A Tribute to the Un-Understood FDR on Memorial Day

 

As most know, Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for honoring and mourning the military personnel who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. And the largest & most important war in the 20th century was World War II, the war that literally changed the entire world. So we celebrate the man who commanded the US armed forces in that war with brilliance, determination and judgement.

When that war began in 1939, the U.S. Army was a tiny professional army – seventeenth in the world rankings in 1939, behind Romania. By the end of 1942, thanks to this man,  it was “transformed into the world’s most powerful potential-army-air force in 1942: its numbers slated to reach 7,500,000“. 

The year 1942 changed the trajectory of World War II for good with two critical decisions:

  1. the decision to ambush the Japanese Navy at Midway leading to the destruction of the  Japanese Navy as an offensive force;
  2. the hotly debated decision to launch Operation Torch, the landing of US Army with a contingent of British troops in Western Africa in November 1942.  

Despite knowing this, we had thought of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) as most did – “one of the great and august the moral leader of his nation: an inspiring figure on a world stage, but one who relegated the “business of war” to others – including Winston Churchill“.  And what a group of “others” he had – General Marshall, Admiral King, General Arnold, Admiral Nimitz, General MacArthur, General Eisenhower,  General Patton, General Bradley and other commanders! 

Then we saw a line in a D-Day article in Geopolitical Futures:

  • “From Stalin’s view, Churchill was governing a declining power while Roosevelt, brilliant and utterly ruthless, was in charge of the future hegemon of the world.”

Roosevelt as great moral leader and a masterful politician, yes. But a brilliant & utterly ruthless military commander? That was a new one to us. We could easily understand President Lincoln being described in that manner given his ruthless decisions to remove his key generals when he lost trust in them until he found General Ulysses Grant. 

When did FDR face such decisions? What military decisions did he take of Lincoln-like magnitude? We did not know until we found a superbly important book that used FDR’s own diaries to tell us the story of “Roosevelt’s evolution from noncombatant supporter of Churchill, to become the master of the Allied effort, a commander of in chief who took control of the war not only from his ally but from his own generals.”

1.Operation Torch

The second half of the book tells the story of the decision to launch Operation Torch, the US landing in French West Africa, the decision being “one of the very few major military decisions of the war which Roosevelt made entirely on his own and over the protests of his highest-ranking advisers” as “the President’s speechwriter, Robert Sherwood, later wrote“. 

In fact, Chapter 26 titled “A Failed Mutiny” tells in detail the story of a near mutiny against FDR by Secretary of War Henry Stimson together with the highly acclaimed army chief of staff General Marshall.

  • Page 364 – “In truth the Commander in Chief had lost faith in Marshall’s judgement and objectivity as a military commander, however much he admired him as an individual and administrator. … Roosevelt began to have real concerns about Marshall’s loyalty and willingness to subordinate himself to civilian leadership.”
  • Page 367 – “As Churchill prepared to fly on from Cairo to Moscow to tell Stalin in confidence about Torch, Stimson thus asked General Marshall point blank if he, Marshall, was “President or Dictator” of America, “. 
  • Page 369 – “In the whole of World War II the United States would never come closer to a military mutiny – which had certainly not been General Marshall’s intention. … To Stimson’s chagrin, Marshall now made clear he had no intention of making such a protest in his role as U.S. Army Chief of Staff – neither in writing nor in person. He would have no truck with talk of being President or dictator of the United States.”
  • Page 369 – “To Stimson’s added chagrin, Secretary Knox, the following day, also withdrew any presumed support for an official protest, mutiny, or further machinations against the President.”… “The possible mutiny was over, for the moment at least.””

And how did Stalin react when Churchill told him personally about Operation Torch?

  • “Turning to the President’s personal representative, Stalin had said to Churchill and Harriman – as Harriman now told Roosevelt – “May God help this enterprise to succeed.”.”

How did FDR react to Stalin’s response? 

  • “Reflecting on this extraordinarily positive response, the President had shaken his head at the irony. Stalin had required but ten minutes to recognize the way Torch would turn the tide of World War II, whereas it had taken the War Department more than a year! Moreover, the most senior U.S. Generals were reputedly still trying to sabotage the operation, … “. 

This confirms what Harry Hopkins, Secretary of Commerce & FDR’s closest advisor on foreign policy during WWII, had written in his diary earlier:

  • Page 171 – “… the President was “going to have many of the same problems that Lincoln had with generals and admirals whose records look awfully good but who may turn out to be McClellans of this War” … The only difference is that I think Roosevelt will act much faster in replacing these fellows.”  

 

2.Collaring of Churchill

Even before meeting Churchill in August 1941, “the President felt more and more strongly that America’s moment of destiny was approaching “. But, as he prepared to meet Churchill to force Churchill to accept his vision & principles, he had a weak hand. 

  • The fact was, for all the outward show of U.S. naval and air strength to impress British visitors on their arrival at Placenta Bay, the United States had no army to speak of – at least no army capable of mounting anything other than a minor operation overseas; no air force with the capacity to deter a determined enemy, let alone support its own ground troops; and no navy able to operate effectively on one ocean, let alone in two”. As the official historians of the U.S. Army later put it, “the United States Army’s offensive combat strength was still close to zero”.” – page 17

But FDR was clear about America’s destiny:

  • “If and when war came, America must fight for its own role in the sun, as leader of a post imperial, democratic world. America would thus become not just the arsenal of democracy, but – as the world’s most prosperous nation by far – the senior partner in a new world order, with open borders and open markets.”

So when speaking with Churchill, “the President emphasized the need for an articulation of common peace aims, or “joint Anglo-American declaration of principles“”. How did Churchill take it?

  • Churchill was, in truth, incensed by the repeated request; he wanted an American declaration of war, not a declaration of principles.”

If he had become incensed by the request, Churchill went nuts during FDR’s speech, as described on page 37:

  • “Churchill’s face according to Elliott Roosevelt’s account, went red with fury.” .
  • “Churchill, according to Elliott, became even more furious.”
  • “At the mention of India, Churchill became, Elliott described, “apoplectic“. “

But in the end, as Elliott Roosevelt described:

  • Churchill got to his feet and “brandished a stubby forefinger under Father’s nose. Mr. President,” he had cried, ” I believe you are trying to do away with the British Empire. Every idea you entertain about the structure of the postwar world demonstrates it. But in spite of that” – and his forefinger waved – “in spite of that, we know that you constitute our only hope. And’ – his voice sank dramatically – “you know that we know it. You know that we know that without America, the Empire won’t stand.“”

There it was – Three months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and while “the vast majority” of Americans, “(between 75 and 80 percent, according to polls), remained unwilling to go to war to save Britain’s imperial possessions“, as Elliott Roosevelt wrote, “the mantle of leadership was slipping from British shoulders to American.”.

It is fascinating to read how FDR kept his senior generals and advisors in the dark and how he used the his political skills to thwart Churchill & his large retinue of advisors. No one, except a couple of people, knew his plans or his agenda in this FDR-Churchill meet. The two sets of generals & military people were not allowed to mingle and talk at any time during this meet. 

  • Page 8 – Roosevelt genuinely respected his chiefs of staff as spokesmen of the armed services they directed, but the truth was, he had as yet little or no faith in their military, let alone their political, judgement. Almost every thing they and their war departments had forecast or recommended to him as commander in chief since May 1941 had turned out wrong. … The advice given by the U.S. Navy Department had seemed to him … to be strategically unsound – as well as psychologically naive.”

Nigel Hamilton makes it clear in his Prologue:

  • “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 the 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 …. “and in war the commander in chief“.” 

 

3.Pearl Harbor to Midway

The disaster at Pearl Harbor was massive. How did FDR take it?

  • His reaction to any event was always to be calm,” the First Lady later described the President’s temperament. Instead of getting agitated, he would batten down his hatches, emotionally “If it was something that was bad, he just became like an iceberg.”

Later that evening, Hamilton tells us that he met with Bill Donavan, his intelligence chief, and Edward Murrow of CBS for a private chat. “Murrow, for his part, remembered how appalled the President was by the destruction of U.S. airplanes… “.

  • “The news just kept getting bad. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese naval march continued. And in two months later on February 14, 1942, Japanese forces, despite being heavily outnumbered and running out of ammunition, advanced across Singapore Island towards the city and harbor. The 130,000 defenders for the most part refused to fight: …” 

As Hamilton writes,

  • “The ignominious fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, thus became a pivotal moment in World War II, as the British Empire fell apart and the United States was forced to take over.”

At this point, let us digress somewhat & share another aim of Nigel Hamilton in his book:

  • “Side by side, the book 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. This includes Churchill’s imperialist obsession over India, and the crisis that led to in his military relations in the spring of 1942, have been largely ignored in terms of their significance.”

In this context, Hamilton writes about the fall of Singapore,

  • page 202 – Hushed up for decades and for the most part ignored by historians of the Malaya campaign and its ultimate debacle, the majority of Indian troops – some forty thousand out of forty-five thousand – captured by the Japanese at Singapore thus volunteered to join the Indian National Army (INA) and fight the British. And still more would do so over the following year.”

This is where FDR demonstrated how he was different from both Churchill and Hitler by asking & listening to the “analysis” of recently fired Admiral Tommy Hart about “the war in the East thus far“. And the day he met Hart was important – “the Japanese liberated Rangoon the very day” – March 9, 1942. 

  • Page 231 – “… this was no old-fashioned independent Japanese navy, he noted – it was the very acne of combined services operating in the field, not simply at a distant headquarters. And the Japanese combination of those services began with air.
  • Page 231 – “We know that the control of the air, over the war theater, has been gained and exercised by the Jap Navy air. And that control is what has defeated all the defensive power which the Allies could get into the fight. The Japs know the value of the Ships-Plus-Planes combination, handled under one controlling command and without any of all those restrictive limitations which hams-strung the British Navy and so badly hampered ours”.”

As Hamilton tells us on page 233,

  • “Roosevelt’s insistence on hearing Hart’s side of the story at the White House, unadorned and in person, became a turning point in Roosevelt’s conception of the war”.

FDR sent Admiral Stark to London and asked Admiral King to take over Stark’s responsibilities as well remain commander in chief of the U.S. Navy. 

  • Page 235 -” … the President had decided, to kick the U.S. Navy into the mid-twentieth century. For the first time in American history, the head of the U.S. Navy would be answerable directly and only to his commander in chief, the President.  He would be urged not only to ramp up naval aviation and order better interservice cooperation with U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Forces, but to expand, develop, and employ the U.S. Marine Corps, a division of the U.S. Navy, in the same way as the Japanese were doing: as the spearhead of modern amphibious invasion forces.”

In a nutshell, 

  • Page 235 – “With Admiral King at his side, the President was determined as U.S. commander in chief to refashion the U.S. Navy into a force the Japanese learn to fear.”

That turn began with Doolittle’s air raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, just 5 weeks after the meeting of Admiral Hart with President FDR. Just how much the President was in personal control of the war astonished even the Secretary of War Stimson. This raid, in the words of Secretary Stimson, was “a pet project of the President’s“.

  • “A secret U.S. Navy carrier task force comprising of sixteen ships and ten thousand sailorssailed towards the Japanese mainland in the strictest secrecy. Once airborne, their sixteen long-distance, heavily loaded B-25 army bombers” blitzed “military targets in the Tokyo areaincluding flying over the Imperial palace.

Hamilton writes,

  • “In the headquarters of the Japanese high command there was consternation that the protective screen around Tokyo had proven as assailable as the American defenses at Pearl Harbor. Such an unanticipated, successful American air attack demonstrated to the Japanese high command the need to finish what the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had started: the destruction of America’s remaining naval power in the central Pacific.”

Despite Churchill’s begging for U.S. naval help in the Indian Ocean, FDR told Stimson

  • “the U.S. Navy would only engage the Japanese Imperial Navy on its own terms, and in its own waters – where U.S. airpower, army air force as well as naval, could be husbanded and put into battle together, to maximum effect.” 

Then American intelligence in Hawaii predicted what he wanted: 

  • “Watching Japanese reactions to the Doolittle Tokyo Raid, the President held his breath, scarcely able to believe the Japanese Navy would risk the virtual complete ascendancy they had hitherto gained in the Pacific and Indian Oceans in a do-or-die sea battle – especially if the object was little Midway … ” 

Admiral Nimitz, a man chosen by FDR as the supreme Allied commander for all waters of the Pacific, prepared an ambush to ambush the ambushers plan. His three remaining carriers were ordered to lie concealed in waters several hundred miles from Midway, out of Japanese view. Only after the Japanese invasion of the island began would they be put into battle, when the four huge Japanese carriers would be waiting the return of their bomber planes.

As Hamilton tells us in Chapter 16,

  • ” …. the President had authorized the admiral’s ambush. It would be the greatest sea battle of the war this far – employing America’s entire Pacific force of aircraft carriers. “

The result was Four Japanese carriers sunk in a single day. It was a victory on a scale not even Nimitz had dreamed possible. For the Japanese the Midway confrontation had turned into a calamity. 

  • “Every single Japanese plane that had set out on the fateful, punitive expedition was therefore lost, together with more than a quarter of the Imperial Navy’s best pilots.”

With the Japanese Navy no longer an offensive threat, the United States could turn its full attention to Europe and the defeat of Hitler only to face the near mutiny from the War Department against Operation Torch.

As Hamilton tells us on page 439,

  • Torch had set the tone and determination of the United States in prosecuting the war against the Axis powers. In overruling his generals, the President had, Admiral Leahy reflected, undoubtedly saved his nation from the military catastrophe that would have awaited them in the shores of mainland France. Instead they could now learn in comparative safety the dark arts of modern war – with every chance of ultimate victory. Vast American forces were, after all, now safely established on the threshold of Europe – and of greatness on behalf of their nation, if they could translate that triumph, step by step, into the defeat of Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and finally of Emperor Hirohito’s Japan.”
  • It would all work out, the President assured Leahy. It had been quite a journey over the past eleven months, since December 7, 1941. “

This is one of the most important books we have read not just in its topic but even more so in what finally matters at the most critical of junctures – true leadership. This book shows in utter clarity why some men are born & developed to do the maximum good for their country and the world. 

Thank you Mr. Nigel Hamilton for writing it. 

 

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2 Comments

  1. A brilliant analysis of the metamorphosis of a President from a domestic economist to an international super general

    1. Thank you. The credit is 100% of Nigel Hamilton, the noted biographer. A detailed & elaborately referenced book. Glad you liked it.

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