Finest Hour 168, Spring 2015
Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 to 1942. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. $30.00/$24.00
Review by Richard A. McConnell
“The American unknown soldier who lies here did not give his life in the fields of France merely to defend his American home for the moment that was passing. He gave it that his family, his neighbors, and all his fellow Americans might live in peace in the days to come. His hope was not fulfilled.”
These remarks, taken from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier shortly after the US invasion of North Africa in 1942, give insight into the kind of leader who piloted the United States through the Second World War.
Having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the First World War, FDR was determined to learn from and avoid repeating the mistakes of that conflict. Nigel Hamilton provides an engaging description of how the President masterfully established relationships, built coalitions, and established the conditions for an enduring peace, all while grappling with what it means to be the Commander-in-Chief.
Hamilton describes the unique challenges FDR faced as he struggled to lead a democracy through world war. Drawing from speeches, official documents, and personal journals, Hamilton shows the reader not only what was provided for public consumption at the time, but also what key individuals were internalizing about unfolding events and relationships as they occurred.
No author, though, can write a book about FDR during World War II without detailing the President’s relationship with Winston Churchill. To say that their association was complex is an understatement. These two leaders were very different in their approaches to war. However, they were able to collaborate successfully and navigate their nations as well as the rest of the world through the struggle. Hamilton provides rich descriptions of this complex, sometimes tumultuous, nonetheless enduring comradeship. Interestingly, the partnership might have gone wrong from the start.
The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship faced serious challenges while drafting the Atlantic Charter in 1941. FDR was determined to set a cohesive azimuth for the wartime effort if America was to be involved. The resulting document was a masterpiece of international relations, military strategy, and democratic principles.
Because of FDR, if America entered the war it would do so setting the conditions for self-determination for all nations. Many of the Charter’s principles clearly bear the President’s fingerprints and resemble his famous Four Freedoms Speech. Hamilton describes how FDR managed to get these vital principles included, often over the objections of Churchill, who wished to maintain the colonial might of the British Empire. FDR set the stage for American involvement in World War II using a combination of diplomacy, charm, and political prowess.
The Mantle of Command is a compelling read describing one of the most gifted American leaders of the last century and how he addressed the myriad challenges of his time. Hamilton’s account of how FDR led the United States through the initial stages of World War II provides important lessons for leaders today. FDR understood that before inaugurating war, American presidents should be mindful of the desired outcome and remember that as the Commander-in-Chief they are responsible to the nation for that result.
President Roosevelt masterfully displayed that unique brand of leadership known as command. This book illustrates how civilian leaders in democracies must assume the mantle of command and lead their nations to outcomes commensurate with the values for which they stand.
Lt. Col. Richard A. McConnell (USA Ret.) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Army Tactics at the US Army Command and General Staff College.