Book Review: Why England Slept

Why England Slept
by John F. Kennedy
New York: Funk, July 1940

It is difficult to read Why England Slept without seeing the shadow of the future president hanging over every word. Most prophetic indeed is Henry Luce’s foreword, which notes on p. xiv:

In recent months there has been a certain amount of alarm concerning the “attitude” of the younger generation. 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.

For it is Kennedy, after all, who launched the Peace Corps, challenged his country to land a man on the moon, and stirred countless young Americans with his optimistic talk of a New Frontier. Young Jack Kennedy had Destiny infused in every fiber of his being. The New Frontier ultimately died in the turbulent sixties amidst racial turmoil and mounting losses in Vietnam, followed by the rude economics lesson of the oil shock. But his vivid oratory and ideals, combined with the mystique of his wife Jacqueline, made the Kennedy legend into something that is discussed even today.

Of course, Kennedy’s influential father set him up for his destiny. The book grew out of his senior thesis at Harvard, and it bears all the hallmarks of a senior thesis — it sticks to one narrowly defined topic, explores it thoroughly, and depends entirely on readings rather than personal experience. Many senior theses are written at Harvard, but rarely does one achieve a print run in the tens of thousands, or garner an enthusiastic foreword from the publisher of Life magazine. Without his father’s influence, it would not have achieved the success that it did.

Why England Slept attempts to explain why Britain delayed rearming for so long prior to World War II. Its primary argument is that Britain deeply believed in the League of Nations and in the potential success of international disarmament conferences. It took time for these attitudes to change, and it was not until after the Munich conference that rearmament gained the wholehearted support of the whole nation. Kennedy develops this argument in a largely chronological account, beginning with the world financial crisis of 1931 and concluding shortly after Munich. Subtle changes in disposition from year-to-year are tracked with Parliamentary speeches and newspaper editorials. Aside from those speeches, the only facts and figures come from military budget figures.

Yet his lucid exposition makes Kennedy’s book a pleasure to read. It goes by rapidly, for it was written to be digested by his professor in a couple of hours. It is also written in a conversational yet nevertheless academic style, just like the oratory for which Kennedy would later be famous. He demonstrates a thorough understanding of British politics and a good grasp of strategy, handles incomplete information sources with ease, and most importantly, is able to see comprehends the viewpoints of both sides. Although his sympathies clearly lie with democracy and capitalism, Kennedy thoroughly understands the many legitimate German grievances which set up such a dangerous situation that could be exploited by Hitler. In short, this is a damn fine senior thesis for an international affairs major.

Contrast it with his much better-known book, the ghostwritten and Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. Contrary to its reputation, I found its argument to be perfunctory and muddled, and its vivid accounts to be merely a substitute for a substantive analysis of the facts. Kennedy may have won an undeserved Pulitzer for a book that he didn’t even write, but the book that he did write is actually better.

Not the conventional story of appeasement

The book is also revealing for the contemporary attitudes that it addresses. Kennedy devotes a great deal of time to debunk the conventional wisdom about the appeasement of Hitler at Munich. He explains that he is not a Chamberlain apologist, as leaders must be held responsible for their actions, but he also points out the uncomfortable truth that Britain was in no shape to refuse Germany’s demands. A particularly persuasive section on p. 185 explains: “The great trouble was that few could think of England except as the Mighty Britain of the nineteenth century ... People in America, filled with the myth of Britain’s invincibility through the centuries, could not understand Chamberlain’s desperate efforts to avert a war.”

Kennedy incorporates military budget figures, giving the reader a startlingly frank glance at the inaccuracies of myth — the world-spanning Royal Navy only has a slight budgetary advantage over the British Army, and even in 1936 the German military budget dwarfs those of Britain and France combined. Kennedy further drives home the point by noting that Britain’s national income was already only a fraction of America’s by 1936. There is a tendency in history books to credit the Second World War with the decline of imperialism and the rise of the two superpowers, but Kennedy’s analysis of prewar Britain demonstrates how vulnerable she already was prior to the war. The time was ripe for America’s rise, and if World War II hadn’t taken place, then surely some other event would have served as the catalyst for the end of Empire.

Munich has passed into history as the ugliest example of appeasement — if the democracies had shown strength then, the argument goes, Hitler would have backed down. It is enlightening to read a different argument from a book published in 1940. Confront Hitler in 1938 and perhaps lose the ensuing war, but confront him in 1939 from a position of greater strength and stand a chance of stalling Nazi Germany just long enough for the Soviet Union and United States to bludgeon the Axis Powers into submission through their combined industrial might.

In this reading, Munich was not a lesson about appeasement, but rather about preparedness (or deterrence, if you like). “Brave little England” was little not in the land area of Empire she controlled, but in comparison to the rearmed German juggernaut that she confronted. Kennedy also presents an interesting if somewhat superficial analysis of the deficiencies of British industry — namely, that it wasn’t suited to mass production, unlike German and American factories. In the end, it was production more than technical superiority that won the war.

A 1940 peek at a 1960 figure

Although it is interesting to read a contemporary take on events that later passed into canon in a different light, Kennedy does not focus on such flash points as Munich and the Spanish Civil War. Except as they related to British rearmament, world events hardly figure in the book. Why England Slept assumes that the reader already has a detailed familiarity with events leading up to the Second World War. There are no exciting tales of bravery and cowardice, of heroes and villains. It is not history or journalism — it is an intellectual exposition demonstrating the product of a Harvard education.

Although there are some technical errors in his book, some can be attributed to intelligence deficiencies of the day. For example, the Spitfire of the Battle of Britain is now considered roughly equal technically to the Bf-109 – it was the tactical situation that gave it superiority. The errors are all sufficiently minor that they do not affect his overall reasoning. One would appreciate his thorough knowledge two decades later in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Yet without sixty years of conventional wisdom to channel it into a specific way of thinking, Why England Slept takes a refreshingly fresh look at British rearmament. The legendary Churchill, later TIME Magazine’s Man of the Half-Century, is presented as a distinctly polarizing figure, regarded as a dangerous lunatic in peacetime by some, yet possessing traits that happened to make him a great leader in wartime. Curious incidents, later to be forgotten amid other important historical events, were still memorable in 1940 — e.g., the Hudson-Wohlthat talks in which Britain offered to finance conversion of German arms factories into peaceful production. Kennedy considers the failed air disarmament talks important enough to devote many pages to it, whereas the history books remember only the successfully-concluded naval disarmament talks of the 1922 Washington Conference.

Why England Slept is not overwhelmingly brilliant, and someone not interested in the subject matter may see merely a collection of minutiae from newspapers and publicly available government documents, sprinkled with bits of analysis. But it does provide an intriguing glance at the attitudes of 1940, and at the formative years of a legendary American political figure of the twentieth century. Kennedy’s articulate style forms a lucid account out of all the facts and figures, and occasionally flashes tantalizingly into a foreshadowing of future brilliance.

In his eloquent summation of democracy’s virtues, and in his call for sacrifices to be made in its defense, one can begin to see the beginnings of the “pay any price, bear any burden” Kennedy who would bring such a sense of purpose to the White House. Yet in his earnest argument that democracy and capitalism will naturally oppose the buildup of armaments, we see today a charming naïveté about the political power of the military-industrial complex. Those were simpler times, indeed.