- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005


By David Bercuson and Holger Herwig

Overlook, $29.95, 310 pages


Stories about troubled Christmases are an almost surefire draw, the combination of melancholy with a sentimental, emotional occasion being irresistible to many readers and viewers. This would seem to be as true in the political as in the domestic sphere, if David Bercuson’s and Holger Herwig’s “One Christmas in Washington” is any indication.

The authors, faculty members of the University of Calgary who previously published the critically well-received “The Destruction of the Bismarck,” note that “Christmas 1941 was not a happy time,” particularly for Washington, D.C. The Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor and were running rampant throughout the Pacific, and Germany had conquered much of Europe and was on Britain’s doorstep. On top of it all, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to come visit. He and President Franklin Roosevelt had met in Newfoundland the previous August, before U.S. entry into the war.

Roosevelt did not want another meeting so soon after Pearl Harbor. American officials thought, with some justification, that Churchill only wanted to get a jump on meddling in U.S. war planning. The authors, however, in one of several judgments in the book, hail Churchill for forcing the quick meeting, because it enabled better integration of U.S. and British war efforts than would have been possible once American plans had solidified.

The events of the Washington War Conference of December 1941-January 1942, codenamed Arcadia, have been recounted separately in other histories. “One Christmas in Washington” pulls them together in a neat package that explains the conference’s significance while putting it in both its domestic and global settings.

Judging by the endnotes, it appears to rest equally on secondary and primary resources. It is tolerably rather than gracefully written, and suffers from an unnecessary amount of repetition. Still, Mr. Bercuson and Mr. Herwig give us a good sense of the time and place, even if “provincial Southern town” does misstate it a bit as a description of Washington, the 15,000 outdoor privies within its confines at the time notwithstanding. Touches of mundane life make the book an agreeable read for general audiences.

Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, disliked Churchill thoroughly, considering him to be a bad influence on her husband personally and politically. She especially loathed Churchill’s imperialistic stance and his liking for and romanticizing of war. It did not help that during his 14 days under the White House roof he made quixotic demands (90-year-old brandy before bedtime, for one) and turned the place upside down while turning it into the temporary staff headquarters of the British Empire.

The heart of the book is the conference and the people attending. The backgrounds of president and prime minister — two proud, accomplished men with differing outlooks, each accustomed to being center stage — are gone into considerably in order to put things into context. FDR, “the sly squire of Hyde Park,” the authors say, “remains an enigma.” Self-admittedly devious and secretive, he allowed no American minutes or other records of conversations, save for the final dinner meeting. Churchill they depict as stubbornly resistant to change, dedicated to making preservation of the British Empire one of the war aims — a standpoint the Americans could not accept — and, like Abraham Lincoln (whom he admired), with a strong belief in the moral rightness of his cause.

However, the man of the hour, according to the authors, was Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff. Responsible to both president and Congress, he also fell between the two stools of wanting to help Britain and needing to defend his own country. Even at the time, Churchill’s doctor, Sir Charles Wilson, presciently saw that Marshall was the key to advancing American ideas — in the face of the barrage of British demands — and in communicating them to FDR and Churchill.

They achieved a surprising lot amid the personal and national wrangling and suspicion: a statement of Allied war aims, the rough draft of war plan, broad strategy on committing U.S. troops and aircraft, a system of joint theater command and, most notably, the agreement on a Combined Chiefs of Staff organization that would pull the levers to make things go. In the end it came down to, as Robert Sherwood, a playwright serving as the president’s speechwriter, said, “Roosevelt was the Boss and Washington the headquarters of the joint war effort.”

All in all it was, indeed, a troubled Christmas, but fortunately, for the advancement of peace on earth, goodwill toward men, it was also one at which nearly everyone at this vital conference got at least something of what they wanted.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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