Book explores FDR’s decisions during pivotal point in world history

Posted Sunday, May. 25, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942

by Nigel Hamilton

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30

* * * * Audiobook: Tantor Audio, $34.99; narrated by actor James Langton.

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It seems, to one at least, that the study of history has become lost among the priorities and “progress” of the “now” generations ascending ladders of leadership in American culture.

It’s regrettable and not because of the clichés that end in “doomed to repeat it.”

It’s simply this: The very best works of history go so much beyond the who, what, when and where of yesteryear, and dig so deep into the subject that what is produced actually can provide the reader practical lessons to be applied to his or her own life.

Are you a management figure who has had trouble handling massive egos? Or has had to deal with people conspiring to undermine your authority?

Well, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who passed from this life some 70 years ago, has some very good advice to live by, as told by master researcher and history storyteller Nigel Hamilton.

The British-born biographer’s The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 tells the story of how the direction was set for winning World War II militarily and attaining peace afterward through the eyes of FDR. The book’s more than 440 pages hit the spots every bit as effectively as the technically skilled pugilist working over an opponent’s bloodied nose.

This might very well be as close to Roosevelt himself telling the story, had he lived to see the end of the war, through 13 episodes, starting with FDR’s and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secret meeting in Canada just months before Pearl Harbor.

That meeting, Hamilton asserts, established the “Atlantic Charter,” a set of principles, and set the tone for when and if the United States entered the war, who would be in charge (Roosevelt and the United States) and how the peace would be won in the aftermath, namely the end of the British Empire and self-government for her colonies.

Despite a recalcitrant Churchill both quietly and openly resisting such an aim, Roosevelt was convinced that the development was moral and, more importantly, practical: The armies native to India and Malaysia, just to name two, wouldn’t fight to preserve a British Empire that had denied them simple freedoms and plundered their natural resources.

He was right; they didn’t. It’s hard to imagine the consequences had the U.S. not entered the war. Great Britain was, quite simply, beaten. Her capacity to protect the homeland, much less her colonies thousands of miles distant, was almost completely lost.

In fact, Japan’s assaults on British property in the Pacific were less battle and more welcoming party. Time and again, the imperial armies simply set down their weapons.

Giving up wasn’t an option in the beleaguered Philippines, soon to be completely independent from Mother America and under the military direction of retired American Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was put back into active service during the crisis that ensued in the aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941.

History has treated MacArthur with a mixed bag of his preferred hosannas and, more commonly like his colleagues at the time, denunciation. But his capacity to inspire and lead make the modern maestros of infomercials appear reticent and small.

It was a trait FDR recognized and why, ultimately, he tolerated (and manipulated) MacArthur.

MacArthur was also much like the other ego that Roosevelt had to manage, Churchill. And, Hamilton noted, the president sized them both up, and the comparisons fascinated him.

“Both men loved symbols to mark their individuality: Churchill his cigars, General MacArthur his corncob pipe and cane. Even their distinctive hats were designed to be memorable: Churchill’s bowler, MacArthur’s special field marshal’s cap. Both men were positively dangerous in terms of their lack of realism, their tactical missteps, their mood swings.”

Churchill had failed during the fall of France; MacArthur blundered the defense of the Philippines.

But unlike the armies of imperial Britain, MacArthur’s men and, more importantly, the Filipinos were fighting the Japanese. Though the general’s lofty pronouncements and dispatches were largely ignored, “at least MacArthur was thinking aggressively as a commander.”

Writes Hamilton: “In fact, he was by the very force of his personality holding together a symbolic partnership between American and Filipino forces that had incalculable importance for the Western alliance. This, the president recognized, a pearl beyond price — something that the president’s advisers simply failed to understand.”

Some of those same advisers also failed to understand why the president was adamant in resisting recommendations by his military advisers to make an English cross-channel attack on German-occupied France, fortified with at least 25 Nazi divisions, in 1942.

The Allies, especially the green American troops, simply weren’t ready to open the coveted “second front,” a position the Brits supported. It would have been a disaster, as about 1,200 massacred Canadian troops making an expedition there proved later.

FDR’s preferred second front was North Africa in a hit-’em-where-they-ain’t strategy. Hitler had failed to occupy French northwest Africa, while obsessing over what he anticipated would be a counter-attack from the British Isles.

Army Chief of Staff George Marshall — whose legacy is bruised in this book — had never liked the president’s “great pet scheme.” Nor had Secretary of War Henry Stimson. And they, along with Adm. Ernest King, argued vehemently against it, even ridiculing the plan as “both indecisive and a heavy drain on our resources.”

And if the Brits, too, were against a cross-channel landing, the Americans should take the war to the Pacific first, they argued.

The president called their bluff. Responding to a third memorandum arguing against North Africa and for taking the war to the Pacific, FDR asked for a detailed plan outlining the steps necessary for such a campaign in the Pacific.

And he wanted it that afternoon.

“Marshall was not even in Washington that day,” Hamilton wrote. “Moreover, as became instantly clear to Stimson as a first-class attorney, neither Marshall nor King had actually considered how a ‘decisive and definitive campaign’ switch to the Pacific could be mounted.”

Instead of firing them for insubordination — Hamilton describes Stimson’s role in the mutiny as almost treasonous — FDR simply tried to convince them to stay on the team because his course was the right one.

He also brought on an advocate of the plan, William Leahy, who became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hamilton might well be accused of having an FDR man crush. But his research supports his emotions.

The author’s finished product enhances the legacy of FDR, who shows first-rate judgment and savvy, not to mention a physical and emotional endurance, in dealing with the pitfalls of various personalities and innumerable crises in just one year of the war.

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