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We can view World War II from many angles, military to moral. Many fine books have been written about the struggle—perhaps the most famous being Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, in six volumes, which helped the former British prime minister to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Mantle of Command: FDR at War is my attempt to retell the story of the military direction of the Second World War from a different perspective: that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his role as U.S. commander in chief.
Following Pearl Harbor there were many calls for Roosevelt to hand over direction of America’s world war to a military man: a professional like General Douglas MacArthur, the former U.S. Army chief of staff, who was serving in the Philippines. FDR rejected such calls—arguing that, as U.S. president, he was the U.S. commander in chief, and the Constitution made him so. As Alexander Hamilton had written in Federalist No. 74, the President of the United States was to have “the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral” of the nation. This Roosevelt was, whether people liked it or not. “What is clearer than that the framers meant the President to be the chief executive in peace,” he said to his doctor, Ross McIntire, “and in war the commander in chief?”1
Nevertheless, the military challenges facing Roosevelt as commander in chief were greater than any that had confronted his predecessors: America assailed by a coalition of three twentieth-century military empires—Hitler’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s Italian Empire, and Hirohito’s Empire of Japan—seeking, in a Tripartite Pact, to remake the modern world in their own image. To this end they had revolutionized warfare: Nazi Blitzkrieg in Europe, and dazzling, ruthless amphibious invasions in the Far East by the Japanese.
How Roosevelt responded to those challenges as his nation’s military commander is thus the burden of my new account. It is a story that, astonishingly, has never really been chronicled. Roosevelt himself did not live to tell it, as he had hoped he would, in retirement;2 Churchill, surviving the war, did, in incomparable prose—but very much from his own point of view.
Succeeding generations of writers and historians have certainly addressed Roosevelt’s career, but primarily as statesman and politician rather than as commander in chief. As far as the military direction of the war was concerned, such writers tended to ignore or downplay the President’s role, focusing instead on Allied global strategy or on Roosevelt’s subordinates and field commanders: General Marshall, Admiral King, General Arnold, Admiral Nimitz, General MacArthur, General Eisenhower, General Patton, General Bradley, and other World War II warriors.3 As a result, the popular image of President Roosevelt has become one of a great and august moral leader of his nation: an inspiring figure on a world stage, but one who largely delegated the “business of war” to others—including Winston Churchill.
General George C. Marshall, for example, once remarked to the chief of staff of the British Army, General Alan Brooke, that Brooke was lucky to see the Prime Minister almost every day in London; in Washington, by contrast, Marshall—who was chief of staff of the U.S. Army—often did not see the President “for a month or six weeks.”4
Marshall was exaggerating; moreover, he was expressing a very different frustration from the one the majority of writers have taken him to mean. Marshall was, in reality, complaining that President Roosevelt was making all the major military decisions at the White House, rather than allowing Marshall to make them at the War Department—and worse still, not allowing his U.S. Army chief of staff to contest them, or give advice, unless by appointment with the President.
This was a deliberate stratagem, as I hope The Mantle of Command will demonstrate. Deference to the military by political leaders in World War I had permitted the senseless battles of attrition on the Western Front. For this reason the President was unwilling to delegate something as important as world war to “professionals.” Keeping General Marshall and Admiral Ernest King as separate though equal supplicants, the President intentionally sought to assert his ultimate authority as commander in chief: a power he kept strictly within the parameters of the U.S. Constitution, but which brooked no real opposition to his wishes or decisions—until the fateful day in 1942 when his military officials attempted a quasi mutiny, which is the centerpiece of this book.
The story of how America’s commander in chief conducted World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, then, is almost the polar opposite of what we have been led, for the most part, to believe.5 It is also more freighted, since the stakes for America and the free world in 1942 were perhaps the most serious in global history.
Tracing afresh how Roosevelt dealt with the military challenges he faced as commander in chief following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor allows us to see him in perhaps his greatest hour—setting and maintaining the moral agenda of the United Nations (as he christened the Allied powers), while slowly but surely turning defeat into relentless victory. His handling of General MacArthur and the manner in which he kept the Filipino forces fighting as allies of an embattled America, rather than giving in to the Japanese, was but one of his extraordinary achievements of the succeeding months as, swatting the persistent machinations and rumblings of near treason in the U.S. War Department, Roosevelt finally overruled his subordinates and, ordering into battle the largest American amphibious invasion force in the nation’s history, his legions set out from shores three thousand miles apart to turn the tide of war against Hitler—astonishing the world, as they did so, and giving rise to the slogan that would hearten millions across Europe: “The Americans are coming!”
Side by side with this perspective, The Mantle of Command seeks to tell another story that has been largely downplayed or obscured in the decades since World War II: namely the collapse of the British Empire in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor.
As prime minister of Great Britain, Winston S. Churchill had become an emblem of his island country’s noble resistance to Nazi tyranny in 1940 and 1941—so much so that writers and historians, following in the literary footsteps of Churchill’s own multivolume account, have tended to overlook his often suspect leadership thereafter. In particular, Churchill’s imperialist obsession over India, and the crisis this led to in his military relations with President Roosevelt in the spring of 1942, have been largely ignored in terms of their significance.
A third perspective that I feel has been neglected or underappreciated in relation to Franklin Delano Roosevelt was his modus operandi in the White House—and the consequences this has had for the writing of history. Paralyzed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, the President led a very different life from that of the British war leader. Winston Churchill was from childhood a romantic historian and journalist who loved to travel and put everything he thought or witnessed on paper—indeed, he made his living, his entire life, primarily by his writing. He also loved speechifying, holding forth with inimitable turns of phrase and perception to gatherings small and large. As his own doctor observed, he was not a good listener—and many of his worst mistakes as his nation’s war leader stemmed from this.
Franklin Roosevelt, by contrast, was a very good listener. Though he could, as his mother’s only child, be perfectly content on his own, reading or pasting items into his beloved stamp albums, Roosevelt also loved getting to know people, and enjoyed true conversation. He had earlier edited his university’s newspaper; as a politician in a democracy made vibrant by an unfettered press and deeply partisan Congress, however, he came to distrust paper save as annotated records to be kept locked in his “‘Safe’ and Confidential Files” in his eventual presidential library at Hyde Park on the Hudson. These were the documents he thought he would eventually employ to reconstruct, once the war was over, the greatest drama of his life: his struggle to impose a moral, postimperial vision on his coalition wartime partners, and how he had been compelled by circumstances to supplant the United Kingdom as guardian of the world’s democracies.
The President did not live to write that work. Reassembling from surviving documents his role as commander in chief seventy years later is thus considerably harder than it has been for writers seeking to portray and chronicle Churchill as wartime British prime minister. Piecing together the evidence not only from archival records but authentic wartime diaries, as well as the testimony of President Roosevelt’s last surviving Map Room officer, I hope nevertheless that I’ve been able to restore for the reader something of the drama, the issues, and the confrontations Roosevelt faced, as well as the historic decisions he had to make as commander in chief in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.