If Franklin Roosevelt had any distinctive marks in the genital area, Warren Kimball would surely know. He has lived with F.D.R. for almost as long as Eleanor did, and in some ways more intimately. He is the editor of the complete correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill (1984), a model of its kind; and the author of a long series of penetrating essays on the artful dodger at war, felicitously collected in The Juggler (1991), and already ripe for a sequel (The Dodger?). He has a magisterial command of the literature. The endnotes to The Juggler are a remarkable demonstration of bibliographic virtuosity. The endnotes to Forged in War are less copious though hardly less restrained. Like Zeus, Kimball has his thunderbolts, but he is also generous in his praise. Many are honoured, several are slain. (Where are you now, John Charmley?) Few indeed escape without brickbat or bouquet.
Roosevelt was the arbiter in this war - Dr Win-the-War attended by Nurse Winston - yet he remains frustratingly elusive. His motivation, his calculation, his expectation are all deeply mysterious. "The living do not give up their secrets with the candour of the dead," said Acton. No modern statesman has been less candid than F.D.R., in death as in life. If anyone can fathom this unfathomable man, it is Kimball. Forged in War is by way of a synthesis of his previous work, a grand narrative of the capsule commentaries interleaving the correspondence, a quilt of many colours: part diplomatic history, part joint biography, part "specialness" inquiry. It bears comparison with Robin Edmonds's finely modulated treatment of The Big Three (1991). In a word, Edmonds is smooth, Kimball is sharp. Where The Big Three is elegant and exact, Forged in War is ebullient and engaged. Apart from a few traces of slightly heavy-handed whimsicality - "to put it crudely (pun intended)", he writes, of an oil issue - Kimball gives it to us straight.
Refreshingly, this author has attitude. Conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor are dismissed as unsupported, ignorant and nonsensical; criticism of the Allies' demand for unconditional surrender as "piffle". As a historian, Kimball might be described as a hard-nosed possibilist. His protagonists are too busy winning the war to worry overmuch about winning the peace.
Throughout the book he conducts a brutally efficient campaign against all manner of revisionism - broadly construed as anti-Churchill or Roosevelt - especially anything savouring of the ex post facto. "Discussions at Quebec (in 1944) about fundamental issues of international politics were brief and inconclusive, but those questions hung cloudlike over the talks, driving home the reality of the sea change taking place. The USSR was now a great power, while the Anglo-American relationship, special as it was, did not allow creation of an entente aimed at containing (cordon sanitaire-ing) the Soviets. The wartime alliance and Roosevelt's policy of cooperation took precedence," he writes. "Moreover, regardless of whether Churchill and Roosevelt were (pick, as with a Chinese menu, any one or combination of the following) wise, naive, idealists, realists, sick, opportunists, or realpolitikers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that any such Anglo-American entente would have achieved little or nothing. There was, after all, a stalemate in Italy, and Operation Market Garden (the Arnhem attack) was about to fail in the Netherlands, thus ensuring that dreams of a German surrender by Christmas were not to be. The war in the Pacific found the British scrambling to find enough troops to attack Singapore and the Americans counting on Soviet intervention in Manchuria. To what advantage an earlier declaration of 'cold war'? Perhaps the main result would have been the absorption of even more of Germany by the Red Army, the 'liberation' of Denmark by the Soviets and a swing by the Russians towards the Low Countries. Would a swap of Antwerp for Prague, or Amsterdam for Vienna, have improved Anglo-American security or the chances for world peace?"
Kimball is interested in where the buck stops. There is very little in this book on the infrastructure of the alliance - on the ramifications of what was forged - or even on the crucial relationships between Churchill and Roosevelt and their professional advisers. General Marshall is a much reduced figure here, lame and petulant. General Brooke is a dyspeptic bore.
Field Marshal Dill is barely mentioned. The Big Two rule OK. "They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense the creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or attain; all the things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realisation and embodiment, of the Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the world's history, it may justly be considered, was the history of these." Thus Carlyle on Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, a celebrated series of lectures delivered in May 1840, 100 years exactly before several of their number fought to the death for the hand of a prostrate Europe. It is curious that the last years of the 20th century seem to be a good time for heroes of this sort. Kimball is by no means worshipful, yet the general tendency in his treatment of Roosevelt, in particular, is to exonerate. "The collapse of colonial empires was not a product of Yalta. Neither was the division of Europe or the Soviet-American settlement in the Far East, even if some details were worked out... In most ways Yalta was a fulfilment of what had already been worked out." Kimball has the rare courage to express occasional bafflement: "Who knows about F.D.R.?" he asks rhetorically at one point - but the conception of his book is irreducibly heroic. Forged in War is a monumental work, and an exceptionally accomplished one. Part of the accomplishment lies in Kimball humanising its subjects. Warren Kimball's great man is hero con brio.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.
Forged In War: Churchill, Roosevelt and the Second World War
Author - Warren Kimball
ISBN - 0 00 215482X
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 422