indirectly just as responsible for British appeasement as were any Tories who gathered at Cliveden.

Appeasement, of course, was not completely due to lack of armaments. It was based partly on the mistaken belief that the aches and pains of Europe could be eased through soothing applications rather than the violent purgative of war. This was not, however, all of appeasement—there was a parallel policy. Neville Chamberlain gave it in 1937, when he first announced the policy of making “substantial effort to remove the causes which are delaying the return of confidence.” This parallel policy announced at the same time, was that of “continuing our program of the reestablishment of our defense forces.”

Chamberlain was wrong in that he sincerely believed peace could be won through negotiation. His policy was disasterous, in that his belief and confidence in achieving that peace gave the British people a feeling of confidence that there would be peace, which had a grave effect on the rearmament effort. But he was not a doddering old fool, he was not completely taken in by Hitler, and he was not a man who sold his country down the river for his own group’s interest.

Chamberlain, as a matter of fact, has been damned by his phrases as much as anything else. He couldn’t really have believed in “Peace in our Time” or he wouldn’t have started the rearmament policy after Munich, half-hearted though it was, which led to Hitler’s October 10, 1938 speech at Saarbrucken attacking the “British war-mongers.” That he said it, however, makes him guilty of misleading the British people.

Appeasement was, therefore, as I have said, partly based on the mistaken belief that peace might be achieved by concession but it was also a realistic hard-headed policy of playing for time. There is little doubt that history will show that if England had fought in 1938, she would have been blown off the map. She had no A.R.P., few fighters, few bombers, and her production was just beginning. There was no balloon barrage, no anti-aircraft, no camouflaged factories—she was wide open for a knockout. Her armament program was not scheduled to come to harvest till 1940 and 41. The appeasement policy had some realism in that it endeavored to postpone the war until the country could at least protect itself from a quick disasterous blow.

I’m not defending appeasement—it has been proved a failure both by our own experience and by Britain’s. But what I am trying to show is that the popular version of appeasement and its causes is not completely the true one and that in our bitter attacks on it, we missed the fundamental truth that the Munich part and other concessions were not so much a failure of British diplomacy to provide security as of British democracy to provide armaments. Chamberlain, and the other appeasers should have been attacked not for the appeasement policy as such, but for their failure to take full advantage of the breathing spell that their policy granted them. We also may as well plead guilty to the same indictment, the prosecutor would need only point to the headlines to convict us.

Bernard Baruch hit the truth when he said on returning home from Europe in 1938, “If they had been ready, it (Munich) would have been a different story.” He warned we should learn the lesson of Munich and prepare ourselves. We didn’t. We wasted bitter criticism on the symptom —and missed the cause. If we had not made the mistake of assuming that appeasement was purely a selfish policy drawn up by a group of Tories at Cliveden to save their own hides, our rearmament program might have started a year and a half sooner.

I’ve gone at some length into these points which I understand, of course, have little to do with your general thesis, but your book interested me tremendously—and I thought that perhaps these two points might be of some interest to you.

Sincerely yours,

John F. Kennedy


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