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Talking Long into the Night: JFK meets Dorothy Day

In 1940 two Kennedy boys met Catholic peace activist Dorothy Day.

By Rosalie G. Riegle

Sometime between July 29 and August 4, 1940, two young heirs of the large Kennedy fortune visited Dorothy Day at the simple Catholic Worker house on Mott Street in Manhattan. Dorothy Day was 43 and the Catholic Worker movement she co-founded with Peter Maurin was only seven years old. Jack Kennedy was 23 and his older brother Joe—the one originally slated by the family to become the first Catholic president—was 25. Four years later, Joe was killed when bombs in the B-17 he was flying exploded prematurely.

Jack had just graduated from Harvard with a senior thesis on the origins of World War II, published in July, just before his visit with Day, as Why England Slept. Unlike many writers at that time, but like his father, who was soon to resign as US Ambassador to Great Britain, JFK did not castigate England for their early policy of appeasement. He donated the English proceeds from this book to Plymouth, England, which had been bombed by the Luftwaffe, and brought a Buick convertible with his US royalties.

Day and Maurin’s Catholic Worker was (and still is) attempting to “build a new society in the shell of the old,” like the IWW, whose slogan and anarchist ideas they adopted, along with a heavy dose of papal encyclicals on the importance of labor and the dignity of all persons. The Catholic Worker also looked straight to the New Testament as a guide, specifically the Sermon on the Mount. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, work for peace.

“By little and by little,” as Day would say, they would change the system to build a world where it was easier to be good. The movement they founded, anarchistic or at least personalist in its approach, with little attempt at conformity or bigness, nevertheless grew rapidly. Houses of hospitality and rural communes sprang up across the land, and the founding house in New York had many visitors.

Why did these two brothers travel from their Hyannisport summer home to a soup kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan? We will probably never know, but we do know that Dorothy Day’s radical Catholicism appealed to many, and we know that the Catholic Worker newspaper grew exponentially, from its initial 2,500 print run in 1933 to over 120,000 in 1940.

Perhaps Jack and Joe read Day’s explanation of the Catholic Worker published in February of 1940:

We are working for “a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.” We are trying to say with action, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are working for a Christian social order.

If the two young men saw the newspaper, they most surely would have read with interest her article in June of 1940 where she reiterated her pacifist stance:

Many of our readers ask, “What is the stand of the Catholic Worker in regard to the present war?” . . . We repeat, that as in the Ethiopian war, the Spanish war, the Japanese and Chinese war, the Russian-Finnish war–so in the present war we stand unalterably opposed to war as a means of saving “Christianity,” “civilization,” “democracy.” We do not believe that they can be saved by these means.. . . Instead of gearing ourselves in this country for a gigantic production of death-dealing bombers and men trained to kill, we should be producing food, medical supplies, ambulances, doctors and nurses for the works of mercy, to heal and rebuild a shattered world.

Anyway, the two Kennedy boys came down to meet her. Catholic Worker Stanley Vishnewski recalled the incident years later in an interview with Bill Moyers and remembered how “bewildered” Jack Kennedy looked as he gazed at the long tables, the big pots on a huge old stove, the people in rags huddled along the walls. Most likely he was downright shocked, and probably extremely uncomfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings.

So when Dorothy asked the two Kennedys to stay for dinner, they quickly asked her to dine out with them instead. In her autobiography, Loaves and Fishes, Dorothy wrote, “We went out to a little restaurant around the corner. We had a wonderful conversation and talked long into the night, of war and peace and of man and the state.”

What a conversation that must have been! One can imagine how the words flew between two bright young men of privilege, personally worried about the war, and an equally bright and voluble woman. “Miss Day,” as the two Kennedys surely called her, was still striking in middle age, with high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, and a commanding height, softened by a laugh sometimes described as girlish. So the evening would have been lively for all, and it was memorable enough for Day to write about it, long before JFK became prominent.

One can imagine a shocked Kennedy when he read Dorothy’s statement after Pearl Harbor, “We continue our Christian Pacifist Stand.” Yes, he believed in negotiation, but Christian pacifism? It was not to be for the men who would become President of the most powerful country in the world. It was also not to be for some in the Catholic Worker movement, and many of the houses of hospitality closed as Workers went off to war or to camps for conscientious objectors .Catholic Worker newspaper subscriptions plummeted, but Day continued to write, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you.”

Perhaps somehow in his busy life, John Fitzgerald Kennedy found time to continue to read The Catholic Worker, even though he never again visited Dorothy Day. Did he read her calling for us to “put on sackcloth and ashes, weep and repent” for the thousands of Japanese we killed in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hear her crying about President Truman’s “jubilation” over the success of the first atom bombs? ?

Years later, Jim Douglass was to write:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, another president, John F. Kennedy, under enormous pressure, almost committed the United States to a nuclear holocaust that would have multiplied the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb thousands of times. Kennedy’s saving grace was that unlike Truman he recognized the evil of nuclear weapons. Kennedy resisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of his civilian advisers, who pressured him for a preemptive attack on Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Thanks to the sheer grace of God, to Kennedy’s resistance to his advisers, and to Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to retreat, humanity survived the crisis.

Jim’s book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, also tells the story of a dismal 1961 face-to-face meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy. On the flight home, a tired President asked his secretary Evelyn Lincoln to clear the table. She noticed a scrap of paper with Kennedy’s handwriting. On it was an Abraham Lincoln saying: “I know there is a God—and I see a storm coming; If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”

Kennedy may have been ready, but he was struck down before his plans could be fulfilled. Soon after the assassination, Dorothy Day wrote to Karl Meyer, a Catholic Worker friend, that she had been so devastated by the news that she had cancelled her speaking engagements and returned to New York. In her next newspaper column, thinking most immediately of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a man in relationships, she wrote: “We could only sit and weep at the senseless violence that had erupted again, this time striking down a young and vital leader of a State, a husband, son and father.”

Jim Douglass, too, received a letter soon after the assassination. In it Dorothy was reflecting on the continuing violence and she said, “I shall pray to President Kennedy about this, too” (Emphasis in the original.) As Douglass pointed out in a 2010 article for Tikkun, “Even when Dorothy Day was marching and speaking out against JFK’s Cold War policies, something about him struck the chord of her belief in human goodness.”

One wonders what the world would have been like if the two of them had continued to talk “long into the night” about war and peace.

Rosalie Riegle's latest book is Doing Time for Peace (Vanderbilt University Press), a collection of oral histories of over seventy-five anti-war activists jailed for civil disobedience.

Copyright © Rosalie G. Riegle. All rights reserved.