I just finished his excellent and comprehensive, and of course, well-written history of WWII, regarding the leadership of FDR, his chiefs of staff, his allied partners, and the American theater commanders.
Not only does the author, who has written numerous books, including two regarding FDR, analyze his remarkable ability to choose the right people for the job, but he describes in detail his relationships with those same people who became household names for generations to follow. He also analyzes FDR’s remarkable skills within the context of his knowledge of the sea, his perspectives on world history, his understanding the threat of world-wide Fascism, his incredible grasp regarding the minutia of logistics and weaponry, along with his unparalleled knowledge of world geography, which came about from his initial, early exposure and love of philately (the collection of stamps).
Over the years there have been other books, which have attempted to describe the main players under FDR’s command, but this book encompasses not only those individuals, but his partners in the effort, the political leaders like Stimson, Knox, and Forrestal and the international personalities so well known to all of us. Among my hundreds of books regarding WWII, which include biographies, anthologies, autobiographies and detailed general and localized histories, some books have tried to capture the essence of the leadership that fought the war. Some that come to mind, were Edward Larrabee’s “Commander-in-Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his Lieutenants and Their War,” “Nimitz and His Admirals,” by Edward Hoyt, “19 Stars” by Edward Puryear, and “Men at War,” by Stephen Horwath.
The main players in this most costly and dramatic chapter of world history became household names during the war and with the succeeding generations. Starting with his promotion of George C. Marshall, to the greatest command position in history, as the virtual Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, FDR was able to add the Henry Arnold, who was practically an unknown, as FDR elevated the Army Air Corps to the new designation of Army Air Force. His addition of Admiral Ernest King, a tough as nails, no nonsense, 64 year old, who was virtually in retirement to Chief of Naval Operations, showed his commitment to an independent, sometimes irascible figure to head the growing two-ocean navy. As his own Chief of Staff he chose the seasoned naval person, Admiral William Leahy.
Aside from this top-notch staff which built the largest army we had ever had, they built the largest navies and air forces the world had ever seen. From total forces that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, these men, with the guidance of FDR created a force able to win victories in the Pacific and put together the incredible multi-service and national forces that successfully invaded Europe and prosecuted the European War from North Africa, to Sicily, to Italy, and then on to Normandy and Marseilles, before it moved on to the Rhine River and into the heart of Nazi Germany.
FDR also chose Republicans Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox to head the War and Navy Departments, along with William “Wild Bill” Donovan,” a Republican, who ran against Herbert Lehman for Governor of New York, as his personal envoy, his chief information gatherer, without portfolio, and eventually the head of the OSS, (Office of Strategic Services.) It was this spy and espionage agency which became the forerunner of the CIA.
FDR’s greatest skill was balancing the needs, egos, and innate rivalries of these ambitious, talented men. He also had to balance the political necessities involving the Executive Branch regarding State, the War and Navy Departments, and the needs and desires of Congress. With the leadership of the skilled, non-partisan Marshall and politically astute Stimson and Knox, American wartime policy was able to balance the different needs expressed by Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State and FDR’s friend and upstate NY, neighbor, Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who did a masterful job in financing the massive spending required during WWII.
Persico outlines our path to war and how FDR was able to maneuver around the arcane and foolish Neutrality Laws to help out Britain, first; through “Cash and Carry,” to the 50 Destroyer Deal and then “Lend-Lease.” FDR’s skills in alerting American opinion to the national threat of the Axis, culminated with his historic meeting with Churchill and the drafting and signing of the Atlantic Charter in their Argentia Bay meeting. Even with the great threat posed by Nazi aggression and the expansionist designs of the Japanese military, American public opinion was mostly swayed by the neutrality and isolationist arguments espoused by the American First movement, led by Charles Lindbergh, and others, on both the right, and the left. Lindbergh, especially, was able to feed the natural American isolationist, and anti-British sentimentalities, with a large infusion of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Harsh memories of the bloodshed of WWI, fed by American revisionism of the 1920’s, along with a large German-American population, made for a lethal combination regarding isolationist disregard for future American security.
The American military decisions regarding Europe First, the proposed Cross Channel invasion, American public opinion to strike back at Japan, our first actions on Guadalcanal, the North Africa campaign championed by the British, along with the invasions of Sicily and Italy, and the “Unconditional Surrender” doctrine first articulated and announced by FDR at the Casablanca Conference were some of the major decisions made by FDR, with the consultation, agreement and often opposition of his Joint Chiefs. FDR was swayed by the Churchillian argument of attacking the soft-underbelly of the Axis through the Mediterranean. Most of the American planners wanted a cross channel effort in 1942 and 1943. This action was opposed by the casualty averse British and FDR’s thoughts that the American troops were too green and unprepared to take on the German Army in France without combat experience.. Persico described the intense disagreements between the Allies, and their staffs, regarding the logistical efforts in Italy which drained supplies and men from potential D-Day needs.
Later on, as the war proceeds, Persico analyzes the competing personalities of MacArthur, King and Nimitz in the Pacific Theater, along with Eisenhower, Marshall, Bradley, Patton and Clark in Europe. Roosevelt also had to deal with the problem of China with the corrupt leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the intrigues of his wife, one of the influential Soong sisters, Claire Chennault and the AVG, Joseph Stillwell, and the ongoing civil war between the Nationalist Kuomintang Forces and the communists. FDR early on understood the potential of China. He was a bit early in his thoughts on the emergence of China as a world player, but in essence he was quite correct.
Roosevelt’s elevation of Dwight Eisenhower as Supreme Commander of SHAEF, the disappointment of Marshall regarding a major field command, the resurrection of Douglas MacArthur, after the disaster of his Filipino and American forces in the early days after Pearl Harbor, and the problems regarding Eisenhower’s competency and ability to command, dogged FDR. Churchill, General, and later Field Marshal, Alan Brooke, Chief of the British High Command, and others like Montgomery and Alexander; British Corps and theater commanders, all had questions about Eisenhower’s actions and abilities. But, FDR felt that keeping the western alliance together was paramount, and he had great confidence in Ike’s ability to deal fairly with all the competing personalities and interests. Eisenhower proved to be a very skilled politician as a general, though many of his strategic decisions were questioned, then, and now. For sure, the over-sensitive Bernard Law Montgomery, who was elevated to Field Marshall status, was an ever present thorn in Ike’s side, and his later historical accounts of the war were quite critical of Ike’s actions. To give credit to Eisenhower, many of his decisions were backed by Marshall and decided by the Joint Chiefs, as with the issue of “who gets to Berlin first.” Even though Ike had that option, the decision on future “occupation zones” was already decided at Yalta, the military importance of Berlin was almost meaningless, and the Americans took no casualties in any proposed, but not consummated, attempt to cross the Elbe and rush into Berlin. On the other hand, the Soviets lost over 80,000 soldiers killed. As to the theoretical option of rushing into Berlin and other areas including eastern Austria to blunt Soviet eventual domination of Eastern Europe, that was an unrealistic pipedream. No American planner from FDR down wanted to fight the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe. Russia paid with blood, as they incurred five times the amount of fatalities than all the Western Armies combined. What Russia won with blood, treasure and “boots on the ground” wasn’t going to be easily taken away.
Roosevelt’s effort to keep the alliance together was paramount with regards to his leadership skills and his role as the key strategist of WWII. He was willing, even with his failing health and disability, to travel thousands of miles in relative discomfort to far off places like Casablanca. To accommodate the xenophobic and adverse to travel Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, FDR first went to Tehran and then to Yalta, the least desirable place to have a major meeting. Stalin claimed that he would not be able to stray to far from his command responsibilities. Most felt that he was more afraid of domestic threats than his disconnect from direct command decisions. All in all, FDR’s heroic efforts caused him further debilitation and the effort to accommodate the alliance at Yalta, for sure shortened his life. FDR’s diplomatic efforts at Yalta, which on the surface annoyed Churchill at the expense of keeping Stalin committed to their agreements, was well intentioned. FDR, like all of the American planners were fearful of the enormous cost of an invasion of Japan. The catastrophic casualties at Iwo Jima and Okinawa alarmed everyone who focused on the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands, which was planned for November, 1945. Estimates by various planners on the potential carnage, ranged from the high hundred thousands to even a million. The idea that the atomic bomb would even work was not even being considered. Therefore, with the information (later proved to be an over estimation) that millions of Japanese troops of the Kwantung Army were still in Manchuria and could be transferred to the Japanese home islands, FDR and his war planners were alarmingly concerned over the potential casualties caused by suicidal resistance of the Japanese. Estimates of the Japanese having 5000 planes ready for Kamikaze missions, and with exquisite regard for the potential huge naval losses caused by the “Divine Wind” tactics of the enemy, further worried FDR and his staff.
Even though many American military leaders, including and especially the Anglophobe, Ernest King, did not even want British naval support in the Pacific, they realized that Russian help in Asia may be required. This was delicate balance that FDR tried to muster. He also understood the Soviet demand over war reparations, their angst over the brutality they had suffered at the hands of the murderous and rapacious Nazis, and their innate fear that the anti-communist, Western Allies, would turn on them at the end of the war. Later on, the maniacal and possibly mentally ill, Lt. General George Patton was openly talking of arming German prisoners of war and going to war with them against the Russians. Eisenhower had trouble throughout the war with the enigmatic Patton, who had a history of aberrational conduct, was a racist and an anti-Semite. His jealousy regarding the decision to give Mark Clark, the command of the 5th Army in Italy, seemed to stem from the fact that Clark’s mother was Jewish.
At Yalta, the Russians feared that the new and proposed United Nations would put them in a position of weakness, and made demands for greater representation. They even wanted fifteen seats reflective of their so-called Republics, but eventually settled for three, which included the Ukraine and White Russia. FDR handled this “delicate balance” with Stalin as well as anyone. He was obviously sick, tired, weary and worn out at Yalta, but according to most observers, he was sharp when he needed to be and measured exactly what the realities on the ground were like. Only thirty-six hours after he returned from his debilitating trip from Yalta, which included the tragic loss during the voyage of his military aide and confidante, General Edwin “Pa” Watson, from the affects of a stroke, he addressed a joint session of Congress. This was the first time he had ever addressed Congress while sitting, and began with an apology, “I hope you will pardon me for the unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say… but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me to not have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs and also because I have just completed a 14,000 mile trip.” FDR was finally conceding the reality of his disability. He reiterated his position and demand for unconditional surrender. He stated, “It means the end of the Nazi Party and all of its barbaric laws and institutions, along with the punishment of war criminals.” He basically told the assembled audience that he had gotten the best deal he could get. He understood the numbers regarding Eastern Europe and the Soviet juggernaut.
As to any conclusions, which are mixed, regarding FDR’s physical and mental abilities at Yalta, much has been written. FDR was a sick and possibly dying man during the conference. The trip was exhausting and he had been suffering from hypertension, an enlarged heart and arteriosclerosis for quite some time. But, in the words of Charles “Chip” Bohlen, “who had to interpreted the president’s every utterance, and would later advise seven U.S. presidents and serve as ambassador to the USSR and France, concluded that the president ‘was lethargic, but when important matters arose, he was mentally sharp.’”
As a recruiter of men, inside and outside, of the military, FDR was second to none. His high leadership team was extra ordinarily stable. In Persico’s words, “The men he put in place to run each service department in the beginning were all there at the end.” As to the theater commanders; MacArthur and Nimitz in command of divided sectors of the Pacific were there at the end. Clark finished his work, though untidy and costly, in Italy. Eisenhower and his two top commanders, Montgomery and Bradley were there at the end when Berlin collapsed. On the home front, FDR’s work with Secretaries Morgenthau though the Treasury, Hull at State, until his retirement, Stimson, Knox until his death, and the rest of the Executive Branch team were stable throughout the war. His work with the production colossuses like Henry Kaiser, William Knudson and Andrew Higgins proved pivotal in building our fleet of ships, planes, tanks and assault craft. Wherein Churchill, Stalin, and even Hitler fired their generals right and left, FDR’s penchant for picking the right people, not getting involved in battlefield strategy served his team well.
As to the chief strategist of the war, there were all sorts of questions regarding: the 2nd Front, “Unconditional Surrender,” the Italian Campaign, the “Cross Channel” (Bolero to Overlord) invasion and its timing, the creation of the Manhattan Project, the successful development of the A-Bomb, (with Groves and Oppenheim), the cost of frontal attacks in the Pacific; Tarawa, Saipan, the Palaus, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the liberation of the Philippines, the Japanese Internment, the integration of the armed forces, the creation of a Women’s Army Corps, the problems with Vichy, Darlan, Giraud, De Gaulle and the participation of the French in the future occupation of a beaten Germany. Despite the success of the Tuskegee Airmen, African-American units performed terribly in Italy. The Japanese Internment was a blight on American civil liberties, no matter how it really came about. Eventually Japanese-American volunteers were accepted in the service, men were drafted from the interment camps and the camps were gradually dispensed with. The Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team performed with great heroism in Italy and was one of the most decorated American units during WWII. Persico discussed the debate over bombing the tracks, the marshalling yards, and the Death Camps. But he came to no real conclusions regarding the ability of the American Air Forces to change the equation of death. There is no evidence that any bombing, if possible, if authorized, or accomplished would have changed any result. These discussions and arguments have been made in detail in numerous books on the subject. With regards to strategic bombing, post war analysts had mixed reviews. Many even declared that the sacrifice, which punished mostly civilians, did little to affect German war production and the manpower and expense could have been used in other places more affectively. That of course is a highly debatable argument. For sure, strategic bombing tied up the Luftwaffe with regards to the defense of the Reich (Homeland), and eventually, with long-range fighter escort, the German air defense was basically worn down and eliminated as a fighting force. Because of this attrition, this action insured that the D-Day landings were virtually unopposed from the air and made German troop movements vulnerable to attack with almost impunity. The victorious air war over Germany did make life extremely uncomfortable for the German citizenry by killing and wounding millions, destroying their homes and disrupting the survivor’s normal routines, especially sleep. It did cause a dispersion of their war industries, but interestingly, even with massive attacks of over 1000 bombers at a time, it did little to affect their morale, stir hatred towards Hitler or his clique of fanatics. Post war studies showed how strong the affect Nazi indoctrination had on its citizens.
As to FDR’s role as the grand strategist, “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” There is no doubt that FDR had disagreements over with Churchill over an early “Cross Channel” effort and acquiesced over the efficacy of the Italian Campaign. For sure, American planners thought that both North Africa and the Mediterranean were expensive, secondary diversions to satiate post-war British interests in the region. As to the theory that an Allied invasion of Italy would pin down German troops and therefore put less pressure on the Russians seemed to have been disproved by the reality that unfolded. In fact, more German divisions were diverted to the Eastern Front from Itay than had been predicted. But, all in all, it did cause the downfall of Hitler’s fascist partner, Benito Mussolini, and the psychological affect of knocking Italy out of the war, was lost on no one.
Finally, as Persico judges FDR as a “Home Front Leader” and how he performed as the president of a nation at war, he writes, “At the end of FDR’s life, the columnist Walter Lippman wrote, ’The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.’ Clearly, Roosevelt left such a legacy.” In the words of the Sun King, Louis XIV, “L’Etat, c’est moi, I am the state.” In the same sense, Roosevelt is the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party is he. Without his legacy, there would be no Democratic Party, just a collection of regional, nay-saying parties scratching for their existence.
He is, in the words of James MacGregor Burns, in 1970, “The Soldier of Freedom,” and decades later in the words of biographer Conrad Black, “The Champion of Freedom.” The philosophy and conduct of the Free World that followed his time was, in a great degree, modeled on his Four Freedoms Address given during his 1941 State of the Union speech and the Atlantic Charter, which he authored.
As the “Home Front Leader,” Persico wrote, “He was bolder than the Congress or his generals and admirals; witness the destroyer deal done on his own hook, Lend-Lease with its rickety legality, his stretching ocean boundaries to limits that would have astounded President James Monroe and his Doctrine, his willingness to fight an undeclared war in the Atlantic, his risking billions on an atomic weapon whose workability was uncertain at best. Had he been less bold, Britain could have collapsed and Hitler would have won the war.”
Of course, in the words of the author, at the time of his death all the battles have been won and victory was a certainty. He had gone out on a limb and promised an unconditional surrender and that was achieved. We did not suffer the same problems that the Armistice, which ended WWI, had brought upon the world. Again, he ends with these thoughts, “His vision of a United Nations was about to be realized. An end to imperialism, which he preached and practiced, would become a hallmark of the post war world. Roosevelt bore the burden of leading the nation in fighting two successful wars on opposite end of the globe while enduring pain and immobility that would have broken a lesser spirit. There is no comparable case in history of anyone rising to the leadership of a great nation as severely crippled as was FDR. The president’s life can only be regarded as heroic. The American people and all liberty-loving nations were blessed that when the world needed a giant, one emerged. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ranks with the immortals, with Washington and Lincoln, both as president and a commander in chief.”
From my perspective, unlike Churchill, FDR was the single greatest elected politician in modern history and was able to overcome the devastating physical challenge of Polio. He was a vigorous man who overcame a lifetime of sickness. He had wonderful mentors, Theodore Roosevelt, Al Smith, and Woodrow Wilson. He took something from all of them, and was smart enough to avoid the problems they all experienced. He shaped his own destiny, built the new Democratic Party, reversed the Depression, rallied the public, instilled great respect from the world at large, inspired great enemies and opposition, took on the Fascists when America wanted no part of that fight, created the United Nations, built the “Arsenal of Democracy” and through his actions, at the Atlantic Conference in Argentia Bay, put forth his vision of the world based on the “Four Freedoms.” His vision is the vision of the modern world; his vision is of one of the world community pulling together for the common good. Not unlike Churchill, who was one of the lone voices protesting against “appeasement,” FDR had withstood an “American First” isolationism that cut across almost all social and political barriers and subgroups. FDR had to use his unequalled mastery of the America political landscape to, on one hand, re-arm America, and on the other hand, battle the limitations of our Neutrality Laws and the passion of people like Charles Lindbergh, who were his most vocal critics.
In retrospect, of the two great western leaders, Churchill really left no governmental legacy. He really never governed. FDR’s legacy was one of not only unprecedented leadership, but of government innovation, reform and restructuring. Both have great-unequalled places in the history of our world and our time. But, as Joseph Persico so eloquently has written, in his quote from Walter Lippman, about “that the final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.”