Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
was an American politician and statesman, and served as the 35th President of the United States
from 1953-1961. He was born on September 8, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts to Patrick and Mary Augusta Kennedy. As a young man, he graduated from Harvard University
in 1912 and would marry Rose Fitzgerald
, daughter of Boston mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. He made his fortune through a variety of enterprises, mostly in the stock market. While the extent of his involvement in bootlegging at the height of Prohibition
is debatable, he nevertheless cultivated business ties with elements of what became the Five Families
as many businessmen did during this time. His involvement with them would only deepen over time.
In 1932, Kennedy through his support behind the eventual nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt
, despite his own conservative political leanings. His son, the noted historian John F. Kennedy
once recalled that his father’s politics were somewhere “to the right of Hoover
.” Roosevelt rewarded Kennedy’s fundraising efforts by appointing him to be the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission
in 1934. Kennedy was also key in shoring up Irish-American support for the New Deal
after one-time ally Father Charles Coughlin
broke with Roosevelt. Despite this, Kennedy and Coughlin would remain friends, with the latter praising the former as being one of the few “shining stars” in the Roosevelt administration.
With the loss of Roosevelt in 1936 to Landon due to the spoiler effect of Long
’s candidacy, Kennedy soon found himself bereft of his political patron. He understood that Roosevelt was unlikely to mount a political comeback due to declining health and understood that the winds were shifting in favor of Long within the Democratic Party
. He worked toward mending bridges with both Coughlin and Long in the years leading up to the 1940 political convention, as he had aspirations for his son Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.
His efforts paid off more than he would imagine, being surprised when Long asked him to be his running mate. Long had chosen Kennedy as a sop to disgruntled Roosevelt-supporters. However, the move was especially risky, given that Al Smith
had lost in 1928 with many attributing the loss to religious prejudices at the time. Having welded a coalition of Northern Louisiana evangelicals and Bayou Catholics, Long had experience with transcending religious prejudice. Regardless, Kennedy’s religion seemed to have little bearing on the Democratic ticket as Long handily defeated the unpopular Landon in a landslide.
From his position as Vice President, Kennedy largely served as Long’s liaison to Northeastern “ethnics,” predominately Irish and Italians. Despite this, he was not as supportive of Long’s radical plans of wealth-redistribution. He nevertheless kept his vocal opposition to a minimum, preferring to bide his time. While disappointed that Long had opted to run for a third term in 1948, Kennedy would enjoy Long’s endorsement for the 1952 Democratic nomination. Given that the opposition to Long was still rife with disorganization and division, Kennedy handily won the election with his running mate Estes Kefauver
of Tennessee. Rumors abounded that Kennedy’s connection to the Italian Mafia was responsible for his success in places such as Illinois and New York. While Kennedy did enjoy the support of the Mob, the extent to which they affected the election in key contests remains a point of contention among historians.
Kennedy proved to be much more moderate than his illustrious predecessor, supporting the cutting of corporate taxes and levies on assets. Long would openly criticize Kennedy from retirement for this “betrayal,” but a stroke prevent Long from making good on a threat to run against his successor in 1956. Despite this, Kennedy would continue to enjoy solid, if not enthusiastic support among his fellow Democrats. Regarding foreign policy, Kennedy continued his predecessor’s isolationist predilections. Unlike Long, however, Kennedy was not as averse to making moderately positive statements on the Nazi regime. However, it was during his term that Nazi Germany collapsed into civil war following Hitler’s death. Kennedy would end up receiving the ambassadors sent by the victorious military-junta under Marshal Erwin Rommel
, declining to meet with representatives of the exiled SS
government in Namibia
Despite this, Kennedy’s administration would find itself swallowed into a foreign policy quagmire with the Cuban Intervention
beginning in the latter half of his first term. For years following independence, the Cuban government had undergone a series of regime changes due to economic and political instability. While the Teller Amendment
had officially been revoked by the Roosevelt Administration via a 1934 treaty, this did not end American intervention in Cuba both politically and economically.
In September 1933, a broadly left-wing coup known as Sergeant’s Revolt
overthrew President Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada
and imprisoned many of his supporters including Desiderio Arnaz
, a member of the Cuban House of Representatives and former mayor of Santiago de Cuba. Hailing from what was practically Cuban nobility, Arnaz and his family were imprisoned for six months and were only released on the condition that he would go into exile. The Arnazes lived in Miami for several years, but would return following the collapse of the broad-left wing government in 1938. With support from American business interests, the new regime consolidated under the awkwardly named Partido de Unidad Nacional por el Progreso y la Reconstrucción
(“Party of National Unity for Progress and Reconstruction”), known more colloquially as the Nacionales
The party maintained its power through a series of carefully orchestrated elections. Arnaz himself would be elected in 1946 as president, and would solidify his power over the following years.
It was during this time that the Mafia’s influence grew in Cuba as well, with Havana being a major center for organized crime. Havana had become a center for gambling and prostitution, being a popular destination for America’s elite. What’s more is that Cuba emerged as a banking center with many American businessmen opting to park their money in Cuba to avoid Long’s tax policies. These and other factors led to increased wealth disparity and social tensions. It was only a matter of time before these tensions would explode into a full-blown revolution.
On June 20, 1955, a coalition of military officers and student activists launched a coup in Havana. While tactically successful, its execution proved sloppy. For one, Arnaz was not in Havana, having fled the night before after being tipped-off about the coup. Second, rogue soldiers and students had engaged in indiscriminate killings of Americans, with some of their more prominent victims being high-level Mob bosses. Many of these killings proved to be especially brutal, with one Mafioso’s corpse being dragged by motorcycles through the streets of Havana. The coup made headlines throughout the world and proved to be the perfect fodder for American newspapers. Images of mangled American corpses graced the front pages of many newspapers in a way reminiscent of the Yellow Journalism leading up to the Spanish-American War. Public outcry grew for avenging the death of their countrymen. Despite his reluctance, President Kennedy issued an ultimatum to the putschists demanding the respect of American-held property as well as reparations to the families of Americans killed. The sums demanded by the American government for reparations were far too high for the Cuban government to agree to, prompting Kennedy to authorize the invasion of Cuba.
Beginning July 1, American troops launched a two-pronged invasion: one from the North outside of Havana and another from the Bay of Pigs not far from Guantanamo Bay. The relatively weak grip of the putschists on essential infrastructure made it relatively easy for American and Arnasita
forces to take over the country. The worst fighting was in Havana where the putschists had the most control, but the fighting was over in a fortnight. Arnaz was returned to power under a new constitution which not only gave more power to the office of president but also guaranteed a treaty of perptual “friendship” between the United States and Cuba, in effect reinstated the Teller Amendment.
Opposition to the regime emerged almost immediately, but suffered from poor coordination. Despite this, enough opposition groups were able to form an umbrella organization called Movimento por la Independencia Cubana
(“Cuban Independence Movement”) or MIC
. The movement brought together disgruntled military officers, communists, liberals, and falangists in an attempt to provide a united front against Arnaz and his American backers. However, it was one group in particular that was able to emerge as the most prominent.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
, known affectionately as “El Comandante” by his supporters, quickly became the face of the Anti-American Resistance. The illegitimate son of a moderately prosperous sugar cane farmer in eastern Cuba in 1926, Castro might have seemed to be an unlikely revolutionary. As a troublesome youth, his frustrated father sent him to a Jesuit school in Havana. There, he developed an interest in politics, and was exposed for the first time to National Syndicalism
, an ideology that featured prominently among the Nationalists
in the Spanish Civil War
. The triumph of Francisco Franco
over the Republicans
in 1938 saw attempts to export Falangism
throughout the Hispanidad
or Spanish-speaking world. One such organization La Falange Cubana
was established to promote the ideology in Cuba. Castro would briefly join this organization, but was eventually expelled by jealous party leaders fearful of his charisma. Castro opted to form his own organization Falange Nacional Cubana
which saw many former FC members join him. Scholars debate as to how “Falangist” or “Fascist” was Castro. First and foremost, Castro was a Cuban nationalist, and seemed to be open to any vehicle that would achieve his aim, fascist or otherwise. Despite the obvious Spanish influence, Castro found himself drawn more to the example of Benito Mussolini
. Scholars have placed Castro more to the “Left” of Fascism with his support of syndicalism and nationalistic trade unionism as well as his advocacy for a civic rather than racial national identity. Also, Castro’s attitude towards the Catholic Church was ambivalent at best, seeing its utility only as far as it could serve the interests of Cuba.
Arnaz had attempted to capture several times prior to the coup, but the latter would often escape thanks to the former being preoccupied with other opposition factions. Following the American invasion and reinstatement of Arnaz, Castro agreed to work with the MIC. The FNC operated mostly in the eastern part of Cuba, ironically enough near Arnaz’s power base. Successes enjoyed by the FNC allowed for them to emerge as the leading faction within the MIC; and Castro, through his charisma and larger-than-life persona, became the effective face of the movement.
Meanwhile, American forces sent to prop up the Arnaz regime would see a decline in morale as what was supposed to be a six-week operation drag on into a several years-long occupation. American soldiers unfamiliar with counter-insurgency techniques would suffer loss after loss at the hands of MIC guerillas. In addition to military setbacks, the attention that Arnaz had begun to receive by the American public had caused many Americans to rethink their support of his restoration. Stories of the extent of Arnaz’s Mafia connections made it to the American press. In addition, lurid stories regarding his son Desiderio Arnaz III
– known affectionately and derisively as “Desi” –
had also reached American shores. Given that he was the Cuban dictator’s son, he enjoyed a considerable amount of power and privilege which he used – and abused – regularly. He was fond of trolling Havana’s nightclubs, often hitting on the wives of his subordinate officers. His seemingly insatiable appetites that could and did result in violence earned him an infamous reputation, making him both feared and hated by men on both sides. In 1958, he was kidnapped, allegedly by FNC guerillas, and was found strung up by piano wire in a rural garage outside of Havana. While the FNC was officially blamed for the incident – a credit that the organization readily accepted – some historians suggest that Desi was actually murdered by some of his own men as it would be difficult for FNC insurgents to get close enough to him.
Towards the end of Kennedy’s administration, an economic downturn followed by the steady stream of sensational stories coming out of Cuba soured the public on the Democratic Party. By this time, the Anti-Longist coalition finally managed to produce a united front in the form of the Constitutional Alliance
. Harold Stassen, the Constitutional Alliance candidate, managed to defeat then-Vice President and Democratic nominee Estes Kefauver handily, becoming the first non-Democratic president since 1936 to win the presidency. Stassen campaigned on pulling American troops from Cuba after securing a peace deal. By November of 1961, the last of American troops had withdrawn. Arnaz, having been refused asylum in the United States, fled to Venezuela and then to Brazil where he died in 1968. The MIC became the new government, inaugurating a new constitution the next year.
The MIC won nearly all of the seats in the Cuban Congress with Castro winning the presidency as head of the coalition. Once in office, he quickly used his position to consolidate his power by purging non-FNC members of the coalition as well as some rivals within his own camp. Having solidified his position, Castro embarked on a campaign of “national rebirth” through a nation-wide crackdown on vice as well as traces of “American decadence” in Cuban culture. Despite his own ambivalence towards religion, he welcomed an alliance with the Catholic Church to lend legitimacy to his regime, though in private conversations with Church leaders he made it clear who was truly in charge in Cuba. Castro also supported substantive land reform and created a national corporation charged with negotiating with foreign nations regarding trade of Cuban cash crops. While in power, he also sought to export his brand of Falangism to parts of South America in what amounted to a one-nation crusade against American imperialism. He managed to survive several assassination attempts, including several that were linked to the Mafia. However, he would live to an old age, dying in 2009.
The legacy of the war is still shrouded in controversy. Conspiracy theorists have argued that Kennedy was directly pressured by the Mob to protect their interests in Cuba under threat from the military junta. Some former Mob insiders have claimed this, though no evidence suggests that this is the case. That has not stopped Hollywood from making a number of films playing off this alleged connection between Kennedy, Sr. and the mob with the most notable being The Godfather
and its subsequent sequels.
Edit: Major shout-out to @Onerom
who helped me with Spanish naming conventions. Sorry I didn’t credit you in the initial posting.