World War II, as writer Rick Atkinson recently noted, is our Odyssey and Iliad, the epic struggle of our time that will be retold long after the last veteran of that great war has left us.
America’s leading warriors of World War II – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Marshall and Bradley – are our Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax and Patroclus.
How those men were chosen, the decisions they made, and their relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt is the subject of a fascinating new book by historian Joseph E. Persico, “Roosevelt’s Centurions, FDR and the Commanders He led to Victory in World War II.’’
World War II was a time when politics was put aside for national survival. FDR was looking for competent fighting men, not supporters, and he rescued the careers of men who were openly hostile to him, like Douglas MacArthur.
“Almost to a man, none of the leading generals and admirals had voted for Roosevelt before the war or shared his political philosophy,” Persico writes. “There was not a Democrat in the lot. Yet, not in a single instance did political affiliation, social connections, or other irrelevancy influence FDR.’’
Persico’s book is worth reading if for no other reason than for the sharply drawn profiles of the major military figures: the mercurial Patton, who was an FDR favorite; the political Eisenhower; the Navy chief Ernest King, who Roosevelt joked shaved himself with a blow torch; the coldly competent Marshall; and the Hollywood-loving Hap Arnold. It is a book filled with telling details that bring the figures to life – and make them all too human. One wonders whether some of them could have survived in today’s tell-all news environment that has lead to the downfall of talented military men such as General David Petraeus.
Persico also sets out to judge FDR’s conduct of the war. He finds FDR a fine recruiting officer, not only getting top people to run the war, but keeping them in place for the entire conflict and not interfering with them, as Winston Churchill often did with his generals.
He gives FDR mixed reviews as a strategist, praising him for focusing first on Germany, but questioning his wisdom in allowing Churchill to talk him into invading North Africa and Italy, thereby lengthening the war.
Persico believes FDR was a strong national leader, helping push a reluctant country into a necessary war by putting together the Lend Lease deal to aid Great Britain, stretching the ocean boundaries of the Monroe Doctrine and putting the country on the course for building an unproven atomic bomb.
“Had he been less bold,” Persico concludes, “Britain could have collapsed and Hitler could have won the war.’’
This is not a GI’s view of World War II, but this a gripping tale of the war as seen from FDR’s White House and from the top military command posts.
Rob Christensen is the author of “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.” He can be reached at 919-829-4532.