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The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942

The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942

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by Nigel Hamilton

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Based on years of archival research and interviews with the last surviving aides and Roosevelt family members, Nigel Hamilton offers a definitive account of FDR’s masterful—and underappreciated—command of the Allied war effort. Hamilton takes readers inside FDR’s White House Oval Study—his personal command center—and into


Based on years of archival research and interviews with the last surviving aides and Roosevelt family members, Nigel Hamilton offers a definitive account of FDR’s masterful—and underappreciated—command of the Allied war effort. Hamilton takes readers inside FDR’s White House Oval Study—his personal command center—and into the meetings where he battled with Churchill about strategy and tactics and overrode the near mutinies of his own generals and secretary of war. 

Time and again, FDR was proven right and his allies and generals were wrong. When the generals wanted to attack the Nazi-fortified coast of France, FDR knew the Allied forces weren’t ready. When Churchill insisted his Far East colonies were loyal and would resist the Japanese, Roosevelt knew it was a fantasy. As Hamilton’s account reaches its climax with the Torch landings in North Africa in late 1942, the tide of war turns in the Allies’ favor and FDR’s genius for psychology and military affairs is clear. This intimate, sweeping look at a great president in history’s greatest conflict is must reading.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Evan Thomas
In the late 1940s, Winston Churchill wrote a memoir…that helped win him a Nobel Prize in Literature while burnishing his glory…Roosevelt missed the chance to toot his horn as loudly as his wartime partner. Churchill was able to play down or obscure his "often suspect" military leadership, writes Nigel Hamilton in The Mantle of Command, while Roosevelt's deft but opaque role as commander in chief has been overshadowed or overlooked in many military histories. In his fast-paced, smartly observed recounting of Roosevelt's first year as war leader, Hamilton means to set the record straight…Hamilton writes with brio and narrative drive. On the whole, The Mantle of Command is splendid: It's the memoir Roosevelt didn't get to write.
Publishers Weekly
Accomplished biographer Hamilton (Biography: A Brief History) delivers an analysis of President Franklin Roosevelt in the role of Commander-in-Chief through the first two years of WWII. The author follows his subject through 14 pivotal periods of the early war years and demonstrates that F.D.R. frequently trusted his own judgment over the advice of the military professionals who surrounded him. Central to the book and its thesis is the contest of wills between F.D.R. and his group of distinguished military advisors regarding the proposed invasion of North Africa in 1942, which was aggressively opposed by General Marshall and Secretary of War Stimson. This decision almost resulted in a “mutiny” against the President. Events ultimately vindicated the President’s decision and firmly established his talent for grand strategy. Though it’s a weighty tome, and is based extensively on Roosevelt’s own notes, Hamilton keeps a brisk pace throughout to produce what will likely be seen as a definitive volume on this aspect of Roosevelt’s career and essential reading for anyone interested in WWII, the Roosevelt Presidency, and presidential leadership. Agent: Ike Williams; Kneerim, Williams & Bloom Literary Agency. (May)
Library Journal
★ 12/01/2013
Franklin D. Roosevelt's role as commander in chief of the military during World War II has not been covered as much as other aspects of his presidency. Hamilton (senior fellow, McCormack Graduate Sch., Univ. of Massachusetts-Boston; JFK: Reckess Youth) is well qualified to remedy that, showing how FDR worked with individuals and nations. He blasts Winston Churchill's colonialist values, poor selection of military leaders, and constant meddling in their tactical plans, as well as Douglas MacArthur's vanity and failure to prepare for a Japanese attack, but shows that FDR appreciated both men as fighters. Hamilton presents FDR as a serious student of world affairs who learned from his six years as assistant secretary of the navy. Unlike most books on Henry Stimson, FDR's secretary of war, and George C. Marshall, his chief of staff of the army, Hamilton's work critiques them for their opposition to Operation Torch in French North Africa in 1942, opposition that was near mutiny against the president. Marshall's disagreement, Hamilton charges, cost him command of the Normandy invasion: FDR brought Adm. William Leahy out of retirement to be chairman of the combined chiefs of staff, putting the Pentagon in its place just as he did the Axis powers. VERDICT This convincingly written and gripping volume is essential for historians, political scientists, and history buffs, for a deeper understanding of the principle of civilian supremacy of the military in the U.S. political system.—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-03-06
A deeply engrossing study of the first year of Franklin Roosevelt's prescient military leadership in World War II. Consummate biographer Hamilton (How to Do Biography: A Primer, 2008, etc.) ably captures the charming, astute personality of FDR, especially his role as foil to the dogged, imperious Winston Churchill. Considering that so many facets of the Roosevelt era have already been amply scrutinized, it is to Hamilton's considerable credit that he manages to impart singular, fresh nuance and depth to his hero. Hamilton aims to set the record straight on three counts: First, despite the postwar preening by his generals, FDR had fended off various defeatist and ineffectual proposals after the attack on Pearl Harbor and held firm to the necessity of a quick reprisal in the Pacific to check Japan's further incursions into the Indian Ocean. Subsequently, working with the British (and against a near mutiny of his generals), FDR seized on a massive combined force in northwest Africa, which would become Operation Torch, to pincer the Germans under Erwin Rommel, thus opening up a second front, to the delight of the Russians. Second, Hamilton aims to emphasize how important it was to FDR, a born aristocrat yet a man of the people, that he and Churchill hammer out an understanding that the Americans would enter the war not to help Britain prop up its collapsing empire; on the contrary, FDR touched this sore spot frequently, for instance, pressuring Churchill to let the beleaguered Indians fight for their self-determination. Finally, Hamilton wonderfully delineates FDR's ability to elicit news from his many "eyes and ears" in the field—in opposition to the Victorian, prideful Churchill. However, as the author portrays through Churchill's extended White House Christmas visit in 1941, the two leaders learned a great deal from each other. Lively, elucidating, elegant and highly knowledgeable.
From the Publisher
The Mantle of Command is splendid: It’s the memoir Roosevelt didn’t get to write.”
New York Times Book Review

—Wall Street Journal

“A definitive volume on this aspect of Roosevelt’s career and essential reading for anyone interested in WWII, the Roosevelt Presidency, and presidential leadership.”
—Publishers Weekly

“This convincingly written and gripping volume is essential for historians, political scientists, and history buffs, for a deeper understanding of the principle of civilian supremacy of the military in the U.S. political system.”
—Library Journal, STARRED

“A deeply engrossing study of the first year of Franklin Roosevelt’s prescient military leadership in World War II...Lively, elucidating, elegant and highly knowledgeable.”
—Kirkus, STARRED

“Hamilton is tantamount to the amanuensis for the memoir FDR never wrote...well researched and confident in its conclusions, Hamilton’s study ably augments the gallery of WWII leaders.”

“Nigel Hamilton’s Mantle of Command is a stirring and noteworthy book about Roosevelt’s crucial role as commander-in-chief during World War II. Hamilton writes with insight, passion, and a great grasp of history. I believe this book will become the standard by which other books about FDR’s role in World War II will be measured.”
—Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War and Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874–1945

“This is not the Roosevelt (or Churchill) you'd expect. From the start, an aggressive, in-charge FDR emerges from a wonderful weaving of established scholarship and the fascinating bits and pieces that make history live. Churchill is an inspirational nag, with a busy, unfocused strategic vision. A key entry into the ongoing debate over who made grand strategy in the early war years — Roosevelt or Churchill?”
—Warren F. Kimball, author of Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Second World War

“Nigel Hamilton in Mantle of Command presents a very different wartime Franklin Delano Roosevelt than the one we are used to seeing. Whether or not one agrees with all his conclusions, Hamilton clearly shows that FDR was an extremely strong and effective commander-in-chief. This volume should go a long way to dispelling popular myths about Roosevelt as a naïve and weak war leader.”
—Mark Stoler, editor of the George C. Marshall Papers & Professor Emeritus of History, University of Vermont

“Nigel Hamilton has written a spirited and thoughtful ‘revisionist’ study of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as commander-in-chief during the first phase of U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Hamilton’s narrative skill brings alive the human dramas, logistic hurdles, and strategic debates to show how FDR’s indispensable drive and forward-looking leadership tamed his own ‘team of rivals’ and set the United States and its Allies on the road to victory over the Axis. The books enlivens the often murky worlds of bureaucratic struggle and military detail to demonstrate how important it was for the United States to ‘get it right’ early in the war and how FDR accomplished this.”
—Michael Schaller, author of Douglas MacArthur & Regents Professor of History, University of Arizona

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
FDR at War Series , #1
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 2.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


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.

Meet the Author

Nigel Hamilton is a bestselling and award-winning biographer of President John F. Kennedy, General Bernard "Monty" Montgomery, and President Bill Clinton, among other subjects. He is a Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts-Boston, and first president of the Biographers International Organization (BIO).

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