Category Archives: World War II
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the subject of innumerable biographies, in fact I would venture to guess no President save Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more. Yet with so many available there seem to be precious few that take a truly in depth look at his role as Commander in Chief. Happily, renowned historian and biographer Nigel Hamilton has rectified that situation with the publication in 2014 of The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942. A practically flawless work, I was disappointed it only covered part of FDR’s time as Commander in Chief. I truly wish he would take on the rest of FDR’s tenure, but fear that task will have to be left for another.
The Mantle of Command takes us from FDR’s initial meetings with Winston Churchill in 1941 that resulted in the Atlantic Charter, through to the landings of American and British troops in French northwest Africa (Morocco and Tunisia) as part of operation Torch in November of 1942. Hamilton quotes copiously from letters, diaries and other primary sources to give us a very thorough, chronological look at this period of FDR’s tenure as Commander in Chief. Though detailed, the prose is never boring.
A number of things struck me as I read this; far to many to go through in a short review, though four stood out. First, the overall take away is that this period represented the ascendancy of the United States as the dominant world power, while at the same time it heralded the end of Great Britain as an empire. Both FDR and Winston Churchill recognized this (though Churchill took a bit longer), and played their roles accordingly. Second, Hamilton is clearly impressed with FDR’s abilities as Commander in Chief. Time after time, whether he was dealing with prima donnas such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur over command responsibilities, or with opposition from his military chiefs and Secretary of War over Operation Torch, FDR, in Hamilton’s view, knew exactly how much pressure to apply and when to apply it. Third, in contrast to his positive view of FDR’s military leadership, Hamilton (a British subject himself), is surprisingly hard on Churchill’s judgement, faulting him for serious British setbacks early in the war, and for his hard headed attitude towards Indian Independence. And lastly, I was particularly pleased with the extensive use of German and Japanese primary sources, including diaries and letters. It really provided a great juxtaposition to accounts of Allied opinion during this period.
Prior to its entry into WWII the United States was essentially isolationist. After World War I it had drawn down its armed forces to the point where it’s army was approximately the size of Portugal’s. The United States Congress was in many ways dominated by an isolationist sentiment, and men as prominent as Charles Lindbergh were promoting a xenophobic isolationism even as it became obvious United States entry into the growing conflict was going to be required. FDR, who understood earlier than most that the United States would be drawn into war, recognized and adapted to this reality. As Hamilton portrays it Roosevelt’s political instincts were so spot on he knew exactly how far the country would be willing to go and when. He also knew how to present increased U.S. involvement in a way the public could understand and support. One example of this of course, was the Lend Lease program the U.S. initiated in March 1941 (prior to the events recounted in this book). Roosevelt, recognizing Britain, Free France, and China could not hope to hold out against Germany and Japan without aid, but cognizant of the country’s isolationist mood, devised a way to deliver that aid without it appearing as though it was entering the war. He was able to present it as a defensive measure; by loaning military equipment to those who were fighting our enemies the U.S. could stay out of the fighting. Once the crisis passed, intact equipment would be returned, and the U.S. would be reimbursed for equipment that had been destroyed. He sold this plan in a way every person could understand, by relating it to their own lives. In a December 1940 press conference Roosevelt used the following illustration to demonstrate why the country and Congress should support Lend Lease:
Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15–I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up–holes in it–during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.
A February 1941 Gallup poll showed Roosevelt’s campaign for passage had worked, with a Lend Lease proposal receiving the support of 54% of Americans, and it was passed by Congress a month later. Ten months later Lend Lease would would take its place as part of a larger American effort when the empire of Japan declared war on the United States.
On August 7, 1941, four months before American entry into WWII, a U.S. naval ship, the Northampton class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta slipped into Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Aboard was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt there to meet in secret with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. Though they had met earlier during WWI, this was the first face to face meeting of the two. On August 9th, the H.M.S. Prince of Wales arrived with Churchill aboard. Each had different goals for this first meeting. Great Britain, having been the target of an intense and destructive air campaign by the German Luftwaffe, was eager for the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. Roosevelt, recognizing the U.S. was not yet ready for this, nevertheless wanted to signal to the country that the United States sympathized with Britain’s plight and opposed Nazi Germany. Given these parameters, Roosevelt suggested development of a set of principles that would guide allied nations after the war. The “Atlantic Charter” agreed to by FDR and Churchill included pledges not to seek territorial gains, to seek lowering of international trade barriers, to work for establishment of global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare, for freedom of the seas, for the right of all nations to self determination, and to work toward a world free from want and fear. This agreement became the basis for many subsequent agreements including establishment of the United Nations. Like Lend Lease, it was FDR’s way of moving the United States ever closer to a formal wartime alliance with Great Britain without actually crossing that line and incurring the wrath of politically powerful isolationists. For Great Britain it represented a step toward bringing the United States into the war as a full combatant, and for the Axis powers it signaled an escalation of the war; one they would regret encouraging.
On December 7th, 1941 airplanes of the empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Killing or wounding 5,381 Americans, this attack, and the declaration of war four days later by Germany on the United States, signaled the end of America’s role as a mere bit player on the world stage. From this time forward the U.S. would assume it’s position as the dominant economic and military power in the world, a position it has yet to relinquish. Britain on the other hand, would take its place as the junior partner in this alliance.
Due to poor leadership at all levels British forces were defeated in Malaya and Singapore, the latter surrendering without showing much resistance. Japanese Naval sorties into the Indian Ocean panicked the British, forcing them to move their fleet from Ceylon to Kenya, and although they had shown courage and grit during the Battle of Britain, they had not been able to mount any kind of effective counter to German expansion. Meanwhile after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines, the United States achieved a strategic victory over the Japanese Navy at Coral Sea, and completed a decisive one at Midway Island, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers. Domestically, it’s full productive capacity brought to bear, the U.S. was producing war materiel at an astounding rate, and the military services were rapidly adding manpower. Since it was providing the bulk of the men and materiel for the allied war effort (with the exception of the U.S.S.R.), it was understood the U.S. would be the dominant partner in this relationship. And to his credit, Winston Churchill understood and adapted to this reality, eventually. However, as Nigel Hamilton shows, Churchill’s leadership abilities were rightly called into question during this period.
Winston Churchill was an enigmatic man; courageous, stalwart and indefatigable. At the same time he could be stubborn, myopic, and a control freak. As Hamilton describes it, his admirable qualities kept Britain strong and defiant during the Battle of Britain. He was the rock around which the Allied effort eventually grew. But it was his less admirable qualities that were largely responsible for early British setbacks. His stubbornness in not recognizing the futility of trying to restore the British empire, and his poor choice of subordinates resulting in unnecessary tensions between British and American staff officers being two of the most important examples. As British defeats mounted in southeast Asia and North Africa and as the Japanese fleet moved into the Indian ocean fostering fears of an attack on India, Churchill appeared stubbornly determined to preserve the prewar structure of the British Empire. As Japan moved into the Indian Ocean FDR encouraged Churchill to begin independence negotiations with Indian leaders. Aside from his belief that India deserved independence as a matter of right consistent with the Atlantic Charter, it would also secure a Indian commitment to fighting off the Japanese. A delegation headed by Sir Stafford Cripps was dispatched to India to negotiate a devolution of power to Indian authorities in exchange for Indian Army support in the war. Churchill subordinates, probably acting with his tacit approval, purposely undermined the negotiations. Fortunately Japanese defeats at Coral Sea and Midway diverted their attention away from the Indian peninsula. Later, after the decision was made to mount the first joint offensive in North Africa rather than attempt a cross channel invasion of France, Churchill, acting on the advice of subordinates, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, mounted an ill conceived raid at Dieppe on the French coast. It was a disaster, with nearly half of British troops engaged being killed, wounded or captured. With these setbacks, lapses in judgement, stubbornness, and reliance on poorly chosen subordinates, it was only Churchill’s willingness to accede to U.S. leadership, and his position as the face of resistance to Nazi Germany that allowed him to stave off attempts to bring down his government.
Hamilton devotes a significant portion of the book to the decision by Britain and America to make northwest Africa the site of its first offensive. As he presents it, the success of Operation Torch is most attributable to FDR’s political and strategic genius. Pressure on the United States and Britain to mount a cross channel offensive as soon as possible grew as 1941 ended. The U.S. Joint Chiefs including Chief of Staff George Marshall along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, were pressing for just such an attack. Winston Churchill realized early on this would be a monumental mistake. U.S. troops had yet to experience combat and would be unlikely to stand up to seasoned German troops, the allies had yet to mobilize the men and materiel they would need for such an attack, and the Germans had heavily fortified the most obvious points of attack at Caen and Cherbourg. FDR, after initially appearing to favor such an invasion, came around to Churchill’s view and advocated for French northwest Africa as the site of the first offensive. Convincing his own staff to go along despite their convictions it would only divert needed materiel from an eventual cross channel attack, and would probably fail on its own merits, was a stellar example of FDR’s ability to know where and when to press an advantage. Allowing his subordinates to make their case freely, he held firm. Eventually, in frustration they advocated moving the primary theater of operations from Europe to the Pacific. Calling their bluff, FDR asked them to provide him the detailed plans they must have been relying on to make such a bold suggestion. Unable to do so since they had impetuously made the suggestion out of frustration, they eventually fell in line with the President. The invasion proceeded and Operation Torch was a success.
Finally, I was very impressed by Hamilton’s use of primary sources from Axis leaders. Most significant of these was the diary of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While many of his entries can be termed whistling past the graveyard, some were very incisive as to the mindset of Allied leaders, the potential success of an Allied invasion of the French coast, and as regards Operation Torch. It provided a very interesting counterpoint to the views of Allied leaders.
Overall I think this is one of the best FDR biographies I have every read. The detail was incredible, the arguments he makes regarding FDR’s skill as a political leader are detailed and very persuasive. The prose is well formed and extremely easy to follow despite the enormous amount of information being thrown at you, Other than my disappointment that it ends with 1942 and that it does not appear Hamilton will be producing another volume, I have nothing but praise for this book.
Bucket Source (Personal Addition)
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A very enjoyable book written by a Pulitzer Prize award winner. It explores the relationship – both professional and personal – between the two most important leaders of the twentieth century, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. This is not a full biography of either man, nor is it a history of WWII. While you will get elements of both in this book, the sole focus is their relationship.
Making heavy use of primary sources, including newly analyzed diaries of Lucy Mercer Rutherford and the papers of Pamela Harriman, Meacham paints a very vivid portrait of the two men and the nature of their relationship. In many ways they were very similar in their upbringing and outlook on the world. Both idolized their flawed and somewhat aloof fathers, both were born into privilege and were later accused of betraying their class, both were strong willed and were excellent communicators, both depended heavily on their spouses (though in different ways), and both viewed the future optimistically. Their relationship was intimate but complex, with each playing a role defined largely based on the political goal each needed to reach.
From the start Churchill was the suitor and Roosevelt the courted. While Britain held out against the Nazis alone for nearly an entire year Churchill worked to convince Roosevelt of the need for American help. As the leader of a country not in imminent danger, Roosevelt had to deal with the strongly isolationist sentiment dominant in the U.S. at this time. As Churchill pushed him Roosevelt worked to get England the help it needed without getting too far ahead of public opinion; preparing the country for what he was convinced would be the necessity of American involvement. In both cases incredible political instincts and a talent for persuasiveness moved each towards their respective goal.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the U.S., Roosevelt and Churchill formed a relationship that became the most formidable alliance of two leaders in world history. In terms of their political relationship, Roosevelt continued to be the dominant partner. The United States had the men and material to wage the kind of fight that was going to be necessary to defeat the Axis powers. Churchill was still often in the position of having to woo Roosevelt to a course of action he believed most beneficial. While Churchill spent nearly 120 days in North America during the war, Roosevelt never visited England. On the other hand, Churchill was the face of resistance to Naziism, his charisma and courage in the face of overwhelming odds focused attention on the dangers of a world dominated by despotism.
On a personal level , their relationship had developed into what some have called a “love affair,” with each having a deep affection and admiration for the other. It is this relationship that is the primary theme of this book and what is most riveting about it.
There is little new information presented, except the details provided Lucy Rutherford’s diaries and Pamela Harriman’s papers. It’s the focus on the relationship itself that is unique here. It is very easy to be cynical nowadays, with public expressions by politicians of friendship dismissed as smoke and mirrors. In this case however those expressions were genuine, and it was the relationship that developed that allowed this alliance to literally save the world from despotism!
Bucket Source (Personal Addition)
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A truly comprehensive account of FDR’s life could take up volumes. The author did a great job of synthesizing that material into one excellent volume.
Two things of which I was of course aware, are really put into stark relief in this book.
First, that FDR really did fundamentally, and forever, change the relationship between Americans and their government…for the good in my opinion.
Second, the monumental physical toll WWII took on him. I think many probably assume his bout with polio made him feeble to begin with, and that it was a natural progression from that disease that ultimately caused his death. In fact, other than not having the use of his legs, FDR was in excellent health at the beginning of his Presidency. He could have taken any number of measures to restore his health near the end (high blood pressure was the ultimate cause of his death). Instead he quite literally worked himself to death.
An excellent book about an amazing man!
Bucket Source (Francis Parkman Prize for American History and Biography)
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