Nigel Hamilton, Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill , 1943, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 480 pages, $30.00. ISBN 978-0544279117
“I am everlastingly angry only at those who assert vociferously that the four freedoms and the Atlantic Charter are nonsense because they are unattainable. If these people had lived a century and a half ago they would have sneered and said that the Declaration of Independence was utter piffle.”
This 1943 statement by President Franklin Roosevelt is a stellar example of visionary rhetoric and is one of many examples of FDR’s drive to use the Four Freedoms (Freedom of Speech and Worship; Freedom from Want and Fear) as his compass to lead the war effort. In his latest book on Roosevelt during the Second World War, Nigel Hamilton continues his quest to give FDR his “day in literary court.”
This engaging read is Hamilton’s second volume (Mantle of Command being the first and reviewed in FH 168) investigating Roosevelt’s continued maturation into the role of commander in chief. Hamilton’s narrative goes beyond Roosevelt’s challenges commanding the US war effort. This account captures the myriad trials associated with galvanizing world leaders toward a vision of the post-war world. FDR used notions that, although they may have been novel at the time, have now been accepted as foundational for organizations such as the United Nations and NATO. Thus, this latest account engagingly describes a seminal moment in world history created by a dynamic leader, which changed the world permanently.
Back in August 1941, and the signature of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt hadn’t been ready or able to enter the war. But the situation changed dramatically on 7 December 1941.
Churchill was at Chequers (the Prime Minister’s official country residence) with the American Ambassador and Averell Harriman when news of the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor came on the radio. Churchill immediately called the President to confirm the news and then on 8 December, Britain declared war on Japan.
The partial involvement of the US and the Pearl Harbor attack led Hitler to declare war on the US three days later. Did Churchill (and Roosevelt) know of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Find out.
For Churchill, dining was about more than good food, fine French champagne and a robust Havana cigar. He used dining as an art to both to display his conversational talents and to engage in political debate. During the WWII, he presided over dinners at key conferences, using them to exert his considerable conversational skills to attempt to persuade his allies, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, to fight the war according to his strategic vision. Churchill used dining and the dinner table to do what could not always be done at the conference table.
Throughout his life, he relished his food and ate out often, spending considerable amounts of money on fine meals at hotels and restaurants. He liked traditional English dishes like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as well as French haute cuisine. He enjoyed shellfish more than fish – he particularly enjoyed raw oysters – and Stilton cheese more than sweet desserts (‘pudding’), but he could easily be persuaded to have both when the opportunity arose! He insisted that ‘puddings’ be expressive. His family heard him announce on more than one occasion, ‘Take away this pudding – It has no theme!’
[My ideal of a good dinner] is to discuss good food, and, after this good food has been discussed, to discuss a good topic – with myself the chief conversationalist.
Churchill, 1925, “Ephesian” [Roberts C. Bechhofer] in Winston Churchill (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
Their first meeting was not promising. In the summer of 1918, fifteen months after the United States had entered the First World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American Assistant Secretary of the Navy, crossed the Atlantic to undertake an inspection tour of US naval bases and Marine combat in Europe. His first stop was London. On the evening of 29 July, he was one of the guests at a formal dinner in honor of the British war ministers. It was there that he had his first personal encounter with Winston Churchill.
Exactly what transpired is unclear. One has an impression of two big egos competing for attention. Churchill quickly forgot the event. Roosevelt nursed his annoyance. Twenty-one years later, he told Joseph P. Kennedy that Churchill had “acted like a stinker” toward him.1
Their contacts over those years were few and perfunctory. Most notably, Churchill gave President Roosevelt a copy of his multi-volume biography of the first Duke of Marlborough. Roosevelt thanked him and seems never to have gotten around to reading it. Surely, however, the president sympathized with Churchill’s opposition to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. In September 1939, a few days after the Second World War broke out in Europe, Roosevelt sent messages to Chamberlain and Churchill, who was back in the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, inviting them to stay in touch with him on matters of mutual concern. Chamberlain did not respond. Churchill, who asked for and received permission from the Cabinet, did. Neither man could have imagined that an initial brief exchange was the first of nearly 2,000 communications that would pass between them over the next five and a half years. Nor could they have foreseen the way in which an alliance of necessity would develop into a fruitful but ambiguous personal relationship.2 Read More >
Alonzo Hamby, Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century, Basic Books, 2015, 512 pages, $35.00.
As with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt is a historical figure about whom there is no end of biographies regularly produced. Alonzo Hamby is the latest contributor to this genre, and he brings to it a long career as a scholar of Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, as well as his previous work as the author of an examination of the New Deal within the comparative context of the response to the Great Depression by the other nations of the West. The perspective Hamby brings is reflected in his main thesis about Roosevelt, whom Hamby sees as the man whose efforts in saving liberal democracy during the Second World War brought about the “American century” and the world in which we still live today.
Hamby divides his study of Roosevelt into three parts, consisting of his life before the presidency, the years of his administration devoted to the domestic policies of the New Deal, and his handling of the international crises of the 1930s and the wars that followed. The division represents the trade-off Hamby faced in compressing such a detailed life into 436 pages of text, with the book’s focus on Roosevelt’s twelve years as president coming at the cost of a detailed examination of the fifty years of his life that preceded them. The other major choice Hamby makes is to focus on Roosevelt’s public career, reducing his private life to the background for most of the book. This is understandable given Hamby’s view of Roosevelt’s relationships with most people as defined by political utility rather than true friendship, but it marginalizes the presence in the book of his wife Eleanor to a far greater degree than it should be, given the outsized role she played in his career.
When he reaches the second section of his book Hamby slows his pace and expands his focus, providing a broad account of the development and implementation of the New Deal. While recognizing Roosevelt’s considerable efforts to ease the toll the Depression had taken upon millions of Americans, Hamby is critical of the New Deal overall, viewing it in the end as a barrier to economic recovery both domestically and in the larger global economy as well. Yet the American voters credited his efforts rather than their results, delivering a resounding endorsement of his policies by reelecting him to a second term in 1936. Roosevelt followed this triumph, though, with a series of ill-judged missteps that solidified the conservative opposition to his policies in Congress, and Hamby argues that it was the deteriorating international situation that provided him with a second chance to define his historical reputation.
The prospects for success were not promising. Roosevelt faced the militaristically aggressive regimes in Europe and Asia as the leader of a nation that was strongly isolationist in its sentiments. Despite this, Roosevelt moved towards opposition to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, a move that took on added import with the outbreak of war in September 1939. Here Hamby focuses more upon Roosevelt once again, recounting his many personal efforts to prepare the nation for the prospect for war and provide support for the nations fighting Germany and Japan. Among the measures that Hamby describes is the personal relationship that he began building with Churchill, starting with Roosevelt’s personal note to Churchill soon after his return to the Admiralty. Hamby stresses the similarities between the two men, namely their charismatic leadership, inspirational rhetoric, and determination in confronting the Axis powers. The difference he notes was in terms of their ideologies, with Churchill’s belief in imperialism distinguishing him from Roosevelt’s unalloyed belief in liberal democracy.
The disagreement between the two men on this matter, however, was minor compared to their shared goal of defeating the Third Reich. Hamby credits Roosevelt with making bold gestures given the context of American public opinion, providing aid to Britain within the limits of what was politically possible. With the formal entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, the informal partnership became a formal alliance, one that would survive policy disagreements and Roosevelt’s occasional twitting of the prime minister. Roosevelt hoped to develop a similar personal connection with Joseph Stalin as well, but Hamby is far more critical of the President’s efforts here, seeing him as more accepting of the Soviet leader’s ambitions than Truman would be.
Overall Hamby’s book provides a capable survey of Roosevelt’s public life and political achievements. While there is little that is new within its pages (and an unfortunate perpetuation of the stale misconception about Churchill’s level of alcohol consumption), his command of his material is assured and his judgments clear. Readers seeking an introductory overview of Roosevelt’s career will find this biography fits the bill most satisfactorily, though those who desire a deeper understanding of such subjects as the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship should plan on supplementing it with more specialized works.
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College in Arizona.
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