BOOK REVIEW: ‘Roosevelt’s Centurions’

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By Joseph Persico
Random House, $35, 650 pages

By Paul Kennedy
Random House, $30, 418 pages

By Burton W. Folsom Jr. and Anita Folsom
Threshold, $16, 370 pages

By Rafael Medoff
Wyman Institute, $15, 317 pages

No other figure in American history has been subjected to such intense yet incomplete scrutiny as Franklin Delano Roosevelt; certainly none of the Founding Fathers, not even Abraham Lincoln. The closest anyone has come to an all-encompassing complete portrait was Kenneth S. Davis, who won prizes 50 years go for his five-volume biography that covered FDR’s life only up until 1943.

Having spent some time wandering the dark and twisting corridors of the mythic Roosevelt in search of another story, I can testify how difficult it is to get a clear grasp of this man who was a consummate politician, an episodic sociopath, occasional visionary, compassionate reformer, regular callous manipulator and full-time serial philanderer.

For that reason, the four books before us are worth mentioning because each takes a slice of the FDR myth that provides informative glimpses of this elusive but undeniably monumental figure; two of which are authoritative analyses, the other two tainted by kind of political biases usually confined to cable television. In sum, however, all four are worth a look.

By far the best of the four comes from Joseph Persico, who has written extensively and with insight about both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as with authority about both World Wars. In “Roosevelt’s Centurions,” he brings focus to how Roosevelt both led and was influenced by such top brass as Army chief Gen. George C. Marshall, Navy commander Adm. Ernest C. King and Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who had to create a strategically potent air force out of next to nothing.

While Roosevelt never meddled so relentlessly in tactical decisions as did Winston Churchill, he did keep a keen eye on subordinates like Gens. Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Joseph Stillwell and George S. Patton. And he never hesitated to impose his strategic (and political) sense and overrule his top military advisers, as in the case where he authorized MacArthur’s plan to liberate the Philippines over the loud objections of King and other Navy planners.

But Mr. Persico makes a persuasive case that FDR was clearly in charge of the most important decisions of the American war plan. Chief, of course, is his willingness in 1938 to pivot from a focus on the Great Depression to an all-out commitment to rebuild our Portuguese-sized Army into a global two-theater armed force. He also pushed (against Marshall’s objections) an early U.S.-British invasion in North Africa. Then, not least, he ordered the secret crash program to develop the atomic bomb.

British historian and Yale scholar Paul Kennedy has written what might be called a necessary supplement to Mr. Persico’s portraits of FDR and his commanders. In “Engineers of Victory,” Mr. Kennedy tells us not about famous men but about how the technological innovations of the war effort contributed to Allied successes on so many fronts of that global conflict.

His first chapter provides a sample of the interesting new research he has uncovered for this book. Standard histories state that American and British naval efforts to sail by convoy critically vital war materiel to embattled Britain turned the tide against Hitler’s U-boat wolf packs in the North Atlantic when code breakers at Bletchley Park in England were able to break the Nazi Enigma cyphers. While not gainsaying Bletchley’s contribution, Mr. Kennedy reveals that the development of a tiny, 10-centimeter, saucer-shaped radar dish that could be mounted on both convoy escorts and submarine-hunting aircraft played a greater role in breaking the U-boat embargo.

In other chapters, he brings home to us how such innovative efforts created amphibious landing craft to put massive forces on an enemy shore, how the Seabees’ instant creation of airfields on captured Pacific islands allowed the Allies the luxury of bypassing Japanese strong points, and how the North Africa campaign was used as a proving ground of a number of key innovations adapted to stop the Nazi blitzkrieg-style of warfare.

The two remaining books are worth reading for the workmanlike job they do providing factual summations of FDR’s efforts to ramp up American war preparedness and his moral (and political) dilemma in how to respond to Hitler’s steady increase in the persecution of European Jews that led to the exterminations of the Holocaust.

Both are fatally flawed because they fail the simple test of historical interpretation by not asking what Roosevelt could have done otherwise, given the realities of the times. Instead, they say what he should have done, based on today’s perspective.

In “FDR Goes to War,” the authors recount how the president expanded his executive mandate, how he bypassed congressional budget authority, ballooning the national debt, and how he was particularly ruthless in denying civil liberties to sources of dissent and possible opposition to his policies. They overreach, though, by asserting that the whole war effort was merely a Rooseveltian scheme to enlarge New Deal economic reforms into an unashamed socialist agenda.

In “FDR and the Holocaust,” the president is rightly charged with overruling many of his domestic policy advisers who wanted to open the United States as a refuge to Jewish emigres throughout the 1930s. Unmentioned in this indictment of betrayal is the ambivalence of some of Roosevelt’s closest friends who were Jews — columnist Walter Lippmann, for one — about opening our borders to any significant refugee flow. Of course, given the prevailing public mood, it is worth asking the question: If Roosevelt acted with 21st-century morality in the 1930s, would he likely have achieved a third term in office?

Just ask Charles Lindbergh.

James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint, 2012).

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