- - Tuesday, September 6, 2016


By Joseph Lelyveld

Alfred A. Knopf , $30, 416 pages

Readers are right to flinch whenever a book under review is called, “magisterial.”

Yet there is a certain majesty in the way author Joseph Lelyveld combines his long-honed reporting experience with a historian’s eye firmly fixed on this important story. In this case it is an exploration of the labyrinthine mind of Franklin D. Roosevelt as he enters the decline leading to his death on April 12, 1945 at his hideaway in Warm Springs, Ga.

Mr. Lelyveld‘s story is important on several counts. With an impressive array of new archival evidence he challenges the long-lived slander that FDR gave away Eastern Europe to the tyrant Josef Stalin either because (as many old Cold Warriors swear) Roosevelt was a Communist dupe or, more plausibly, because he was unaware of his deteriorating health and could not focus on the critical Big Three negotiations that he, Winston Churchill and Stalin waged at Tehran in December 1943 and again in Yalta in February 1945.

Roosevelt apologists have contributed to the “FDR-caused-the-Cold-War” myth by accusing his medical team, headed by Adm. Ross McIntire, of shielding him from the grim prognosis about his progressive cardiac deterioration. Thus, it is alleged, an unaware FDR was lured into seeing a fourth term in office when he should have retired in favor of a more able successor to oversee both the final victories of World War II and the planning of a new postwar world peace.

Who such a plausible successor might have been is a moot point. Mr. Lelyveld marshals impressive evidence that Roosevelt was very aware of his frailty but deliberately kept it a secret from nearly everyone, including his wife Eleanor. In short, he played for time while he concentrated on a long-game strategy to set into being a postwar structure of alliances that would perpetuate global peace and stability that would last long after he had retired to the library he was having built at his beloved Hyde Park.

It is obvious now that FDR’s long game was shot full of flawed assumptions. But early in the narrative Mr. Lelyveld reminds us that readers of history have the advantage of knowing how events turn out which the actors themselves cannot foresee.

It is increasingly evident from archival disclosures that Mr. Lelyveld and other writers have unearthed that Roosevelt was determined to build a postwar alliance of the major powers that would enforce diplomatic solutions to conflicts that first could be brokered out in an international forum — one which became the United Nations.

This was a dream that was shared by his protege and emotional godson, the diplomat Sumner Wells. Secret planning on the broad outlines were set in motion as early as 1939 with Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the U.S. Congress kept strictly in the dark until well toward the war’s end. In part, as Mr. Lelyveld demonstrates, FDR wanted to redeem his idol Woodrow Wilson and his failed efforts to build such a structure within a League of Nations that America could influence from afar.

FDR’s assumption was that he alone could build that alliance of global policemen out of the imminently victorious major anti-Fascist powers — the United States first among equals, but including by necessity the Soviet Union, by affinity the United Kingdom, and by default the Chinese regime of Chiang Kai-shek. France was relegated to the children’s table of nations for its capitulation.

Despite Churchill’s misgivings, Stalin clearly was the linchpin in Roosevelt’s architecture. The Russians had endured horrendous losses but had made an Allied victory over Hitler not only possible but inevitable. Part of the overweening self-assurance that was in the Roosevelt genetic code convinced him he alone could convert the devious Josef Stalin to his cause.

But FDR needed time which he did not have. And in his haste, this book makes clear, he made mistakes, chiefly by playing it too close to his vest and isolating aides who could have helped. The most glaring of these errors was his selection of Harry Truman as vice president in 1944 and then keeping him completely ignorant of his objectives.

This book is chock full of illuminating revelations and the baffling inner character of FDR is made quite a bit more understandable. There is plenty of tantalizing gossip as well. The estranged partnership with Eleanor is painfully documented. His sad addiction to the emotional idolatry of other women also is underscored, and there is new evidence that his World War I romance with Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer, continued until his death. Indeed, she appears to have presided over White House dinners in Eleanor’s absence.

If you are faintly nauseated by the current state of American politics, turn off the cable channel that appeals to your prejudices, and let Mr. Lelyveld take you to a vastly more enlightening time when the main characters had plenty of flaws but also vastly compensating bravery and vision. It will give you faith to carry on through the disasters on our horizon.

James Srodes’ most recent book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Made Our World” (Counterpoint).

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