History In The Headlines

Rethinking FDR as Commander in Chief

By Christopher Klein
A new book by noted biographer Nigel Hamilton challenges previous assumptions about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role as World War II commander in chief by revealing him to be an underappreciated military leader and a hands-on strategist unafraid to overrule his field commanders.

Rethinking FDR as Commander in ChiefHistory may be written by the victors, but it is also scripted by the living. While military commanders such as General Douglas MacArthur and statesmen such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill penned memoirs trumpeting their roles in winning World War II after the guns fell silent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt never had the chance to tell his tale after passing away in the war’s waning months in April 1945. The popular history of World War II has often been viewed through the lens of those principal players who survived the war, a lens that acclaimed biographer Nigel Hamilton argues has distorted Roosevelt’s role as a wartime commander in chief.

In his new book, “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942,” Hamilton asserts that contrary to the popular image of the president as a commander in chief who delegated the direction of the war to his field commanders, Roosevelt was actually much more deeply involved in the day-to-day operation of the war than previously thought. Roosevelt set wartime strategy from the White House, a hands-on approach born out of what he saw during World War I. “Deference to the military by political leaders in World War I had permitted the senseless battles of attrition on the Western Front,“ Hamilton writes. “For this reason the president was unwilling to delegate something as important as world war to ‘professionals.’”

In “The Mantle of Command,” Hamilton details how Roosevelt overruled the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall when they strongly advocated an invasion across the English Channel in 1942 to open up a Second Front. The commander in chief knew the Allies were not prepared, and many historians believe that such an invasion would likely have been doomed for failure. Instead, Roosevelt implemented a differing military strategy, “Operation Torch,” in which the Allies landed in lightly defended northwest Africa. A skeptical Stimson even bet the president that the invasion would fail, but it succeeded in providing the Allies with an impregnable base from which they were able to launch a successful amphibious invasion of southern Europe that, Hamilton says, “stunned Hitler and turned the tide of war.”

Hamilton says that the popular image of Roosevelt as commander in chief has suffered in comparison to that of Churchill. While the British prime minister has been depicted as huddling in underground war rooms while bombs rained down upon London, Hamilton says Roosevelt was “portrayed as a marvelously avuncular, generous and understanding figure: a president who is persuaded by the British prime minister to do the right thing—namely to give Churchill the munitions, the ships, the tanks, the planes and the men with which Churchill and his merry men could and would win the war.” According to “The Mantle of Command,” however, it was Roosevelt, not Churchill, who dictated the military course of World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by saving Australia and the British in the Far East after the fall of Singapore and Burma and by ordering the Doolittle Raid and authorizing the naval ambush of the Japanese fleet of aircraft carriers at Midway that changed the war in the Pacific.

Roosevelt’s moral imperative, rather than the principle of self-defense, was the thread running through his direction of the war, Hamilton says. The American president had to prompt a reluctant Churchill to sign the Atlantic Charter in 1941 because it not only outlined the moral objectives of the Allied democracies in opposing Axis tyranny but envisioned independence not only for countries occupied by Nazi Germany but for nations, including those in the British Empire, seeking liberation from colonial rule.

“Roosevelt took his nation from the greatest military defeat in its history, at Pearl Harbor,” Hamilton says, “to the triumph of Torch only 11 months later, which left Hitler speechless and fuming, and gave hope to so many millions of people across occupied Europe that ‘the Americans are coming.’” If Roosevelt had “not learned to wear the mantle of command so firmly, and to overrule his generals” Hamilton writes, “it is quite possible that Hitler would have achieved his aim.”

Churchill also came to appreciate the indispensable role that Roosevelt played in leading the Allies. After a meeting with Roosevelt in the wake of Operation Torch’s success, Churchill waved goodbye to the departing president and remarked to an American diplomat, “If anything happened to that man, I couldn’t stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the furthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known.”

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Categories: Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II