Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What We're Reading: Leading a Nation to War

Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World,
by Michael Fullilove

America’s entry into World War II was the most momentous event in American history of the 20th Century. It decided the fate of the world and set the stage for the dominant role of the United States in world affairs that continues to this day. Until recently, historiography of World War II has been preoccupied with the dramatic military history of the war, events like Pearl Harbor, the Normandy landing, and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Recently historians have given greater attention to the political prologue to World War II that took place here in the United States, the important years of 1939-1941 when the country debated--often bitterly--what its role in the conflict in Europe would be and its place in the world. Hindsight makes the U.S. involvement in the war seem ineluctible and predestined, but three new books have come out this year that resurrect the uncertainty of those years and suggest  that events might have taken a different course.

In Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941by Lynne Olson (previously reviewed in this blog), Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America in the War and into the World, by Michael Fullilove, and 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler---The Election Amid the Storm. by Susan Dunn, it becomes clear that America’s course was not foreordained but a choice born of popular deliberation and democratic leadership. While certainly domestic economic issues and the programs and policies of the New Deal were causes of national political divisions during this period, all of these books view the conflict between isolationism and internationalism as the major political framework of those years. The debates that occurred during these years about American foreign policy and America’s role internationally are of interest and relevance to us today because echoes of that debate seem to recur on the eve of every major American foreign policy crisis. It is an argument that is perennial and visceral, one that seems to have its origin in the popular understanding, if not the very nature, of democracy in the United States. The test in 1940 was whether a democratic nation could prepare for and successfully prosecute a major war in the 20th century without sacrificing its fundamental commitment to democratic freedoms. One faction believed it could not, another believed that it had to find a way to do that or totalitarian systems of government would triumph internationally.

While these books necessarily cover some of the same ground, they differ enough in focus that each of them has something important to add to our understanding of these years. None of them, it must be said, are sympathetic to the isolationist arguments, although Olson’s book is probably the book written least under the spell of the Roosevelt mythology. Her book gives an excellent overview of the various national organizations-- those non-governmental independent citizens' groups on both sides of the debate--that worked to influence popular opinion and national policy. Rendezvous with Destiny is primarily concerned with the diplomatic missions that Roosevelt sponsored in these years and explores how they were used to establish working relationships with those countries that would eventually become our allies and to shape American public opinion in favor of American entry into the conflict. 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler---The Election Amid the Storm is the book for those interested in the electoral drama of Roosevelt’s unprecedented run for a third term and how he shaped the national debate in such a way as to secure his reelection.

Rendezvous with Destiny reconstructs the diplomatic missions of five men who travelled overseas during these critical years, officially or in a semi-official capacity, as Franklin Roosevelt’s personal envoys. In early 1940, Roosevelt sent Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles to visit the leaders of the countries at war: Germany, Great Britain, and France, and the as-yet-neutral Italy. Later that year he sent Colonel William J. Donovan to London to learn about British intelligence operations (Donovan later became head of the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, the organization that coordinated American intelligence operations during the war) and to assess the state of British military strength (and assistance needs) as well as to get a feel for British morale. Both of these missions greatly annoyed the United States Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, who felt he had been left in the dark and snubbed in his official role by Roosevelt; and indeed, he had been. Roosevelt had come to have little trust in Kennedy as an objective source of information about the British war effort. Kennedy took a very defeatist view of Britain’s chances of survival, and at the time, Roosevelt was desperately seeking a solid assessment of whether Britain could survive, and whether or not the assistance of the United States could make a difference or would be a wasted expense of political capital and armaments. Both Rendezvous with Destiny and 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler---The Election Amid the Storm are highly critical of Joseph Kennedy’s tenure as ambassador.

In early 1941, Roosevelt sent his personal assistant, Harry Hopkins, to meet with Winston Churchill to lay the groundwork for the Lend-Lease program of armaments to Britain and to assure Churchill of Roosevelt’s support, and he returned again in July of 1941 to arrange for the Atlantic Conference between Britain and the United States that followed that August. A perhaps unexpected Roosevelt envoy was Wendell Wilkie, the man he had just defeated in the 1940 election, who for the most part shared Roosevelt’s internationalist views and strong desire to aid Britain in the war. Willkie came out in support of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease proposal and decided he would visit Britain to observe the situation first hand so that he might participate in the discussions about how to make Lend-Lease most effective. He visited Roosevelt shortly before his trip and was entrusted with a personal note of support from Roosevelt to Churchill. Roosevelt viewed Willkie’s mission as one that would help solidify American public opinion in support of Britain, reassure the British of American support, and provide information that might support his inclination to bet on Britain, as indeed Willkie’s public statements and reports proved to be. Willkie’s trip, celebrated in Britain and in the United States, proved to be a public relations triumph for Roosevelt. In 1941, Roosevelt sent Averell Harriman to London (he also visited the Middle East) to serve as his point man in coordinating the Lend-Lease program and aid to Britain. Harriman proved to be an effective administrator, and he became an intimate in Churchill’s circle (more intimate than even the prime minister knew, since he carried on a clandestine affair with Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill). Harry Hopkins, as previously noted, returned as Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Churchill in July of 1941. Hopkins's arrival in Britain occurred only shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and when Hopkins had finished his mission in London, he suggested to Roosevelt that he proceed from there to meet with Stalin in Moscow. Roosevelt heartily approved of the idea, desperate for a firsthand assessment of the Soviet Union’s ability to fend off the German onslaught. The account of Hopkins’s trip to Moscow is probably the highlight of Rendezvous with Destiny, a colorful, dramatic and perilous mission to which the photographer Margaret Bourke White was also a witness; she left a wonderful account of her time there and her photo session with Stalin and Hopkins. Rendezvous with Destiny also makes clear the critical and astonishingly huge role Harry Hopkins had in shaping world events during this time, certainly with more power and impact than many Presidents have had. A book was published earlier this year on Hopkins, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, by David Roll.

Harry Hopkins, left, and Stalin, in Moscow,
photographed by Bourke-White
Fullilove reconstructs with a novelistic flair the details of these diplomatic missions from a great many sources, and is able to give us a sense of being insiders, which is a feat considering that all of these missions (with perhaps the exception of Willkie’s very public progress through Britain) were largely reserved if not clandestine affairs. But while we are interested to learn of the personalities and accomplishments of Roosevelt’s envoys, the brooding presence in Rendezvous with Destiny is FDR himself. We get a portrait of a chief executive unwilling to trust conventional channels like the state department, interested in making personal connections with other leaders, and one desperately seeking the unbiased information that might allow him to calculate the odds and set a course of American policy, one that if it could not keep America out of war, might a least make victory possible.

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