A few months ago, someone recommended I read Nigel Hamilton’s 3-part series on FDR as Commander-in-Chief during WWⅡ. Last week, after months of putting off starting it, I finally finished the last book. It is a dense read filled with incredible detail. I’m happy that I was able to get through it all.
Here is my takeaway:
Without Franklin Roosevelt, we don’t win WWⅡ. That may seem obvious to say, but when you read this book and realize the disagreements amongst the allies, this is a salient statement. We look back on WWⅡ with the benefit of hindsight; we know who wins and that predetermination makes the narrative seem simple and clean. But without FDR, WWⅡ would have looked very different.
Conversations surrounding D-Day, or a cross-channel invasion of Northern France, began well before 1944. Almost immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the war, FDR was battling with his generals and Secretary of War Henry Stimson over when to launch an invasion of mainland Europe. As early as 1942, the President’s staff was adamant that a cross-channel invasion of northern France should be mounted as soon as possible. FDR disagreed. He believed in a cross-channel as a strategy: it was the most effective way to defeat Hitler and open up a second front to relieve the Russians in the Eastern Europe. But the timing was all wrong. 1942-43 was too soon. America wasn’t ready.
To be successful, we would need to actually learn how to defeat the Germans in military operations with better odds of success. We needed to learn modern warfare, combining aerial, naval, and land units for amphibious assaults. In a nutshell, FDR believed American generals and troops needed to first figure out how to win.
His solution: first invade Northern Africa in 1942 (Operation Torch as it would become known). His generals, including Marshall, and his Secretary of War Henry Stimson all argued against this, countering that preparations should begin for a cross-channel invasion of France. FDR wasn’t convinced the time was right, and held to his guns. The odds of an American-led cross-channel invasion were slim in 1942. America needed more time to build its military arsenal and then learn how to defeat the Germans. A preemptive invasion would have been catastrophic militarily. Politically, a defeat on such a large scale would have jeopardized America’s faith in the war effort and strategy. FDR made the conscious decision after Pearl Harbor to defeat Germany first, then put all our efforts into the Pacific. For many Americans, this made little sense. The Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, why start with Hitler? If FDR signed off on a cross-channel invasion in 1942-43 and lost, his political capital would have diminished and political pressure to shift towards the Pacific would have mounted. We needed a win right out of the gate, and a premature cross-channel invasion was risky at best.
So, he held strong, ordering an invasion of North Africa in 1942. Operation Torch was launched and tremendously successful: driving the Germans out of North Africa and providing the Allies with a foothold just below Southern Europe to mount other operations, like the eventual invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky). More importantly, it gave allied generals and troops opportunities to actually fight and beat the Germans.
FDR and Churchill
Churchill was also central to WWⅡ, especially at the war’s outset. Without him, Britain could very well have fallen or placated to the Germans. Luftwaffe (German airforce) aerial bombings of England and London were devastating. A less stubborn leader may have given in and signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, allowing the Fuhrer to turn his complete attention towards Joseph Stalin and Operation Barbarossa: the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
But FDR and Churchill, after Operation Torch, had constant disagreements about how best to beat Hitler.
To the delight of George Marshall and Henry Stimson, FDR was ready for Operation Overlord—the cross-channel invasion of Northern France—after the success of Torch. Now that the allies had experience actually fighting the Nazis and America had ramped up its military production astronomically, a second front seemed much more plausible. D-Day was a go.
Churchill wasn’t in lockstep, fighting Overlord well into 1944, a few months before the invasion. Churchill would agree to D-Day in one military conference, only to throw the agreements into question in subsequent communications with the Allies and his own generals. The British Bulldog instead wanted more military operations in the Mediterranean now that the allies had a base of operations in Northern Africa. Why not invade Southern Italy, and even work up through the mainland to conquer Rome? Churchill’s obsession with Italy would eventually culminate in the 1943 invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky, leading to a bloody stalemate between the allies and the Germans that lasted through much of 1943. The heart of the divide between the Prime Minister and FDR was Churchill wanted to engage in more peripheral military operations versus a full frontal assault. As Hamilton writes:
“The Prime Minister’s agenda was how to placate the United States, defer operations against Japan, and by ‘closing the ring’ around the Third Reich—sheering off its allies, such as Italy, as they went, and hoping to get the peoples of occupied Europe to rise up against the Germans—engender Hitler’s fall.”Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, pg. 71-72
FDR—and Stalin—wanted a direct assault through Northern France, thereby ensuring the complete and unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Peripheral assaults on Italy and throughout the Mediterranean were a distraction that would lead to unnecessary casualties with little progress towards the ultimate goal: defeating the Nazis.
No FDR, No UN
There is no United Nations without FDR. He fought for it often in the face of balance-of-power imperialists like Churchill and French leader Charles de Gaulle. Both wanted to maintain their colonies after the defeat of Nazi Germany. De Gaulle even went so far as to say once Indochina (Vietnam) was retaken from the Japanese that it should be returned to France.
This backwards vision was anathema to Roosevelt: great power rivalries and colonies were seeds to revolution and world war. FDR wanted a United Nations authority, with the main allies as the permanent members of its Security Council, to be the way forward. The world must leave colonialism and balance-of-power politics behind. Unfortunately, when the war was in its end stages—shifting the conversation amongst the allies towards what shape a post-war world would take—FDR was too sick to make as strong a case for decolonization and an end to imperialism. His main goal was to get the United Nations framework agreed to by all the allies, which he ultimately achieved at the Yalta Conference. But his health only allowed him to work a few hours a day if not less. Other, more contentious fights like ending imperialism might have taken place had he been a healthier man.
When I read the last book—which I coincidentally finished on April 12th, the day FDR died—I was shocked at how little I really knew about WWⅡ and FDR’s centrality. I knew he was president and must have made the ultimate decisions, but I assumed people like Marshall were the strategic masterminds behind everything. They were absolutely essential and also central to the war effort of course, but this book made me realize that if FDR hadn’t been president, things may have turned out very differently. Maybe we would have invaded Northern France too soon and been obliterated by the Nazis. Maybe a weaker willed president would have given in to Churchill and never launched a cross-channel invasion in the first place.
Other leaders like Churchill got to write their memoirs, but FDR passed away before the war ended. We never got his own account of the war. Hamilton rectifies this unfortunate oversight and gives FDR his due.
FDR wasn’t a perfect person, no one is—a cliché to say, but no less true. But I’m sure relieved he was president during the two of the most disruptive times of the 20th century: The Great Depression and WWⅡ.