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Book Review: FDR - The War President

FDR: The War President, 1940-1943: A HistoryFDR: The War President, 1940-1943: A History by Kenneth Sydney Davis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kenneth S Davis (not to be confused with the best selling historian Kenneth C Davis) made his life work chronicling the life of Franklin Roosevelt. He did this in four lengthy volumes, passing away before completing the fifth and final chapter of the FDR story. I do not know if these books are still in print, as I found this at Half Price Books. Needless to say, each book stands independently and could be read in order, but it isn't necessary. This one does seem to cover an aspect of FDRs life that to me would make this the most interesting sounding one.

Ostensibly, I am writing this review to recommend this book. The short synopsis is you are either going to be interested in reading a 800 page book about FDR or you are not (and you are probably not). That said, if you are in that slim category, then this is pretty great.

This book covers FDR in an almost weekly detail of everything that happened in this time frame. Although this book can be very dense, there are times when it is quite readable.

What makes this book fascinating is the chronological order. We take a look at things from the rear view as a series of logical dates, but life does not work that way.

For example, Pearl Harbor is a very obvious starting point to America's involvement in WW2, but until that point, it was a major decision. We were definitely leaning that way. Hitler was running over Europe and headed to Britain. U-Boats were sinking passenger ships that Americans were traveling on. There were moments that made the issue urgent. FDR for whatever reason (indecision, health, slowness) does not get us involved in the war during this time. Granted, there is a very vocal group of anti-War sentiment, headed by Charles Lindburgh and America First. This is a difficult decision. Pearl Harbor happens, and America backs the decision, but to that point, there was no obvious answer.

What FDR does is genius. The Lend/lease act is a brilliant maneuver that gets American supplies and weapons to the UK and Russia. It also gets our wartime manufacturing started, which was crippled by legality, which is very important, as it would not been nearly as effective if we started from scratch on December 8, 1941.

FDR makes tough decisions in this time, and it is universally held that he sells out the New Deal for corporate profits. Indeed, corporations made a lot of money on wartime efforts. It's a problem Davis and liberals struggle with. That said, it's clear FDR did the things that made the War effort successful. If he did not take the actions that he took, and appeased the Henry Fords and others, it's unlikely production would have met the stringent requirements needed to be a success. It's impossible to think anyone would have managed that tightrope of making Big Business happy while roping them in to line to put the country's interests first. It's doubtful this would have been something Wendall Wilkie on the right or Henry Wallace on the left could have managed.

Besides FDR, this book does an amazing job of short biographies of the major players of this time. Wilkie, Wallace, Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, Vinegar Joe Stillwell, Chaing Kai-Shek, Charles DeGaulle, George Marshall and many others are presented in full, and in complete detail. I gained renewed appreciation for Ike and Churchill. Churchill for going toe to toe with Stalin, and Ike for being a military genius both in terms of military strategy and bringing decison makers together.

It is interesting the dynamic caused by France. FDR does not seem to like or trust DeGaulle, and often prefers to try to work with the Vichy French government. This is tricky as the Vichy French don't always have the best (Allied) intentions for the country. As the Allies re-take Africa and move into France, it becomes tricky as the Allies generally don't like DeGaulle, but it becomes clear the Vichy French still have Nazi sympathies. Again, this all works out, but is a tightrope.

In Asia, the Allies need support from the British territories, but there are some ironies inherent. The battle is against Japanese imperial rule, but makes it hard to explain with British rule in India and Burma, as well as French and Dutch rule in Indochina. It is clear that Britain does not want to give up rule in India, but the issue is moving forward. FDR needs those soldiers to prevent further Japanese moves as well as being able to transport supplies to the Allies, but he also needs to keep Churchill happy, which means he can't be too overt for Indian independence.

We get to see the geneis of the drawing board for D-Day and the invasion of Africa. Again, this is not an obvious idea, and has many potential drawbacks; plus, there's a lot of moving parts. How many soldiers are the British willing to supply? Will the timing be appropriate to the Russian needs? How will the invasion of North Africa affect French/British relations. D-Day is incredibly risky with its secrecy but also in terms of timing, manpower and execution.

The book ends with a musing on FDR and the holocaust. It is clear that FDR knew the Holocaust was happening, but his reaction is to beat Germany as swiftly as possible. Could he have done more? Davis says yes. The Holocaust, once it appeared verified, makes little to no appearance in the American press. It is also largely categorized as an issue that only is of interest to Jewish Americans- a marginal, ethnic issue. FDR surely could have done more. That said, Davis does make FDRs case as in other parts of the book, FDR was singular in wanting to beat Germany, but also concerned with keeping a coalition, and thinking America was too anti-Semitic to get behind this issue, and so in his mind, beating Germany was his priority.

This was a fascinating biography of these years,and despite the dense size of the book, the multiple individuals and storylines, the large amount of time talking about the bureaucratic workings, it was still pretty readable. I gained a deeper appreciation of FDR, although at the same time, it's clear he is still just a man. The weekly analysis gives a better appreciation of how things developed. The biographical asides were solid and gave a good look at the supporting cast. For a biography of this type , it doesn't get much better.

I knew a lot about FDR and WW2, but I pulled so much new info from this book.

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