Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War

Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War

by Eric Larrabee

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Few American presidents have exercised their constitutional authority as commander in chief with more determination than Franklin D. Roosevelt. He intervened in military operations more often and to better effect than his contemporaries Churchill and Stalin, and maneuvered events so that the Grand Alliance was directed from Washington. In this expansive history, Eric Larrabee examines the extent and importance of FDR's wartime leadership through his key military leaders—Marshall, King, Arnold, MacArthur, Vandergrift, Nimitz, Eisenhower, Stilwell, and LeMay. Devoting a chapter to each man, the author studies Roosevelt's impact on their personalities, their battles (sometimes with each other), and the consequences of their decisions. He also addresses such critical subjects as Roosevelt's responsibility for the war and how well it achieved his goals. First published in 1987, this comprehensive portrait of the titans of the American military effort in World War II is available in a new paperback edition for the first time in sixteen years.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781682471746
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 735
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Eric Larrabee, a World War II army veteran, is the author of several books. He has taught at Columbia, among other New York universities, and served on the National Endowment for the Arts and New York City Council on the Arts.

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Commander in Chief


Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 1987 Eric Larrabee
All right reserved.

Chapter One


* * *

In Washington, D.C., which has never lacked for warm summers, the spring of 1941 ushered in one of the hottest on record. Its mood was restive. "The situation," wrote the secretary of war in his diary, "has been very trying for the past few days ... everybody asking what is going to be done and no way of finding out whether anything will be done." For nearly five months, in the face of events daily more threatening, the President had made no statement of how he proposed to deal with them. The war was going badly for Great Britain; his efforts to safeguard its survival were faltering.

Physically he was almost inaccessible. During the fortnight from May 14 to May 27 he spent most of his time in bed, with what he claimed was a persistent cold. Robert Sherwood, the playwright, who had become one of the principal writers of his speeches, had a long talk with him in his bedroom and noticed that he never coughed or sneezed or blew his nose. When Sherwood remarked on this to Roosevelt's secretary Missy LeHand, of all those close to Roosevelt the closest, she smiled. "What he's suffering from most of all," she said, "is a ease of pure exasperation."

The President had been scheduled to make an address on May 14-Pan American Day, a favorite State Department occasion for hemispheric piety-but had postponed it to the twenty-seventh, adding an element of suspense to what was already anticipation. The news that Sherwood and Judge Samuel I. Rosenman were in Washington, at work on the speech, was reported on the radio, to their discomfort and the President's amusement. In three days, twelve thousand letters came in to the White House, offering advice; from within the government came drafts and requests to be consulted. The two speechwriters found themselves the objects of flattering attention from the many functionaries who wanted to know, or genuinely needed to know, what was in the wind. Everybody wondered what the President was going to say, apparently the President included.

The administration seemed to be stalled on dead center. This was an interlude of equilibrium in which the forces that pushed and pulled at Roosevelt were approximately in balance, heightening his frustration but exposing its origins. In a fireside chat just before year's end, after his triumphant reelection for a third term, he had given every sign of recapturing his sense of purpose, issuing a clarion call for freedom, using the phrase "arsenal of democracy" to describe what America intended to be, and asking the country to supply arms for the Allies "with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war."

In March, the Lend-Lease Act, hammered out in the heat of debate, had given the President's words the authority of a national resolve. Shortly after the bill was passed, he told the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association that in a democracy decisions may come slowly but, once made, speak with the voice of a hundred thirty million people, so that "the world is no longer left in doubt." Yet there were many doubts.

The power of isolationist feeling in the country at large, reflected and perhaps amplified in the halls of Congress, remained forbiddingly strong. This was a more potent force than it is now easy to realize. Its center was the midwestern heartland, where the world ended with the horizon of the bountiful prairie and there lived people who had never seen the sea. It drew upon abhorrence of war, and the belief-fortified by the findings of historians-that American entry into World War I had been a mistake, if not a trick engineered by the British, the bankers, and the big munitions-makers. It incorporated a mistrust of Europe, viewed as a distant family of quarrelsome nations whose ancient animosities were properly no concern of ours, while it also had ethnic roots among hyphenated Americans whose inheritance predisposed them to mistrust the British and the French. It held that if all else failed, the best defense of America lay on our ocean frontiers, securely guarded by a vigilant navy, and it numbered among its adherents many of the publicly prominent and politically powerful.

At the same time, the aims embodied in Lend-Lease were far short of being realized. Under the mild regime of the Office of Production Management (OPM), the "arsenal" was not producing the goods in sufficient quantity, and in the absence of American naval convoys, not enough of them were getting across the Atlantic. The President seemed not to acknowledge this. For the task of disentangling his industrial controls he had shown no appetite, and to the question of convoys-as contrasted to the euphemistic halfway measure called "patrols," a distinction he insisted on-his answers had been peevish and elliptical. With the nation split in two, he openly took neither side, and on the assumption that his next moves were subject to suasion, public pressures on him mounted. If the isolationists damned him for dragging us to war, the interventionists damned him again for not dragging harder.

Franklin D. Roosevelt has enjoyed, and in some historical accounts still does enjoy, a reputation for either duplicity or impenetrable complexity in his prewar conduct of foreign affairs that hardly seems justified. Perhaps the subsequent unveiling of events he had foreseen, though with no enthusiasm, clothes him with simpler intentions in our eyes. Perhaps he seemed complicated to people who thought his problems were simple, or were trying to sell him simple solutions of their own contriving. At any rate, there is little that now seems baffling or two-faced about his reluctance to lead a parade toward war.

He had in effect made a compact with the electorate that he had every reason for wishing to keep. He had closely observed, and not forgotten, the failure of Woodrow Wilson to reinforce the Executive's foreign policies with congressional backing. He had experimented, in his "quarantine the aggressors" speech of October 1937, with a posture that tried to combine an interventionist distaste for the dictators with an isolationist desire to keep them at a distance, and had been sadly disappointed by the pallid response. There were in his own make-up sentiments of the isolationist that were thoroughly at home there.

"The primary purpose of the United States of America," he had said in 1935, "is to avoid being drawn into war." He had held back in the face of early depredations by the Axis powers, and time and again made clear that he was more interested in preventing war profiteering, and curbing American trade with warring nations through neutrality laws, than he was in collective security with its risk of involvement. "If we face the choice of profit or peace," he said in his Chautauqua speech of 1936, "the Nation will answer-must answer-'we choose peace.'"

If he had since come to believe that the Fascist regimes must be resisted, and that their aggressiveness might eventually reach our shores whether we wished it or not, then he had done so without entirely disavowing his earlier convictions. In 1940, he found himself, even in an election campaign against an opponent so ardently pro-Ally as Wendell Willkie, offering isolationist assurances-"I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars"-that troubled the writers who watched him insert them into his speeches.

In 1941, his awareness that he faced a nation divided as he himself had been divided was all too apparent. Increasingly he seemed to insist on being pushed-by a combination of advisers, newspapers, facts, and general outcry-into doing things, like trading fifty over-age destroyers for British bases, that his judgment alone might have prompted him to do. Yet it must also be said even now, as his associates had to admit at the time, that Roosevelt demonstrably knew more about American opinion than they did, and that if here he was mistaken, it was among his rare misreadings of the public pulse.

* * *

The question of President Roosevelt's "responsibility" for involving the United States in World War II can best be answered by examining his administration in its process of arriving at policy, and for this purpose the "May Crisis" of 1941 is well suited. The long, slow slide down to the moment of truth at Pearl Harbor on December 7 had only imperceptibly begun. This was arguably the last interval of time in which war might have been avoided or significantly stalled, in which the possibilities for peace (if in fact they existed) could have been reached out to and seized by imaginative statesmanship.

What went on in these weeks is also unusually well documented, since virtually all of the participants-the President, as always, excepted-put themselves on record as to what they were doing or thinking or saying to each other. As for Roosevelt himself, if there is any isolable instance where his thought processes about the coming of war can be evoked, and from what he did not do or say as much as from what he did, then it can be sought here.

His speechwriters had their work cut out for them. Contrary to their usual procedure, Sherwood and Rosenman had been given no instructions as to either form or content. Harry Hopkins, then administrator of Lend-Lease, was a semi-invalid too ill to help, though they kept him informed of their progress. (Hopkins had been invited to sleep at the White House, had stayed on, and had been living there in the Lincoln Room for almost a year to the day; he possessed unequaled skill at reading the Roosevelt mind but at this stage could offer them only hints and moral support.) Though the President had dictated some preliminary paragraphs, they were not much use; his first drafts, as he was the first to admit, tended to be rough.

Judge Rosenman arrived in Washington on Friday, May 23, and after dinner he and Sherwood repaired to the Cabinet Room, where they labored, over coffee and sandwiches, until five in the morning. This was their preferred speechwriting spot-it provided quiet and a large table for folders and memoranda-and their routine was well established. Though Sherwood had joined the team only a month before last year's election, Rosenman had been helping with Roosevelt speeches since the first campaign for governor of New York, in 1928. They were both members of the family, at any rate. Rosenman recalled later that when Mrs. Roosevelt maternally rebuked them at breakfast the next morning for having had a light on at 3:00 A.M., and he had replied that she must have been up pretty late herself, she had protested, "I was working on my mail!" and wondered why the others laughed.

A major presidential speech is far more than a speech. It is both a statement and an instrument of executive purpose. Its text will be minutely studied, both at home and abroad, for veiled and buried implications, for hints of omission and carefully calculated turns of phrase, which tell the practiced reader what he wants to know about the government's current cast of mind. Within the administration itself the speech may set a tone, discourage one faction or put another to work, lay down a line of action as firmly as though it were an executive order.

Hence the elaborate attention paid to each word, and the importance, for those who contribute drafts, of what stays in and what goes out. Two examples: In this instance it was desirable to avoid provoking either Japan or Russia, to keep one out of the war as long as possible and encourage the other to hold firm if attacked. (The attack was a month away, as we and the British knew and had told the Russians, though Stalin would not believe it.) This meant that they could not mention either nation, or use "dictatorships," Roosevelt's customary term of opprobrium, but must say only "Axis," and it also meant that in a list of countries overrun by aggression, the name of Finland, after prolonged consideration, would be dropped.

On Friday, to let everyone into the act, there had been a cabinet meeting at which views were canvassed, but like most Roosevelt cabinet meetings, it did not add up to much. The war hawks-Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes-came away with the impression that on the critical convoy question the President was balky, playing with the notion that he might be rescued from his boxed-in position by an "incident," like the sinking of an American ship by the Germans.

Such had in fact happened two days earlier when the Robin Moor, bound for South Africa with a routine cargo, had been torpedoed in the South Atlantic, the first American merchantman to fall victim to the U-boats, though news of this did not reach the White House until after the speech. Hopkins then sent the President an indignant memo proposing that the Navy be given freedom to react as it saw fit, but Roosevelt refused to issue any such instructions and confined himself to a blustery message to Congress which asked for no action. His thinking about this was not so baldly manipulative of the public as he allowed others (Churchill among them) to imagine.

The cabinet was divided, in any case. Earlier in the month, with the President's prior knowledge, both Knox and Stimson had come out unequivocally for convoys and for repeal of the Neutrality Act. Stimson had even prepared a draft resolution to be sent to Congress, as though such a thing could conceivably be passed, authorizing the President to resort to force. But their counsel had not prevailed, and was not prevailing now.

The secretary of war had long been convinced that war was inevitable and was eager to get into it. Henry L. Stimson was a seasoned product of the Teddy Roosevelt era of upper-class ventures into government, a man of set character accentuated by a look of dogged respectability, with silvering hair parted in the middle and a brisk mustache. His co-workers often called him Colonel Stimson, his rank in a field artillery regiment in World War I; the President called him Harry.

An active career, part in public service and part in private practice as a lawyer, had not prepared him to be comfortable with the tactics of indirection and delay; he thought the second Roosevelt would be a greater politician if only he were a "less artful one," as McGeorge Bundy put it in the memoir he helped Stimson write. Stimson wanted the President to seize the moral initiative, and when he was convinced that a proposed course was necessary, feasible, and morally correct, he did not linger over it.

Nor did he hesitate to speak his mind. At seventy-three, Stimson was no stranger to high office.


Excerpted from Commander in Chief by ERIC LARRABEE Copyright © 1987 by Eric Larrabee. Excerpted by permission.
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