Eighty years ago, an undergraduate at Harvard University was working frantically on his senior thesis about the global crisis that was unfolding before his eyes. Just in his early 20s, John F. Kennedy was captivated by the political and military volcano erupting across Europe and Asia that would soon consume the entire world in war, but he also needed to complete a school research project.
Kennedy had been a charming underachiever throughout most of his education, breezing through elite schools with minimal effort and maximum merriment. Bright, restless and undisciplined, Kennedy excelled at subjects that intrigued him, such as history and government, and ignored those that did not, like math and science.
About halfway through his Harvard years, Kennedy’s intellectual lights flashed on, his gaze sharpened, and he became intrigued by events in Europe triggered by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and his hyper-expansionist foreign policy.
In 1939, beginning in the second semester of his junior year, Kennedy spent nine months traveling through Great Britain, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East. As his father was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, Jack Kennedy was able to use the embassy in London as his base of operations. He took advantage of his father’s contacts to arrange meetings in Paris, Prague, Berlin, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Combining serious study with boyish pleasure, he met diplomats, government leaders, royalty and ordinary people. As war loomed in Europe, Kennedy wrote lengthy, and sometimes prescient, reports for his father during his travels, melding local color with big picture ruminations.
He returned to London to witness Great Britain declare war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, following Germany’s invasion of Poland. Sitting in the House of Commons gallery with his parents and two siblings, Kennedy watched Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain officially declare war and heard Winston Churchill, not yet in charge but full of defiance, pledge a relentless campaign to defeat the Nazis.
Several weeks later Kennedy returned to the United States for his final year of college, bringing the war and its complex backstory home with him. He plunged into a senior honors project that examined why Great Britain disarmed in the 1930s and then slowly reversed course as the German menace grew. During his research, he often cabled his father’s staff at the London embassy requesting parliamentary debate transcripts, government reports, pamphlets and newspapers. “Jack your cables get tougher,” one weary embassy staffer replied to another request from young Kennedy. Diplomats assembled materials and sent them by diplomatic pouch from the Court of St. James to Ambassador Kennedy’s private offices in New York City, where they were forwarded to Boston for his son’s scholarly use.
Scrambling to meet his March 1940 deadline, Kennedy hired typists and stenographers to turn his handwritten drafts into a polished paper. Kennedy’s 150-page thesis was called “Appeasement at Munich (The Inevitable Result of the Slowness of Conversion of the British Democracy to Change from a Disarmament to a Rearmament Policy).”
His paper earned compliments and honors. Kennedy proudly showed it to New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, a family friend, who saw in it the potential of a book. Krock helped Kennedy edit the manuscript and find an agent. He even suggested the title, “Why England Slept,” playing off Churchill’s recent book, “While England Slept.”
“Why England Slept” was published in July 1940, was a bestseller in the United States and United Kingdom and was reviewed kindly by critics. His father gave a copy of the book to Britain’s queen and prime minister. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Jack a warm note of congratulations.
Kennedy sought to explain why Great Britain was slow to react to the German rearmament and aggression. “Why England Slept” is not the final word on England’s foreign policy in the 1930s, but it is a serious attempt to understand why Britain was unprepared for war. Researching and writing the book profoundly shaped the thinking of a young man who would grow into a congressman, senator and the 35th president of the United States.
Four features of “Why England Slept” are most striking and relevant today.
First, Kennedy’s tone was cool, detached and analytical. “He was not out to hang anybody; he was out to learn and learn he did and learn we still may,” wrote Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine. One Kennedy biographer marveled at his “unsparing political realism” and determination to discern the motives of his subjects. His detachment is most evident in his treatment of the 1938 Munich Agreement negotiated by Chamberlain, an accord that was maligned then and still is today.
Kennedy acknowledged the ferocity of the criticism over the agreement but insisted that a fair assessment of it was obscured “in a cloud of political emotionalism.” He argued that Munich should be viewed in practical, even clinical terms. As he saw it, Britain was not ready to go to war in 1938 and Chamberlain agreed to the deal that surrendered portions of Czechoslovakia to Germany partly to buy time for his country to prepare for a firmer future policy toward Germany. Kennedy concluded there was “some realism” behind appeasement.
Second, Kennedy placed the exploding crisis in its larger historic context, arguing that British policy needed to be assessed from the perspective of at least a decade. He carefully traced the evolving political and security debate in Britain from 1931 to 1940 and even considered the continuing impact of World War I on British public opinion in the 1930s. Britain’s predicament at the end of the decade, he insisted, could only be understood with a longer-term perspective.
Third, Kennedy focused his inquiry not only on Britain’s political leadership, but also on Parliament, the press, business, labor and the British public. Kennedy concluded that all aspects of British society were culpable for the failure to prepare for the German threat. He believed the evidence demonstrated that the British public remained deeply scarred by the First World War and was determined to avoid another war at all cost.
Fourth, Kennedy argued that Britain’s lack of preparation for the German threat compelled deeper reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, particularly in contrast to totalitarian systems. Democracies, he argued, are superior over time but have substantial short-term weaknesses, especially in the run-up to a war. The British public did not want to pay higher taxes in the 1930s to purchase weapons they hoped would never be needed.
Kennedy’s “Why England Slept” provides a template for how to analyze the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States in 2020. His approach can help us understand “Why America Slept.”
Taking our lead from Kennedy, we must:
Analyze the Covid-19 crisis dispassionately:
Americans are understandably angry, frightened and alarmed by how their government has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Images of shuttered cities, terrified citizens and exhausted and undersupplied health care workers are seared into our minds.
Fury and frustration are understandable. However, “Why America Slept” must objectively and methodically unravel a complicated story with epidemiological, public health, economic, financial, immigration, criminal justice, government organization, intelligence, legislative and diplomatic components. This story must be told clearly and analytically.
Construct a careful chronology:
Any authors of “Why America Slept” must focus on the United States in the two decades since 9/11, when the possibility of catastrophic events and the urgency of emergency response procedures became evident. How did two decades of warnings about pandemics issued by task forces, think tanks, public health officials, government executives, intelligence experts and Congress shape government policy and organization?
‘Why America Slept” must look carefully at the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to learn how each prepared for the possibility of a pandemic. The probe must examine the Bush administration’s pandemic response plan in 2005 and then consider the programs and procedures developed by the Obama administration that confronted the 2009 swine flu and the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Analysts of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States must also examine the 2016 election of Donald Trump and his decisions from 2017 to 2020 to terminate or ignore many of the policies and structures created by the preceding administrations. Careful attention must be directed at the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to dismantle the global health security directorate established inside Obama’s National Security Council and to discard the NSC’s pandemic response protocols. The probe must also consider warnings about the consequences of a pandemic issued in 2019 by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.
“Why America Slept” would look closely at the chronology of events, focusing on the outbreak of Covid-19 in China at the end of 2019, early warnings in the United States this January by American intelligence and health agencies, and the president’s eventual acknowledgement of the severity of the situation on March 13 when he declared a national emergency. Scrutiny will center on the roughly 70 days from early January to mid-March during which Trump publicly downplayed the severity of the crisis.
Focus on political leaders and critical institutions in the United States:
“Why America Slept” would look most closely at Trump and his administration to determine why important programs were terminated and established norms disregarded. This crisis appears to have been intensified by failures of both imagination and execution at the highest levels of the executive branch. Both failures require study, as does the administration’s efforts to coordinate a response with other global leaders and international organizations.
However, a full and fair account of the pandemic must examine other institutions as well. How did Congress respond to the threat of a pandemic over the last two decades? Was there a consistent allocation of resources to critical public health programs? Did lawmakers sufficiently fund pandemic response and public health programs? Did they provide constructive oversight of the executive branch? Why was Congress not more aggressive early this year to highlight the Covid-19 threat and educate the public? Why did Congress’s intelligence committees fail to hold their customary “World-Wide Threats” hearing this January or February that might have informed the American public about the accelerating threat and put pressure on the administration to act?
The inquiry must also examine the role and response of local and state governments and consider whether public health programs are adequately funded and professionally managed. Moreover, the inquiry must assess the performance of business, labor, public policy institutes, and the media as it relates to pandemic warnings and response preparation. Did these institutions support constructive policies and frame the pandemic challenge in sufficiently clear and urgent terms?
Assess the Covid-19 crisis in the context of our democracy and quality of government.
“Why America Slept” must assess the ability of the American government to prepare for, prevent and, if necessary, respond to catastrophic emergencies. Why were a raft of careful studies and specific response plans left on their shelves and never used? Have federal, state and local governments been hampered by budget cuts, staff reductions and onerous regulations? How can the various levels of government work in a more coherent and consistent way? Should the federal government supersede state and local governments in crisis management? How can we get policymakers to more effectively prepare for low probability, but deeply devastating, threats?
“Why America Slept” would be a difficult and disturbing chronicle. However, it can be valuable for our country if it is developed objectively, set in a broad historic context, undergirded by a careful chronology and examines unsparingly the strengths and weaknesses of our system of government. “Every country makes great errors and there is usually a good reason for it,” Kennedy wrote 80 years ago. What are the good reasons for this great error?
As we struggle through this pandemic and await a fuller understanding of what happened, it is worth reflecting on Kennedy’s concluding admonishment in “Why England Slept.”
“To say that democracy has been awakened by the events of the last weeks is not enough. Any person will awaken when the house is burning down. What we need is an armed guard that will wake up when the fire first starts or, better yet, one that will not permit a fire to start at all.”
John T. Shaw has been the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute since January 2018. Prior to that, he worked for 25 years as a congressional reporter and diplomatic correspondent in Washington, D.C. He is the author of five books, including “Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower,” “John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition That Changed America” and “JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency.”