Warts of the war leaders

Allies at War - The War Within World War II
August 30, 2002

War is a nasty business. One meets treachery, deceit, overweening ambition and ruthless vindictiveness. And that's before one gets to grips with the enemy. Thomas Fleming's portrait of Franklin Roosevelt as war leader is not so much warts and all, as a mass of gross, disfiguring wens.

Thus, Roosevelt very probably caused the leak of his war plans against Germany three days before Pearl Harbor: "There is no absolute proof of this scenario, but it fits the devious side of Franklin D. Roosevelt's personality," writes Fleming. "I have no hard evidence," claimed General Wedemeyer, who initially fell under suspicion, "but I have always been convinced on some intuitional level, that President Roosevelt authorised it." The intention, says Fleming, was to provoke Hitler into war. Hitler duly declared war (presumably therefore demonstrating Roosevelt's accurate appraisal of the threat he posed). But if this was Roosevelt's intention, he had now foolishly revealed America's military weakness. Prior to 1943, Germany had the strength to form a defensive line on the Russian front, construct a sealed European fortress and make the Mediterranean a German lake. Had Hitler chosen this strategy, Stalingrad would never have occurred; and the North African, Italian and Normandy landings would have been well-nigh impossible. Only the chance of Russian counter-attacks in December 1941 made Hitler lose his cool and saved Roosevelt from the effects of his own folly.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, "The charge that Roosevelt wanted the Japanese to attack the Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor remains unproven", but what otherwise was the logic of positioning it there, given that Pearl Harbor was more than 5,000 miles from American bases in the Philippines? According to Fleming, "race-based contempt" in the US had denigrated Japanese military effectiveness and persuaded Roosevelt to take a gamble. Hence his shock when he learnt the truth about the destruction: he "was as white as a sheet. He was visibly shaken. You know, I think he expected to get hit: but he did not expect to get hurt." Of course, the genuine surprise element in the Japanese attack might suggest that, even by Roosevelt's standards of "Byzantine intrigue", he still had something to learn.

Why did he do all this? Partly because, argues Fleming, "he saw a pattern of aggression by Japan, Italy and Germany, beginning as far back as 1931". Roosevelt said: "Modern warfare, as conducted in the Nazi manner, is a dirty business." And surely Roosevelt had a point here? But this perception apparently conceals Roosevelt's real motive for encouraging war: his "hubris". The New Dealers wanted to fight a war to salvage their aborted domestic reform plans and expand them globally. Of course they were no good at it. "As the war gathered momentum, idealism repeatedly lost to ruthless realism. Only a dwindling handful of New Dealers groped for high moral ground. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them."

Hence Roosevelt's insistence on "unconditional surrender". Apart from prolonging the war - Fleming calculates it cost a further 8 million lives - it also, he maintains, delivered a "lethal blow" to a possible coup d'etat against Hitler at the time of Stalingrad. Perhaps. Later, he says, it constrained Harry Truman to use the atomic bomb to obtain the surrender of Japan. Here, one might recall that the Japanese were readying to resist invasion with the savagery they had shown on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and that even after two A-bombs had been dropped some Japanese still countenanced resistance. Roosevelt's opinion that "the very word Reich had to be scoured from the German soul" was surely not, when one considers Auschwitz, so unreasonable?

Then there was area bombing. Roosevelt, says Fleming, did not like "the killing. But he saw no other way to stop it but by forcing the Germans and Japanese to change their militaristic philosophy." In fact, in its early stages at least, area bombing gave the allies the second front, albeit in the air, that they had promised Stalin; and thereby scotched a separate Nazi-Soviet peace (with memories of Brest-Litovsk in 1918) that offered Hitler his one chance of survival. Meanwhile back home, "revealing the Bataan death march was part of the Roosevelt administration's continued manipulation of the American people's emotions about the war". Well, the march was hardly spin by Roosevelt: it actually happened as described.

There is more, much more, of this. Roosevelt, ill and dying, works only about 20 hours a week. He cons the Poles, but Stalin runs rings round him. He derides Cordell Hull, ditches Henry Wallace, disdains Truman. It is not that Fleming does not have a point here - though James MacGregor Burns 30 years ago with far greater understanding and generosity highlighted the tensions between "the man of principle, of ideals, of faith... and the man of Realpolitik ". It is the unrelenting one-sidedness of the account that makes it so questionable.

Anyone thinking that Roosevelt was a passably good president, even a great one, might wonder how the US ever triumphed over its enemies. Fleming explains: "While the New Dealers dwindled into impotence in Washington, the US was demonstrating the awesome power of the war machine that the dollar-a-year big businessmen and their army and navy partners had created with the encouragement of Dr Win-the-War." So Roosevelt, whose notion it was, did his bit after all. And Roosevelt was actually more representative of a stronger liberal public opinion than Fleming allows. Roosevelt could have won all his election victories without any of the Southern states, while their senators and representatives were often the beneficiaries of widespread voter disenfranchisement or congressional districts drawn to reflect disproportionate rural interests. And there is surely some truth in Wallace's observation in 1944 "that every vote for Dewey and Bricker would be applauded in Berlin" (the self-same Dewey whom Fleming concedes had "all but total inexperience in foreign affairs").

Fleming is very readable. His book has the merit of making one think even when one disagrees with it profoundly. But it might be wise to keep the book away from less critical students.

Simon Berthon's story is much more straightforward; it is the plot that makes for interest. It tells how Roosevelt and Churchill dealt with de Gaulle, somewhat improbably styled "the monster of Hampstead". Roosevelt remembered the Petain of the first world war, while Churchill had seen at close hand his response as France collapsed in 1940 and de Gaulle had stood out by virtue of his youth and energy. At this time, the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship was still tentative and Roosevelt was facing an election. Then came Dakar, an operation of obvious interest to the American president. "Americans liked winners; and at this moment de Gaulle did not look like one." But his wounding by "Vichy's constant trumpeting that he was Churchill's poodle" only exacerbated de Gaulle's rudeness and shows of independence. Since Roosevelt "would always play the odds politically", "if Laval were to give him Paris he would support him"; thus Roosevelt's "policy continued to be in conflict with the British who wanted a strong, unified French authority". Ultimately, his "besting by de Gaulle was his most significant defeat of the war".

This is a useful, fair-minded book for anyone who wants to know what happened. However, unlike Fleming's book, which is beautifully produced, Berthon's looks as if the paper will soon deteriorate. It deserves better.

John Kentleton is senior fellow in history, University of Liverpool.

Allies at War: The Book of the BBC TV Series

Author - Simon Berthon
ISBN - 0 00 711622 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 345

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