Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II

Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II

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by Joseph E. Persico

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All American presidents are commanders in chief by law. Few perform as such in practice. In Roosevelt’s Centurions, distinguished historian Joseph E. Persico reveals how, during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt seized the levers of wartime power like no president since Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Declaring himself “Dr.


All American presidents are commanders in chief by law. Few perform as such in practice. In Roosevelt’s Centurions, distinguished historian Joseph E. Persico reveals how, during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt seized the levers of wartime power like no president since Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Declaring himself “Dr. Win-the-War,” FDR assumed the role of strategist in chief, and, though surrounded by star-studded generals and admirals, he made clear who was running the war. FDR was a hands-on war leader, involving himself in everything from choosing bomber targets to planning naval convoys to the design of landing craft. Persico explores whether his strategic decisions, including his insistence on the Axis powers’ unconditional surrender, helped end or may have prolonged the war.
Taking us inside the Allied war councils, the author reveals how the president brokered strategy with contentious allies, particularly the iron-willed Winston Churchill; rallied morale on the home front; and handpicked a team of proud, sometimes prickly warriors who, he believed, could fight a global war. Persico’s history offers indelible portraits of the outsize figures who roused the “sleeping giant” that defeated the Axis war machine: the dutiful yet independent-minded George C. Marshall, charged with rebuilding an army whose troops trained with broomsticks for rifles, eggs for hand grenades; Dwight Eisenhower, an unassuming Kansan elevated from obscurity to command of the greatest fighting force ever assembled; the vainglorious Douglas MacArthur; and the bizarre battlefield genius George S. Patton. Here too are less widely celebrated military leaders whose contributions were just as critical: the irascible, dictatorial navy chief, Ernest King; the acerbic army advisor in China, “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell; and Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who zealously preached the gospel of modern air power. The Roosevelt who emerges from these pages is a wartime chess master guiding America’s armed forces to a victory that was anything but foreordained.
What are the qualities we look for in a commander in chief? In an era of renewed conflict, when Americans are again confronting the questions that FDR faced—about the nature and exercise of global power—Roosevelt’s Centurions is a timely and revealing examination of what it takes to be a wartime leader in a freewheeling, complicated, and tumultuous democracy.

Praise for Roosevelt’s Centurions
“FDR’s centurions were my heroes and guides. Now Joe Persico has written the best account of those leaders I've ever read.”—Colin L. Powell
“Benefiting from his years of studying Franklin Roosevelt and his times, Joseph Persico has brought us a briskly paced story with much wisdom and new insights on FDR, his military liege men, World War II, and political and military leadership.”—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789–1989
“Long wars demand long books, but these are 550 pages of lively prose by a good writer who knows his subject. . . . A fine, straightforward politics-and-great-men history.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Persico makes a persuasive case that FDR was clearly in charge of the most important decisions of the American war plan.”—The Washington Times

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
No one can deny that F.D.R. was central to the Allied victory in WWII, but in his latest work, Persico (Roosevelt's Secret War) seeks to categorize how wise Roosevelt's choices were during the war. Persico wonders if Roosevelt's choices "hastened victory" or whether they "delayed the end with unnecessary death and destruction." He examines Roosevelt's susceptibility to Churchill's persistent charm offensive, and how it led to American troops landing in North Africa despite George Marshall's protests. Persico also notes that Roosevelt made the call for MacArthur to leave the Philippines, despite MacArthur's plan to stay on until the bitter end, after agreeing with MacArthur—in 1944 at the Honolulu conference—that the Philippines must be retaken instead of island-hopping straight to Japan. The author does reveal surprising moments of Roosevelt's presidency, such as when he was visiting a hospital and revealed his disabled body to a ward filled with amputees, but even with his analysis Persico struggles to cover any new ground. This is a thorough account of the war, but since it fails to add to the discussion, we are left with the same portrait of Roosevelt we had before: a very capable leader in a trying time. (June)
From the Publisher

“When I was a boy growing up in the South Bronx, my heroes were Roosevelt’s centurions. As a soldier for thirty-five years, I made them my mentors and models. These men were heroes. They were fallible and occasionally vain, but we were certainly blessed to have such Americans leading the Greatest Generation during the world’s greatest conflict. Of course, the greatest centurion of them all was FDR himself, who knew how to lead his commanders, stroke their egos, and get the best from them, yet never left any doubt as to who was commander in chief. Joe Persico, my valued collaborator on my memoirs, has brought his formidable talents to bear to bring the centurions to life. He is at the top of his game in this defining classic.”—Colin L. Powell, General, U.S. Army (Retired)
“Benefiting from his years of studying Franklin Roosevelt and his times, Joseph Persico has brought us a briskly paced story with much wisdom and new insights on FDR, his military liege men, World War II, and political and military leadership.”—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789–1989
“Long wars demand long books, but these are 550 pages of lively prose by a good writer who knows his subject. . . . A fine, straightforward politics-and-great-men history.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Persico makes a persuasive case that FDR was clearly in charge of the most important decisions of the American war plan.”—The Washington Times

“Joseph E. Persico has done it again! Roosevelt’s Centurions is a riveting, analytic recounting of FDR as top World War II strategist. Nobody before has written on Roosevelt as talent scout with the brilliant insight of Persico. I found Persico’s elucidation of the FDR—George Marshall relationship marvelous. A grand book for the ages!”—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite
“With rigorous research, a fine eye for detail, and an entertaining ability to recount history, Joe Perisco deftly portrays the men behind the man, in addition to skillfully presenting the star himself, FDR, as recruiter in chief. A must-read for Americans concerned about war leadership then and now.”—Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World
“To a remarkable degree, we inhabit a world originated by Franklin D. Roosevelt—on World War II battlefields; in the gilded halls of diplomacy; above all, inside FDR's fertile, inscrutable imagination. Joe Persico brings all this to life with stunning originality, insight, and narrative drive. Familiar names—Marshall, Patton, Eisenhower, Churchill—are here rescued from caricature. So are the strategic and political decisions that inform today’s debate over civil liberties in wartime. The last word on Roosevelt’s war, it’s safe to say, will never be written. But it’s hard to imagine anyone writing any better words than these.”—Richard Norton Smith, author of The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick 1880–1955
“[Persico] is a polished storyteller and offers new insight into the tumultuous years of Roosevelt’s last two terms.”—The Denver Post

From the Hardcover edition.

Kirkus Reviews
Whatever his flaws, Franklin Roosevelt had an eye for talent, according to this sweeping, top-down account of 1939–45 from the point of view of FDR, his cabinet and his leading generals and admirals. Opening with Gen. George C. Marshall's dramatic July 1941 confrontation with Congress over extending the draft (which passed), veteran popular historian Persico (Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life, 2008, etc.) follows with a short biography of Marshall before backtracking to 1939 to begin his story. Pausing occasionally to introduce another great man (always a man), the author describes how, under FDR's benign but never inattentive authority, they directed the war from the frustrations of neutrality, the outrage and scramble to arm after Pearl Harbor and the massive if often clumsily fought campaigns. It ended with a complete but ultimately unsatisfying victory. Long wars demand long books, but these are 550 pages of lively prose by a good writer who knows his subject. It may not be the best introduction, but history buffs will find familiar material and no unsettling opinions. Persico peoples his conventional history with admirable leaders possessing well-known and forgivable flaws (MacArthur: brilliant but egotistical; FDR: brilliant but devious; Admiral King: brilliant but bad-tempered). He recounts accepted blunders (the Italian campaign was a bad idea; FDR should have paid more attention to the Holocaust) but remains neutral on persistent controversies--should we have dropped the atom bomb? Did the strategic bombing of Germany shorten the war?--merely recording opinions on both sides. A fine, straightforward politics-and-great-men history.

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The Day We Almost Lost the Army

When he entered a room one sensed, no matter what he wore, that here was a soldier. On July 9, 1941, General George Catlett Marshall, Army chief of staff, appeared before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs wearing a gray civilian suit, tall, shoulders squared but not conspicuously, chin receding slightly, thin lips compressed in a line of firm resolution, a figure exuding dignity and authority. Marshall was embarked on a mission that he regarded as vital as any in his thirty-nine years in uniform, to save the still anemic United States Army from emasculation. Unless the committee could be persuaded to report favorably on a bill to extend the draft, the nation's first peacetime draftees would soon complete their required one year of service and head home. Because President Franklin Roosevelt desperately wanted the draft extended, he had sent the less politically divisive Marshall to Capitol Hill to serve as point man before the committee. Marshall began his testimony. "If the term of service of the National Guard and the selectees is not extended," he warned, "under existing limitations of the law, almost two-thirds of our enlisted men and three-fourths of our officer personnel will have to be released after completing 12 months of service." He mounted a strong finish, citing the disaster of an expired draft on a vital garrison, "the great naval base of Pearl Harbor."

Debate over the initial draft law the year before had been stormy. Upstate New York Republican congressman James Wadsworth introduced the legislation on June 20, 1940, two days before France gave up the fight against Nazi Germany. His championing of military service had a long pedigree. His great-grandfather, William Wadsworth, had been a major general in the War of 1812. His grandfather, also James and a Civil War general, was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness. Wadsworth himself had served in the Spanish-American War. Wads-worth's measure, HR 10132, bore the ringing title "A Bill to Protect the Integrity and Institutions of the United States Through a System of Selective Compulsory Military Training and Service." The bill called for a single year of Army service for men aged twenty-one through thirty-six. It sought to strengthen readiness, while keeping America out of the war raging in Europe by barring draftees from serving outside the United States, except in America's overseas possessions.

In the America of 1940, public interest in a far-off conflict remained low. Moviegoers were flocking to the season's hits, Walt Disney's Fantasia, W. C. Fields and Mae West in My Little Chickadee, and Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. Young Americans danced to the beat of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman and girls swooned to a new rage, Frank Sinatra, crooning "I'll Never Smile Again." Sports fans flocked to watch their heroes of the diamond, the gridiron, the court, and the ring, Joe DiMaggio, Sammy Baugh, Don Budge, and Joe Louis. Initially, public opinion over the draft split down the middle according to a Gallup poll taken less than a month before the bill's introduction. But as Europe's dominoes began to fall before the Nazi onslaught--Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and, most shockingly, the swift collapse of France--American public opinion began to shift. By August, some six weeks after HR 10132's introduction, the latest Gallup poll showed 71 percent of Americans favoring a peacetime draft.

Still, opponents were vigorous and organized. Senator Claude Pepper of Florida spoke in favor of the bill and found himself hanged in effigy outside the Capitol by the Congress of American Mothers. "Pauline Revere," in colonial garb, rode a white horse up the Capitol steps and carried a sign that read, "Mobilize for Peace and Defeat Conscription." The isolationist America First Committee boasted among its members former President Theodore Roosevelt's outspoken daughter, Alice Longworth, aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, and Hollywood star Lillian Gish. America Firsters argued that should beleaguered Britain fall, the wisest course for America was to find an accommodation with Germany rather than embroil the country in another European war.

Tempers frayed as the debate in Congress dragged on. Martin Sweeney, an isolationist Ohio Democrat, denounced the bill as a Roosevelt ruse to drag America into the conflict. Beverly Vincent, a representative from Kentucky, called Sweeney a traitor and "a son-of-a-bitch." Sweeney took a swing at Vincent, who counterpunched with a hard right to Sweeney's head. The House doorkeeper described the fracas as the best fistfight he had witnessed in his fifty years in his post.

On September 14, after being amended thirty-three times, the draft bill carried handily by 47 to 25 votes in the Senate and by 232 to 124 in the House. Two days later, the president signed the first peacetime draft.

Registrants for the draft far exceeded the Army's needs and a national lottery was to be held to determine who would go first. The date for the lottery posed a dilemma for FDR. He was facing his precedent-shattering run for a third term and his Republican opponent, the rumpled, affable, astute Wall Street lawyer Wendell Willkie, had found his campaign issue: FDR, Willkie charged, was a warmonger. Roosevelt's political advisors pleaded with him to wait until the election was over before staging the lottery. FDR, so often accused of political sleight-of-hand, said no. He scheduled the lottery for October 29, one week before the election.

At noon, the paraplegic president, held upright by his leg braces, stood before a ten-gallon fishbowl filled with 8,500 numbers stuffed into cellulose capsules. What followed suggested the rites of a mystical fraternal society. The fishbowl containing the capsules was the one used for the World War I draft lottery. An aide blindfolded Secretary of War Henry Stimson with a strip of yellow linen from a chair used at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Another aide stirred the capsules with a ladle carved from one of the rafters in Independence Hall. The old-fashioned Stimson, his silver hair parted in the middle, mustache bristling, exuding respectability, reached into the bowl, drew out a capsule, and handed it to the president, who read the number aloud, "One-fifty-eight!" A woman's cry broke from the audience. Mrs. Mildred Bell's twenty-one-year-old son held that number.

On the day after the lottery, Roosevelt, fearing that Willkie's "warmonger" label might stick, used a campaign speech at the Boston Garden to promise, "While I am talking to you fathers and mothers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." To Sam Rosenman, FDR's close confidant, and the playwright-speechwriter Robert Sherwood, he had commented earlier, "If someone attacks us, it isn't a foreign war, is it?" FDR's son James confronted his father about the "dishonesty of his war stand." FDR explained, "If I don't say I hate war, then people are going to think I don't hate war. If I say we're going to get into this war, people will think I want us in it. If I don't say I won't send our sons to fight on foreign battlefields, then people will think I want to send them. . . . So you play the game the way it has been played over the years, and you play to win." In the end, backing the draft proved no obstacle to the president's reelection. On November 5, FDR defeated Willkie by five million votes in the popular count and by 449 electoral votes to his opponent's 82.

The draft became a popular phenomenon. Comedian Bob Hope and movie siren Dorothy Lamour starred in a film called Caught in the Draft, a wacky comedy about the futility of trying to beat the system. A comic strip called Draftie appeared. Jokes about reveille, marching, mess halls, and leather-lunged sergeants became staples for radio comedians. Young men and their families quickly mastered the thirteen draft categories ranging from 1A, the fittest, to 4F, unfit for the military. Those classified 1A began receiving letters from the government that began, "Greeting: . . . you are hereby notified that you have now been selected for immediate military service."

Baseball team owners split over the issue of deferments for their players. Warren Giles of the Cincinnati Reds professed that as far as the draft was concerned, his stars would "go just as fast as the batboy." Harry Grabiner of the White Sox argued that baseball and its stars were vital to maintaining America's morale. In the end, standouts like the Cleveland Indians' Bob Feller, the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto, and Detroit's Most Valuable Player, Hank Greenberg, were all classified 1A. So was the world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.

Ten days after the lottery, 100,000 young Americans were out of civvies and into khaki and olive drab.

Almost a year passed. The twelve-month draftees were beginning to approach their discharge date when Congressman Wadsworth introduced another HR 10132 to extend their service. Once again, opponents mobilized, and the issue was debated throughout the summer of 1941 in Senate and House hearings. A full-page ad appeared in The New York Times signed by 240 educators who proclaimed, "In our view, peacetime conscription and American democracy are incompatible . . . never before in American history has it been necessary."

Jim Wadsworth gathered a group of skeptical fellow House Republicans to a private dining room in Washington's Army-Navy Club to hear Marshall make his case. One balky congressman told Marshall, "You put the case very well, but I will be damned if I am going to go along with Mr. Roosevelt." The usually unflappable Marshall exploded: "You are going to let plain hatred of the personality dictate to you to do something that you realize is very harmful to the interest of the country!" Marshall countered their doubts until two o'clock in the morning. Time magazine reported, "The President has sent in General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, to carry the ball. Good soldier Marshall pounded down the field through center, off tackle, around the ends. . . . By now, General Marshall had smashed all the way to the one-yard line."

Not quite yet. The Senate Military Affairs Committee held hearings on July 17. The lead-off witness that day was Norman Thomas, the preeminent Socialist in the land, bland and bow-tied, looking every bit the Presbyterian minister he had once been. The Socialist Party's four-time candidate for president branded Marshall an FDR dupe. "To an extent that he may not realize, the prestige of General Marshall's name, his plans for the organization of his opinions, are being used in a great game of politics," Thomas charged, "the logical end of which is a war which 70 or possibly 80 percent of the American people do not want." He heaped scorn on FDR's recent claim that even Iceland was in the Western Hemisphere and thus needed to be defended by the United States. What was next, Thomas asked, "perhaps some lonely posts in Siberia . . . occupation of the Sahara Desert?"

Warned that passage of the bill was imperiled, FDR gave up a weekend at his beloved Hyde Park home and stayed in Washington to plot the next move. On July 21, he summoned reporters and before rolling cameras and radio microphones warned that if Congress failed to act, "beginning this autumn . . . the Army of the United States will begin to melt away." He recalled the nation's perilous birth. "The risks and weaknesses caused by dissolving a trained Army in times of national peril were pointed out by George Washington over and over again in his messages to the Continental Congress."

Hearings continued throughout a steaming summer. On July 28, Mrs. Rosa Farber, an opponent speaking for the Mothers of America before the House Committee on Military Affairs, asked, had the members forgotten the song popular when the draft had first been enacted, "Goodbye Dear, I'll Be Back in a Year"? "You talk about breaking faith with draftees," Georgia Democratic congressman Eugene Cox struck back. The congressman, described as "resembling a paunchy, aging matinee idol," asked, "But what about breaking faith with the Nation? When our country calls, who will refuse to answer? . . . Let us say to the world that we are Americans and that we mean business."

As the possibility grew that men awaiting their discharge might be kept in uniform, scrawled letters began to appear on barrack walls, latrines, and mess halls in Army posts across the country: OHIO. Passersby assumed that men from the Buckeye State were serving there. Actually, the letters stood for "Over the Hill in October." Impatient draftees reasoned that Uncle Sam had entered into a contract with them and by October they would have met their end of the bargain. They now threatened to go home, regardless of what Congress did.

As the final August 12 vote on the extension bill neared, according to the latest Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans believed the draftees' tour should be extended while 45 percent thought they should be released. On the eve of the House vote, Turner Catledge, the New York Times political analyst, warned, "the Administration has not yet sufficiently impressed Congress and the country with the gravity of the emergency so far as it affects the self interest of the United States."

Shortly before final debate in the House, Democrat John McCormack, the majority leader, called the president's press secretary, Stephen Early, with disturbing news. McCormack warned that he could not guarantee delivery of his Democratic members for passage of the extension bill. Forty-five Democrats planned to oppose it. Thirty-five more were undecided. He had "lost control of his people," McCormack admitted.

FDR, convinced that he had personally pressed his case as far as he dared and with a secret mission occupying his thoughts, quietly slipped out of the capital aboard the presidential yacht, Potomac, for what he claimed would be ten days of fishing. The New York Times reported, "For probably the first time in history, the whereabouts of the President of the United States has been unknown for three days to the American people and to most, if not all, ranking government officials." The Times noted, "With Winston Churchill also vanished from the public eye, speculation reached a new high mark."

On August 12, House members prepared to vote on HR 10132. The speaker, Sam Rayburn, clad in his customary funereal dark suit, mounted the rostrum. To Rayburn, a fifty-nine-year-old bachelor, the House was his home, the first and last love of his life. He had come to this chamber twenty-nine years before, the end point of an extraordinary climb from Texas cotton fields tilled by him and eight siblings, through his election to the Texas legislature, to now, essentially becoming the second most powerful man in the country. At 10 a.m., Rayburn, anticipating a grueling day, called the House to order two hours earlier than usual. Fortunately, the ordinarily sweltering capital was cool with rain threatening. Reporters filled every seat in the press gallery. Depending on how one viewed the issue, the lawmakers were voting to save the Army, or to rebuff that warmonger in the White House.

Meet the Author

Joseph E. Persico is the author of Roosevelt’s Secret War; Franklin and Lucy; Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour; Piercing the Reich; and Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, which was made into a television docudrama. He also collaborated with Colin Powell on his autobiography, My American Journey. He lives in Guilderland, New York.

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Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II 4.5 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Persico does an outstanding job of conveying how Roosevelt was not only a great war time leader, but managed to use his people skills to choose the military leaders that would lead the United States, and the allies through WW II. Originally obscure, Eisenhower was ultimately picked to lead Overlord, the cross channel invasion; Hap Arnold was almost washed up, yet Roosevelt saved him and the origin of the U. S. Air Force became a reality. Likewise, Admirals King and Nimitz, Generals Marshall, Clark and Patton, all rose from nothingness to became the great military leaders that we read about. Persico, on the other hand, does a fine job in relating how Roosevelt was hoodwinked by Churchill, and the British, into several barely supportable operations prior to "D-Day," such as North Africa, Sicily and Italy; all because the British wanted to maintain the stranglehold on their empire. Painfully obvious to U. S. military leadership, it was not always thought so by Roosevelt. Persico also discusses Roosevelt's not so nice dealings with MacArthur, and one wonders why the General was not fired long before Truman did the right thing, but Roosevelt knew that MacArthur was needed, as obnoxious, arrogant and disdainful he was towards his commander-in-chief. The book really does provide great insight into the major characters of World War II, including Stalin and those on the British military front. It's very much a great worthwhile read for WW II aficionados.
BUSTERJH More than 1 year ago
Important historical information.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very comprehensive insight into the highest level decisions on the entrance to and prosecution of World War II. Since I was in the US Army 1941-1975, this book provides very definitive discussion and reasoning on events leading up to and discussion of the various campaigns of the war.
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"Im coming!!""im there
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*sit's in room* What to do, what to do.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Take me out on a date