- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

TO KEEP THE BRITISH ISLES AFLOAT: FDR’S MEN IN CHURCHILL’S LONDON, 1941
By Thomas Parrish
Smithsonian Books/Collins, $26.99, 324 pages, illus.

MASTERS AND COMMANDERS: HOW FOUR TITANS WON THE WAR IN THE WEST, 1941-1945
By Andrew Roberts
Harper, $35, 673 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Starting with the dramatic meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt on warships at sea that produced the Atlantic Charter before the United States had even entered the war, a lot of attention has been paid to the great Allied summit conferences of World War II — both at the time and in the decades since.

There were so many of them following that first one: Casablanca, Cairo, Teheran, Yalta, sometimes with additional players like De Gaulle, Chiang Kai-Shek and Stalin, not to mention meetings at Quebec (twice) and innumerable tete-a-tetes at the White House and Hyde Park, N.Y. Dramatic and attention-grabbing as they are, though, summits do not tell the whole story. Two books recently published put those pivotal events in that all-important context, showing us the people lower down the rung who made them possible.

Thomas Parrish’s “To Keep the British Isles Afloat: FDR’s Men in Churchill’s London” focuses on Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman, the unlikely pair who laid the groundwork for that first summit — and even more important, saw to it that an American lifeline prevented Britain from going under. Very little in the background of either men made them likely candidates for such passionate advocacy for American interventionism.

Hopkins was a Midwestern social worker of modest means who had overseen the administration’s anti-poverty efforts; Harriman was a multimillionaire railroad tycoon, all-round entrepreneur and avid playboy. Both were to be sure fervent New Dealers, but their contributions had hitherto been exclusively in the realm of domestic affairs. But now, like the president they served, they were convinced that it was vital to the United States’ own national security interests that the United Kingdom not go down to defeat.

Roosevelt seems genuinely to have hoped that aiding the British would prevent, or at the very least minimize, any eventual American ground combat against the Nazis; Hopkins thought that such aid would enormously help his nation if the war came to it and Harriman concurred, except that he believed that when and not if was the operative word!

Mr. Parrish’s title is taken from the characteristically breezy and sweeping presidential mandate given to Harriman on his departure in February 1941: “I want you to go over to London and recommend everything we can do, short of war, to keep the British Isles afloat.” Harriman’s extensive experience as a leading businessman made this human dynamo a superb logician to administer the critical supply of materiel and foodstuffs needed to keep Britain’s war machine going:

“FDR told the press about inventing a title for his representative: ‘[We] decided that it was a pretty good idea to call him an ‘Expediter.’ There’s a new one for you. I believe it is not in the diplomatic list or any other. So he will go over as ‘Defense Expediter.’”

Harriman pretty much handled things at the eastern end of the Atlantic, but in Hopkins he had the perfect partner. A practiced Washington insider and presidential confidant, he made sure that things flowed across the pond in greater measure and by every possible means. Shuttling back and forth to London, he forged an equally strong relationship with Churchill. Indeed, this book shows that Hopkins’ initial evaluation of the prime minister and his unconquerable will to win the war was crucial to Roosevelt’s commitment to aiding Britain. If Hopkins had not laid that groundwork in so masterly a fashion, the Atlantic Charter and all those subsequent summits might never have taken place.

Mr. Parrish’s book is a page turner, the product of a writer who has a flair for colorful description and evoking memorable characters. But his research is solidly grounded in the diaries of major participants, notably Hopkins’, and of observers close to the centers of power. As is Andrew Roberts‘ “Masters and Commanders,” a study of the important role played by the military commanders of the United Kingdom and the United States in World War II.

Mr. Roberts concentrates on the roles played by U.S. Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall and the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, but also highlights the contributions of many other high-ranking staff officers. Contrary to policy, many of these (including Brooke) kept diaries that provide rich lodes of information about how decisions were reached — and sometimes were avoided.

Mr. Roberts‘ book is much the denser of the two, filled with detail, some of it technical, but it makes for fascinating reading nonetheless. And it reminds us of many unsung heroes of those times, notably Field Marshall Sir John Dill, buried at Arlington National Cemetery by Special Act of Congress, the only non-American to have been accorded that honor, when he died during his wartime service in Washington in November 1944.

It is a measure of the dedication of both nations to their joint military efforts to win the war that such a high-ranking British staff officer was permanently based in the American capital. According to Mr. Roberts, such was the level of trust between Dill and Marshall that the Briton showed his American counterpart his telegrams from London, even those intended for his own eyes only.

The result was the most fruitful cooperation possible, based on trust that was truly mutual: “Giving Marshall a silver tea service to remember her husband by, Dill’s widow Nancy wrote to say: ‘He really loved you, George, and your mutual affection meant a great deal to him — he always trusted you implicitly.’ Marshall’s reply mentioned ‘the intimate bond between Dill and myself.’” Neither of these men were known to be demonstrative; that such language was used to highlight their feelings shows just how important such sub-summit relationships were in winning the war. A point proven by both these valuable books.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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