Obituary: Harvey Klemmer
Friday 31 July 1992
HARVEY KLEMMER was a good friend to Britain in the country's darkest hour.
Many Americans who were in London in the Blitz relayed to their countrymen the courage and the tenacity of the British. Few did so, however, in the knowledge that their view flouted the deepest instincts of their boss. For Klemmer was attached to the US Embassy during the Second World War, brought over from the Maritime Commission by its dynamic and self-publicising chairman, Joseph P. Kennedy, the US ambassador. And Kennedy was a defeatist, an admirer of Germany with a ready ear for Charles Lindbergh's estimates of Nazi air power.
When the daylight bombing of London began Kennedy took Klemmer for a walk through St James's Park, and gestured through the gloom at Buckingham Palace. 'I'll bet you 10 to one, any sum you like, that Hitler will be in there within two weeks.' Klemmer had already made vain attempts to educate the ambassador, but his eyewitness report on the treatment of the Jews in Germany had been rebuffed with the casual remark: 'They brought it on themselves.'
Klemmer remained a subversive presence on Kennedy's staff because of the strong mutual affection between the two men. Kennedy was something of a monster in his appetites and his ambitions, but he was a beacon to young men of talent who were outsiders, financial or political condottieri.
Klemmer was one such. Born with the century, a farm boy from St Clair, Michigan, he was a printer's devil at 13, went to sea at 17, and worked as a lumberjack, head teacher of the William Ruddiman School in Detroit, reporter for the Detroit News, editor of the fashion magazine Bridle and Golfer, and lecturer in Spanish at Michigan State University; all this before he was 30. During the Depression he taught himself the skills of public relations and economics, to such effect that, hired by the US Merchant Marine as a PR man, he transferred to the State Department to work on Cordell Hull's Trade Agreement Programme. It was there that he was talent-spotted by Kennedy, who had been made Chairman of the United States Maritime Commission by Roosevelt in 1937.
Kennedy was then on a publicity roll. He had carefully crafted the image of his glamorous family of nine. He had hopes of the presidency. What he needed at the Maritime Commission was an economic survey of US shipping, comprehensive, bold, and delivered at speed. Klemmer orchestrated the team of experts which obliged, compiling the report in four months. Kennedy's publicity machine and the Hearst newsreels did the rest. Klemmer was capable of sustained bursts of concentrated work, he was discreet - even when sent cruising for girls for the predatory Kennedy - and he would always answer back.
When Kennedy made his ill-judged plea to President Roosevelt for the London embassy, he decided to take Klemmer with him to the Court of St James.
In London Klemmer walked a tightrope. He knew the ambassador's private views. He was privy to his stock-market dealings. As Maritime Commission attache he was handed the job of securing the merchant-marine cargo space which Kennedy demanded for his whisky shipments. He also guessed, from his own experiences, that Churchill was having Kennedy's phone tapped and his cars and residences searched.
Throughout this period Klemmer asserted his own optimistic view of the British cause and the chances of its survival. A series of books, notably They'll Never Quit and O Dreadful the Night, captured the struggle in racy language. Klemmer also undertook lecture tours throughout the United States, arguing that London could take it. When Kennedy went home in the autumn of 1940, not intending to return, he told Klemmer that he was going 'to tell the American people that that son of a bitch in the White House is going to kill their sons off in a war'. In a long memorandum Klemmer counselled the ambassador against trying to lead an isolationist crusade. The natural constituency for those views, he warned, would not take kindly to a stock market speculator whose louche private life would be made public property if he tangled with Roosevelt. Klemmer's views prevailed, and Kennedy gave Roosevelt a grudging endorsement at the end of the 1940 campaign.
Klemmer stayed on in London, working with Averell Harriman on the implementation of Lend- Lease. After the War he returned to the State Department in Washington and, when he reached statutory retirement in 1960, he was sought out for a series of attachments to governments in the Far East. Tall, tonsured and hearty, he retained his zest for life even when stricken with a hideous cancer of the face in his ninetieth year.
He lived in retirement for a decade at Eustis, Florida, with his wife of 65 years, Josephine, working on another book about the London years which had been the high point of his life.
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