The Prime Minister and the President
John F. Kennedy idolised Winston Churchill, but his efforts to host his hero proved abortive.
On 12 April 1961 Winston Churchill sailed into New York harbour aboard a luxury yacht. Then 86 years old and increasingly frail, this was to be his final visit to the US. Conscious of this possibility, old colleagues and admirers went aboard to see their fading friend. A few hundred miles away, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, news of Churchill’s arrival reached President John F. Kennedy who had the same idea. Kennedy telephoned Churchill and they spoke briefly. Jackie Kennedy, once her husband had put down the phone, asked him why he had not taken the opportunity to invite Churchill to the White House, whereupon another call was made and the invitation promptly extended; Kennedy would send his plane to collect Churchill, the presidential schedule would be changed and Churchill would be accommodated at the White House. On the yacht, Churchill’s staff were blindsided by the offer and strongly opposed his accepting it. Increasingly deaf, infirm and disengaged, he was no longer capable of such a meeting and, as his private secretary later wrote, ‘the thought of America, and indeed the world, seeing him at his worst was not endurable’. The president was told that Churchill needed to return to England to see his wife, and off he went.
Kennedy was greatly disappointed: the president idolised the former prime minister whom he regarded, the political theorist Isaiah Berlin recalled, ‘as the greatest man he had ever met’. Kennedy delighted in discussing Churchill; he loved to quote him and, after his entry into politics in 1947, the fascination that had begun in his teenage years evolved into imitation. Kennedy copied Churchill’s habits, ranging from afternoon naps to painting. He studied Churchill’s oratory obsessively in order to improve his own, listening to recordings of the wartime speeches, speaking along while smoking a cigar. After winning the presidency, having run a campaign deliberately modelled on Churchill’s anti-appeasement crusade of the 1930s, Kennedy wanted to use his position to forge a relationship of equals with his hero. As a sign of intent, the four mammoth volumes of Churchill’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough were prominently placed on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
If Churchill would not come to Kennedy, then Kennedy would go to Churchill. In June 1961 – two months after the New York harbour incident – the president visited London and instructed his staff to arrange a meeting. He would go wherever Churchill wanted, for as long as Churchill could manage. The British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, privately advised the president that his predecessor was in no state for such a meeting, no matter how brief. Reluctantly, Kennedy accepted his advice.
One final attempt was made to lure Churchill to the White House. During the Eisenhower administration, various prominent American Anglophiles had tried to secure support for the unprecedented granting of an honorary US citizenship to Churchill as a mark of gratitude for his wartime leadership. The idea had come to nothing amid bruised feelings after the bungled British and French operation to retake the Suez Canal. But, with a new president whose feelings towards Churchill were well known, a fresh attempt was made. The proposal was put to an enthusiastic Kennedy soon after his inauguration in 1961 and the various irritating but inevitable legal complications were eventually overcome by 1963. Churchill accepted the honour with enthusiasm. But he could not come to Washington. His private secretary was tasked with writing a letter of acceptance – a feat that was now beyond his boss – and Churchill’s son, Randolph, and grandson, Winston, were sent to attend on his behalf.
The ceremony was held at the White House on 9 April 1963 and the president obsessed over the details, personally directing the positioning of the television cameras that would relay the proceedings via satellite to the Churchill home in London’s Hyde Park Gate. Knowing that Churchill would be watching, the president, unusually, was visibly nervous as his guests gathered. Randolph Churchill, Jackie noticed, was also unsteady, arriving ‘ashen, his voice a whisper’. He had been up until two o’clock in the morning, drinking with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Yet the nerves and the hangover faded away as the ceremony began in the Oval Office and moved out to the Rose Garden for speeches. Churchill was, Kennedy declared, ‘the most honoured and honourable man to walk the stage of human history in the time in which we live’. Randolph read his father’s letter of acceptance and they headed back inside.
Winston Churchill received his honorary passport and other paraphernalia in a private meeting with representatives from the American embassy the next day. He was silent for most of it, except when the name of the organiser was ‘shouted at Sir Winston, who I really believe for the only time during that hour, mumbled or groaned something which sounded like recognition’. Nobody expected him to outlive Kennedy.
A few months later the president left Washington for a tour of Texas. Buoyed by his recent successes and optimistic about his chances in the upcoming election, he bade farewell to his staff. ‘Westward, look’, the president proclaimed, ‘the land is bright!’ Churchill had used this very same passage from Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say not the Struggle nought Availeth’ in one of his most famous speeches, delivered in the spring of 1941.
Days later Kennedy was dead. In London, the old man who had received the young president’s admiration and affection watched the television news and wept.
Joel Nelson is a former Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University and is working on a book about President Kennedy.