When Franklin Roosevelt Asked Joe Kennedy to Drop His Pants

FDR knew he had to lead the US into the war against Hitler—but some big figures stood in his way. AP

Seventy-five years after the American isolationists were defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, their ideas are being quietly and carefully promoted again by libertarian Republicans like Rand Paul. In this extract from his new book, The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War II, Nicholas Wapshott explains the dilemma the president faced as the dictators in Japan and Germany were threatening democracy everywhere.

ONE AFTERNOON in the fall of 1937, behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his friend, the businessman, stock trader, and movie mogul Joseph Kennedy, "would you mind taking your pants down?" The request was met with a blank stare. "We couldn't believe our ears," recalled the president's son, James, who had arranged the meeting. "Did you just say what I think you said?" asked Kennedy. The president replied, "yes, indeed."

James Roosevelt recalled that "Joe Kennedy undid his suspenders and dropped his pants and stood there in his shorts, looking silly and embarrassed." The president told Kennedy, "Someone who saw you in a bathing suit once told me something I now know to be true. Joe, just look at your legs. You are just about the most bow-legged man I have ever seen."

According to the president, bandy legs were a deal breaker in Kennedy's bid to become America's top envoy in London. "Don't you know that the ambassador to the Court of St James's has to go through an induction ceremony in which he wears knee britches and silk stockings?" asked the president. "When photos of our new ambassador appear all over the world, we'll be a laughing stock."

Kennedy dearly wanted to become the first Irish-American ambassador to London and was not sure whether the president was kidding. After a moment's thought, he said he could ask the Brits whether tails and striped pants would be acceptable to Buckingham Palace instead of the traditional fancy dress.

Roosevelt, by now chuckling as Kennedy pulled up his trousers, was not sure. "You know how the British are about tradition," he said. "There's no way you are going to get permission, and I must name a new ambassador soon." If the Brits were prepared to bend protocol, and Kennedy could get a response within two weeks, the president suggested that perhaps Kennedy could after all go to the ball.

The Oval Office striptease was a typical FDR prank to let Kennedy believe he was an intimate, one of his inner circle. But it was also a humiliating ritual that showed who was boss. After twenty years of knowing the president, the red-haired, chalk-skinned Kennedy was still unsure when the president was joking and when in earnest, whether he was in or out. Just six years apart in age, the two seemed close. They met several times a week to talk politics and spent weekends together in Marwood, Kennedy's mansion at Bethesda, outside Washington, modelled after Château de Malmaison, the home of Josephine Bonaparte.


But the two men deeply distrusted each other. Roosevelt liked to play on Kennedy's lack of social confidence, while his own embrace of the presidency was absolute. As one observer put it, he enjoyed "a love affair with power. … Almost alone among our presidents, [he] had no conception of the office to live up to; he was it. His image of the office was himself-in-office." The ambassadorship was the latest battle in a war of attrition that had already lasted nearly a decade.

Whether Kennedy went to London was hardly the president's top priority. The nation faced three interwoven problems and Roosevelt had set himself specific goals in response. The first was to improve the depressed economy so that the ten million still out of work could find jobs. The second, at a time when Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator of Germany, Benito Mussolini, leader of Italy's fascist government, and the Japanese military were stampeding the world toward war, was "to get the American people to think of conceivable consequences without scaring the American people into thinking that they are going to be dragged into war."

Preparing the nation for war would require wooing Americans away from the isolationism in which they had found comfort, which in turn meant defeating, by fair means and foul, leaders of the movement who thought the troubles of the world were none of America's business. High among them was Kennedy, a Democratic presidential contender, whose Irish-American roots and his business sensibility persuaded him there was nothing to be gained by siding with the democracies.

Others included "yellow press" newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, and Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest who counted his weekly national radio audience in millions and urged, "Keep America safe for Americans." There was the transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a national hero with links to the Nazi high command, and Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic car maker whose Model T had transformed America into a car-driving democracy.

A third related aim for the president was to rearm America as quickly as possible. And, because he felt he alone was capable of achieving all three goals, Roosevelt was slowly coming to the conclusion he would need a third presidential term. The next presidential contest was due in November 1940. As he pondered whether to permit Kennedy to go to London, Roosevelt weighed up whether the overweening ambition of his multi-millionaire rival could be put to good use achieving one or more of his cardinal aims.

The president had given public notice he was prepared to halt the dictators if given enough support. But would it be forthcoming? He was aware he was up "against a public psychology of long standing—a psychology which comes very close to saying, 'Peace at any price'." Sensing the mood of the audience and the nation, Roosevelt confided to his speechwriter, Samuel I. Rosenman, "It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there."

Excerpted from The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II by Nicholas Wapshott. Copyright © 2015 by Nicholas Wapshott. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.