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FDR as War Leader

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The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-42. By Nigel Hamilton. 514 pages. $30.00.


Franklin Roosevelt’s direction of American forces during World War II has generally been underestimated and under-appreciated. Winston Churchill, since he outlived FDR long enough to write his own version of events, his six volume, self-aggrandizing opus titled The Second World War, is often thought of as the more important leader of the democracies.

That's too bad because but for FDR's leadership, Churchill might not have lived to write his self defense. FDR definitely put his stamp on the conduct of the war, and Nigel Hamilton in this superb history shows exactly how, despite often intense opposition from his lieutenants and despite Churchill's dishonesty, poor judgment, and sometimes subversion.

Legally, the president of the United States is commander in chief. But after Pearl Harbor, many people thought FDR should turn to a military man to run the American war engine. Someone like General Douglas MacArthur or George C. Marshall.

But MacArthur had already fouled up in the Philippines. Hours after the Pearl Harbor attacks and while his forces were on high alert, he allowed his entire air force to be caught on the ground and destroyed. Worse, he had plenty of ammunition, food and medicine, but when his army retreated to the Bataan Peninsula, he failed to move the supplies. Had he done so, no doubt U.S. forces on Bataan and Corregidor could have held out much longer than they did. Finally, just before he left the Philippines, even though an officer in the American army and it was illegal for him to do so, he insisted on and got a $500,000 payment from the Philippine government.

As for Marshall, he was caught napping by the attacks on Pearl Harbor quite as much as the local army and navy commanders were, even though they had been warned and were supposed to be on high alert. Furthermore, he and other high ranking officers insisted on a cross channel invasion in 1942, an invasion that would probably have ended in disaster. They even tried to blackmail Roosevelt to get their way. But FDR held firm and America's first blow against Germany fell in Africa.

So, it was FDR and not Churchill, not Marshall, not MacArthur who decided on a Germany first policy, and it was FDR who insisted that in defeating the Nazis, the first step would be an invasion of French Northwest Africa, the Torch landings.

FDR admired Churchill for his dogged persistence and his courage, but he often was disappointed in him. Churchill seemed not to appreciate FDR’s position before Pearl Harbor. There was a strong America First movement, an isolationist movement in America. Americans felt burned by the Europeans in World War I, and though there was considerable sympathy for Great Britain, few Americans wanted to go to war to save the British Empire. So, when in late 1941, Churchill came a-courting, what he wanted was U.S. military aid, men and machines, a declaration of war. But FDR would have none of it. The consummate politician, instead, he got Churchill to sign the Atlantic Charter, which promised that the free nations fighting fascism would not seek territory, would reduce trade restrictions, would allow people to choose their own form of government and would guarantee FDR’s four freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship.

Despite this document, Churchill refused to allow India self-government, even though British soldiers were fighting poorly and Indian soldiers in the British army were going over to the Japanese. FDR tried to reason with Churchill, saying that he could secure his Indian troops' loyalty by giving India self-government, but Churchill undermined all such efforts. Time has shown that FDR was right in this matter as well.

The book is extremely well-written, the prose is graceful and emphatic, and the research seems to be impeccable. For those interested in the early days of World War II, this is a considerable work. For those interested in FDR and Churchill, it corrects many historical errors. For example, many continue to argue that FDR knew ahead of time of the attack on Pearl Harbor and let it go forward in order to get the U.S. into the war. Spoiler alert—he did not know, despite what some generals and admirals have claimed. Everyone knew the Japanese were going to attack somewhere, no one knew where. The men in charge at Pearl Harbor, despite being on high alert, did the wrong things at the wrong time. FDR’s leadership was powerful and proper, especially in the early days of American involvement. He was the right man in the right place at the right time and he did the right things. As Americans, we can all be thankful.