on July 8, 2007
This is a study of Franklin D. Roosevelt's leadership as president between the years 1940-1945. The author is certainly a scholar on President Roosevelt and this study is choke full of information that makes this an extremely informative, but for me, a bit of a slow read. Burns' thesis is that Roosevelt was both the idealist and the realist. His often lofty goals and dreams could often be compromised for the more pragmatic (some might say perfidious) decisions reached. It is indeed a dichotomy that shows throughout this study. But despite this lack of cohesion between an effectual joining of these two traits, Roosevelt's wartime leadership is still heralded by most historians.
For some who might want to know more about the actual military engagements in Europe and the Pacific, you might be a bit disappointed. This book is more concerned with strategies developed by Roosevelt and other leaders for both fronts, where priority should be given, how the alliance worked together and so forth. Roosevelt's respect for public opinion was certainly a major factor for his early hesitancy to rush to the aid of Great Britain. Indeed, Roosevelt was seemingly always guided by popular opinion, though I think he probably was ahead of it in ways.
Some of the interesting facets of this book that helped shed some insight for me on Roosevelt's foreign policy was his belief that China had to be a major player in the postwar world, even though he perhaps overestimated China's military capabilities under Chiang Kai-shek. His understanding of the importance of trying to keep good relations with Russia came through as well. His anti-colonialism was often used to tweak Churchill, though as Burns stated, Roosevelt would never go too far in the risk of jeopardizing allied partnership. In these cases, especially with Russia and Great Britain, we see many instances where Roosevelt would often suppress some of his loftier goals for the postwar world for practical, short term success.
The chapters that I thought were the best were the ones that dealt with the meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt and later between the Big Three at Tehran and Yalta. The chapter entitled Dominion of Mars was also well written and powerful, as was the last chapter. The worries, the tensions, the importance of the times all came through to me in this book. The personality traits of Roosevelt were also illuminated, though as Burns mentioned, he was a complex character and very hard to truly understand.
Burns also proves himself to be a very balanced historian, detailing the things Roosevelt knew how to do and what he did right along with those things he did not excel in. Some have questioned his commitment to Civil Rights for blacks, many have castigated the Japanese-American internment camps, his efforts on helping the Jews, his dealings with Stalin and so forth. I think these and other questions are fair criticisms and let's face it, no man when dealing with so many difficult questions and situations will come off clean on all points. There can be no doubt that Franklin Roosevelt was a giant in American politics and that perhaps he was indeed the right man for the job at such a critical juncture in world history.
on April 15, 2000
This is Mr. Burns' companion volume to his Lion and the Fox (check that out). This focuses on FDR's WWII War Administration: policies, attitudes, hopes and worldly goals.
FDR's dedication to the well-being of the United States in WWII is evidenced by the fact that to start with, he didn't want a third term in office come 1940. Indeed, such aspirations were frowned upon in the political community. It did not stop him; as he saw it, it was his duty and obligation to the American people to keep familiar leadership in time of international turmoil. Other obstacles: struggles to arm allies, constant planning and meeting with allied leaders, and gradual, failing health. Burns also shows FDR's political savvy, using the utilization for war to the nation's advantage. Many unemployed workers were put back to work, which helped shift American industry into an overdrive that didn't stop for decades. Vision: as a disciple of Woodrow Wilson, he had a vision of a United Nations. One that he did not live to see.
For anyone reading about FDR, or World War II, this companion volume on his war administration is a must for anyone's collection, as it has become in mine.
on May 24, 2011
Burn's biography of President Roosevelt is a broad historical review of America's role in World War II, with a special focus on the American president. Burns has established himself as an academic authority on the Roosevelt presidency, and his biographies on Roosevelt have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Relying primarily on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and other collections and archives, Burns effectively illustrates the myriad of responsibilities facing the President of the United States during the war. Beyond broad strategy goals, Roosevelt was tasked with providing political victories, promoting morale, shaping economic policy during mobilization, controlling inflation and planning for the post-war world. Throughout the war, conflicts erupted between military planners and politicians, management and labor, and all the various Allied leaders. Roosevelt's flexible, informal style frustrated Marshall and Eisenhower, but it ultimately proved to be an asset in addressing the countless problems facing the Commander in Chief.
Throughout his presidency, a disconnect existed between Roosevelt's high-minded rhetoric and his behind-the-scenes use of Realpolitik. Roosevelt's strong speeches outlined bold, idealistic war aims, but he suffered from indecision behind the scenes, which delayed the United States' commitment before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt's indecision and his vague policy preferences were due to stiff political opposition from isolationist voters at home. The draft-extension bill, for example, survived by only one vote and limited other moves to escalate the war effort.
The attack on Pearl Harbor unified the nation and brought Roosevelt's strategy into focus. Roosevelt unified command between services and nations Joint Chiefs, Atlantic Charter, Declaration of United Nations. He established the War Production Board to coordinate economic mobilization and procurement. A handful of agencies were created to coordinate labor mobilization, weapons development, long range strategic planning, and a host of other wartime concerns.
Still, Roosevelt did not abandon his informal, pragmatic approach to the executive office. At one point, Burns noted Roosevelt's "reliance on talented individuals, not orderly administration" (p. 343). Roosevelt was a hands-on president and he resisted any administrative structures that would reduce his presidential authority. Throughout the crisis of war, Roosevelt was directly involved in all the nuances of war planning, and he got the best out of people by fostering competition and disregarding conventions. The book does a good job of capturing the close working relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill throughout the war. Drawing on both men's correspondence, Burns shows how the two men resolved their differences and forged a unified military throughout the war.
Wars are won on the battlefield, but they require the unification of political support, moral backing, and military capabilities. Roosevelt's leadership promoted the Atlantic Charter and led the Allies to pursue `Unconditional Surrender,' of the Axis powers. Other objectives, such as Jewish security in Europe, domestic civil rights, and relations with Russia, were hampered by the pursuit of total military victory. Roosevelt provided a moral backing for the Allied effort, but he pursued pragmatic, realistic policies to achieve his idealistic ends.
Roosevelt, like all great politicians, formed policies that mirrored public opinion. When the nation was divided, Roosevelt's statements and strategies were cautious and non-committal. Once the US was attacked, isolationist sentiment disappeared and Roosevelt assumed a more decisive leadership role. Burns shows how Roosevelt's personal leadership may have led to inefficiencies and lost opportunities, but it ultimately guided the United States to a decisive military victory. Burns' conclusions follow logically from the incredible detail in his analysis, details that come from well-respected sources. Burns' account of the war is an accessible, comprehensive, and well organized book that gives a favorable impression of Roosevelt's administration during the trying times of World War II.
"Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom" picks up where author James MacGregor Burns' earlier volume "Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox" (see my Amazon review) left off.
Like the first volume, it is a readable study of a master of the political process. Beginning in the autumn of 1940, it tells the story of FDR's skillful guidance of the country down the road leading to involvement in World War II. Going through the building of an internationalist coalition in Congress and the passage of the Lend-Lease and Selective Service bills, the latter which passed by one vote, the reader come to appreciate the tight rope which FDR had to negotiate in order to prepare his generation for its greatest rendezvous with destiny. Amidst those challenges, Roosevelt devised a strategy with which to guide the U.S. through the choppy seas that he saw ahead. Many think of America's involvement as beginning with Pearl Harbor, but this book outlines the beginning of the war with the naval involvement in the North Atlantic which brought the U.S. closer and closer to active combat.
The attack on Pearl Harbor brought a new challenge to this soldier who's adhered to the "Europe First" principle. Domestic political and naval pressure was brought to bear to take the war to Japan, which had attacked us, rather than Germany, which was seen as Britain's foe. With determination, FDR balanced the resource demands of the three theatres, Europe, the Pacific and China, while focusing on the defeat of Germany.
The USSR's constant distrust of the Western Allies complicated the issues of where to take the offensive. It was Roosevelt who insisted on Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa, in order to show good faith in establishing a second front to draw pressure off of Russia and to get U.S. troops entangled with Germany so as to weaken the clamor for Japan First.
Burns takes the reader into the major conferences at Casablanca, Cairo, Teheran and Yalta. He presents the positions of each of the major participants, so that this book provides insights into Churchill and Stalin as well as Roosevelt.
As 1944 began, while not deviating from "Dr. Win the War", Roosevelt began to look forward to a world at peace. He looked both at the domestic scene, with a view of a "Second Bill of Rights", really a New, New Deal, and a United Nations organization with which he strove to complete the work of his hero, Woodrow Wilson.
As the War wound to completion, so the life of this soldier gradually flickered and went out. While documenting the deterioration in FDR's health, Burns also points out favorable reports of those who did meet him when his health and enthusiasm were high.
This book, in conjunction with "The Lion and the Fox" gives the reader an excellent whole life biography of this most significant Twentieth Century leader.
on April 8, 2011
This is a well-written history of Roosevelt in power from 1940 to his death in 1945. Burns captures well the events and feelings of the times. His descriptions of war-torn Europe and Asia plus the different characters and their roles is very good. The relations of Roosevelt to the power players of the era - Churchill, Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek are excellent. There are depictions of the historical events in Normandy, Stalingrad which are succinct but well-crafted.
He does give us the ambivalence of Roosevelt - who was the best actor of that epoch. Roosevelt would be constantly probing to see how far he could go without jeopardizing his popularity in the U.S. If he would have declared war prior to Pearl Harbour all would have been lost. It may have been justified, but Roosevelt knew how to manage and balance the "right thing" with his hold on power.
But Burns gives us little of the personal Roosevelt. There is little on his relationship with those closest to him - like Eleanor, his mother or his children. Even his relationship with those in his government - Harry Hopkins, Francis Perkins is barely mentioned. Roosevelt was a very communicative human being - he loved gossip and wanted to know what made people tick.
Burns is excellent on the political side of Roosevelt, but the personal side is ignored.
on October 23, 2011
This book was a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. It is a good book and is easy to read. I learned more about FDR during the World War II years from Robert Dallek's book.
on March 20, 2013
A great read on the civilian and political leaders of WWII. We who read military history need to ensure we read about the civilian and political leaders and their decision making, concerns, and personalities as it is "them" who sent us to war. In current history it is them that do not have end strategies and define the missions clearly for our military. Roosevelt and Churchill had a clearly defined strategy and mission for our military in WWII and how the war would end. Unconditional surrender, Atlantic first - Pacific second. The relationships are described with all the egos of the WWII leaders to reach the decisions that decided the war's outcome.
This book was an insight into the civilian decision making and the interaction of the players. If you want to read one book on the civilian leaders and decisions of WWII, this is the book. For me as a conservative retired Marine, it as a side, also gave me an insightin the progressive movement beginning.
We were very lucky nation to have a strong leader like Roosevelt as our war time Commander in Chief during WWII.
Semper Fi - Lest We Forget.
on February 23, 2014
Being born just at the start of our entry into the war, my knowledge of Roosevelt and how he led this country from a isolationist preference to put our entire society on a war footing has always been lacking. This book fills that void and details all of the incredible tricks that he pulled off to balance various constituencies to create the largest war machine ever assembled. The interweaving of politics and war preparation and the detail included in this book, make that period of time come alive. At times it is difficult to relate history books to actual events, however, in this case it only added the richness of Roosevelt's experience both with our country and also with both Churchill and Stalin. One cannot come away from reading this book without a much better appreciation for what the challenges were he faced, how we succeeded to convert our society to a war footing and ultimately how he handled the politics between very different leaders who needed each other desperately at that time. The balance between the Russian front, the battle going on in the Atlantic and in Great Britain, and ultimately our invasions of Africa, Italy and France as well as the balance between the Atlantic and Pacific wars is intriguing. I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand more about that time and how it all played out.
on November 23, 2013
Imagine if you will - a giant chess board. Only instead of it being square shaped with only two players, it's a hexdecagon (a 16 sided shape). There are about 16 different people all playing against one and other. As one of the players, your strategy is to somehow not only be the victor of this colossal chess game, but also ensure some of the players other than yourself manage to beat some of your opponents while never getting the upper hand on you. Many of your "allies" on this chessboard aren't really your friends - you just need them to help you beat some of the participants that you really don't like. Get all that?
Essentially, this is what Franklin Roosevelt had to do for the United States of America before, and during, World War II. All of the geopolitical implications of the major (and minor) players in this game are enough to make your head spin. Yet FDR proves that he's a master of this chess game. He manages to play his chess pieces perfectly and although he might lose a piece or two during the match, he proves that he is a genius.
Let me now say that this is volume 2 of a 2 volume series by James MacGregor Burns. Volume 1 details Roosevelt's life from birth up until 1940. I did not like volume 1. In a word, I thought it was boring. So I wasn't that enthused to pick up this next installment. Let's just say that I was immensely overwhelmed as to how much I enjoyed this one as opposed to the first. I'm thinking the subject matter had a lot to do with it. Reading about the details of the ugliest war in our world's history is much more interesting than reading 500 pages about The New Deal. In many cases, you almost forget this is a book about Roosevelt, and instead think you're actually reading a book about the war. Yet Burns carefully crafts his telling of history to ensure that everything that happens is happening through Roosevelt's eyes.
There's a lot of buildup in the early part of the book to December 7th, 1941. The war actually explodes in Europe more than 2 years prior, and the "good guys" (mainly Winston Churchill - the brand new Prime Minister of England) is soliciting help from FDR anyway that he can. FDR's constituents, however, want no part of a European conflict. Why should we get involved of something that's "over there" when we have enough problems "over here"? So Roosevelt has to walk a fine line. Sadly, he and most other intelligent figures in the government know that America will eventually have to be involved in this ugly conflict. It's just a matter of when. Without going into too much detail, relationships with Japan are not good, and you can actually feel the buildup of tension. Once Pearl Harbor is attacked, no one is really surprised. There's almost a sense of "relief" (dare I use that word) that the waiting is over.
So Roosevelt's job is to motivate his countrymen towards a sense of inevitable duty, and as history as shown us, he does a remarkable job. We're not given too many glimpses into the everyday cries of sacrifice and patriotism. Instead the author focuses on the masterful global wide chess game. FDR seems to always be thinking of the future, always visualizing the chess board two or three moves in the time to come. He knows what will happen, and his energy therefore is devoted to what his next moves are to be. Once the war starts, Roosevelt knows that there will be setbacks. Yet once we arrive at about 1943, the consensus amongst the major powers is that the allies will, without a doubt, actually win the war. It's just a matter of when.
A lot of negotiating and bickering goes on between Roosevelt, Churchill and Joseph Stalin. These three men want very different things, have different priorities, different objectives and seem to be at odds with each other quite a lot. It's a bit interesting seeing FDR's relationship with Stalin, particularly. Nowhere in these pages is the man portrayed as the evil butcher that we know he was. He never comes across as a soft, cuddly teddy bear, but he's always portrayed here as "one of the good guys". Perhaps this is because Roosevelt had to treat him with kid gloves since our ultimate goal was to destroy Adolf Hitler. In other words, the only reason Russia was our ally in World War II was because Nazi-ism was a greater evil than communism.
The book isn't entirely about the War. There are plenty of issues happening within the continent, yet FDR still manages to handle all of it wonderfully. Still, with all of the problems at home, the war is the main thing on everyone's mind, and just about everything that is done in the U.S. is geared towards winning the conflict and bringing the boys back home as soon as possible. Yet there is still a lot of bickering within the halls of congress about just about anything, so things obviously weren't that much better than they are today.
1944 arrives. D-Day is a success and there are talks of "ending the war by Christmas", yet within all of this drama, it's time for another presidential election. According to Roosevelt, he doesn't really "want" a fourth term, but people are obdurate in their feelings and desires. So he runs again and wins. Oddly, before the election, FDR starts to have serious health issues. He pushes them down as best he can, and makes a huge effort to appear presidential, yet those closest to him are worried. Many times, you have to wonder if his illness may have hampered some of the ongoing relationships with Churchill and Stalin, yet the author maintains that Roosevelt handles things just fine - he just has to treble his efforts to overcome these issues. I couldn't help wondering that if the internet or cable television had been around, if FDR would have been re-elected. Yet since most people couldn't "see" him frequently, his illness was more gossip than fact among most.
So as the war starts to wind down in 1945, sadly, so does Roosevelt. He passes away in April, without getting to see final victory in Europe a few short weeks later, and victory over Japan a few months after. This was really the only minor gripe about the book. The author just "ends" the story when Roosevelt dies. I would have enjoyed a postscript that would give a summary of how and when the war ended (it was very different in Europe than it was in Asia), as well as an overview of the state of the world following the end, yet we don't get that here. I was actually very surprised. Still, though, this was a great read and well deserved of the Pulitzer that it received.
After I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln and his advisors ("Team of Rivals"), I made the comment that I felt that God had placed one of the best presidents of the United States directly into the time when we needed one the most. After reading this book, I'd like to believe that The Almighty did the United States one more favor eighty years later.
A truly great man.
on September 7, 2012
Well written, most complete explanation of our entry into WW2 and the complicated relationships among Churchill, FDr, and Stalin. Almost reads like a novel.