A Dreamer Wide Awake

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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.