February 27, 2015

Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14

Page 44

By June Hopkins

Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World, by Michael Fullilove. Penguin, 466 pp., $29.95. Member price $23.96.

Australian Michael Fullilove offers an extremely readable and illuminating history of the crucial months leading up to America’s entry in World War II. From September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, America remained staunchly isolationist. The Neutrality Acts largely prevented President Roosevelt from aiding Great Britain and France, despite his sympathy for those besieged nations. Nevertheless, he did engage the U.S. in actions “short of war” to contribute to the British war effort.

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With meticulous research and graceful prose, Fullilove explains how Roosevelt bypassed Congress and the State Department and directed foreign policy through five personal envoys: Undersecretary of State Sumner Wells; Colonel William J. Donovan; Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie; businessman Averell Harriman; and presidential aide and confidante Harry Hopkins. Their role was to gather information and open lines of communication with Prime Minister Churchill and, after June of 1941, Marshal Stalin. Thus the President furthered his foreign policy agenda while avoiding official channels. To Fullilove this was FDR’s style of governance: aversion to bureaucracy, and political practicality.

Fullilove’s five men do make his point about Roosevelt’s creative and flexible style. Wells, “a casting director’s dream of a diplomat” (21), was the President’s good friend, who traveled to Rome, Berlin, Paris, and London in February 1940 as FDR’s envoy to the heads of state. The president assured the public that this was an unofficial, “fact-finding trip.” Fullilove speculates that it failed on an international level—there were no peace negotiations—but news coverage might have piqued America’s interest in the war in Europe.

When Churchill became prime minister and called for American aid to help Britain hold off the Germans, Roosevelt turned to William J. Donovan, relatively unknown at the time, who later became “America’s wartime spymaster” (66). After meeting with the cabinet, Donovan arrived in Britain just in time for the fall of France. Given full courtesies by the British, he told the President that with U.S. help, Britain could survive.

Fullilove devotes two chapters to the missions of Harry Hopkins, whom he regards as the most significant of Roosevelt’s envoys. Hopkins’ missions to London and Moscow in 1941 established the foundation for the wartime alliance. Describing Hopkins as a “marriage broker,” Fullilove suggests that Hopkins set the stage for the “special relationship” between Churchill and Roosevelt. After Germany invaded the USSR, Hopkins flew to Moscow to meet Stalin and answer the same question: could the Red Army hold out? Hopkins concluded it could and promised Stalin Lend-Lease assistance. Mutual need held the three Allied powers together.

Republican Wendell Wilkie’s trip to Britain overlapped with Hopkins’ first visit in early 1941. Wilkie, however, insisted that he was not the president’s envoy, but merely wanted to see conditions for himself. He too supported American assistance and although this was not an official mission, its effects reverberated in the United States and in Great Britain.

In mid-1941, Roosevelt sent wealthy businessman Averell Harriman as his personal envoy to London in order to expedite Lend-Lease shipments. Fullilove describes Harriman as an expert facilitator and problem solver whose effectiveness improved Britain’s ability to fight the Germans. Although critics accused Harriman of encouraging U.S. involvement in the war, his mandate from the President was so vague that he felt few limitations on his interactions with the British.

Fullilove’s use of these five individuals and their missions explains how America broke out of isolationism in those crucial months. Whether or not these five actually drew the U.S. into the war is debatable. Much of the history is necessarily left out. But this study, however narrow in scope, broadens our understanding of presidential politics and of America’s entry into the Grand Alliance.

Ms. Hopkins, the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, wrote “Churchill and Hopkins” in Finest Hour 160.

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