The Mantle of Command

Title:                      The Mantle of Command

Author:                 Nigel Hamilton

Hamilton, Nigel (2014). The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LCCN:    2013045586

D753 .H25 2014


  • Placentia Bay. Before the storm — Pearl Harbor. The U.S. is attacked! ; Hitler’s gamble — Churchill in the White House. The victory plan ; Supreme command ; The President’s Map Room — Trouble with MacArthur. The fighting general — End of an empire. Singapore ; The mockery of the world ; The battleground for civilization — India. No hand on the wheel ; Lessons from the Pacific ; Churchill threatens to resign ; The worst case of jitters — Midway. Doolittle’s Raid ; The Battle of Midway — Tobruk. Churchill’s second coming ; The Fall of Tobruk ; No second Dunquerque ; Avoiding utter catastrophe — Japan first. Citizen warriors ; A staggering crisis ; A rough day — The mutiny. Stimson’s bet ; A definite decision ; A failed mutiny — Reaction in Moscow. Stalin’s prayer — An industrial miracle. A trip across America ; The President’s loyal lieutenant — The tragedy of Dieppe. A Canadian bloodbath — The torch is lit. Something in West Africa ; Alamein ; First light ; The greatest sensation ; Armistice Day.


Date Posted:      March 22, 2017

Reviewed by Evan Thomas[1]

Our understanding of the past is shaped in no small part by the letters and memoirs of the people who made history, or claimed to. Rival statesmen have long understood this. In their nearly 40 years of intimate but tendentious correspondence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were jockeying for posterity; in dueling memoirs a century and a half later, so were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Indeed, one reason Nixon installed the secret White House taping system was to make sure he could rebut Kissinger’s version of events.

In the late 1940s, Winston Churchill wrote a memoir, The Second World War[2], six volumes that helped win him a Nobel Prize in Literature while burnishing his glory. Franklin Roosevelt meant to write his own account, collecting papers and setting up the first presidential library. But, by dying in office, Roosevelt missed the chance to toot his horn as loudly as his wartime partner. Churchill was able to play down or obscure his “often suspect” military leadership, writes Nigel Hamilton in The Mantle of Command, while Roosevelt’s deft but opaque role as commander in chief has been overshadowed or overlooked in many military histories. In his fast-paced, smartly observed recounting of Roosevelt’s first year as war leader, Hamilton means to set the record straight.

Churchill wanted to have the upper hand. He was the suitor, wooing Roosevelt to commit American might to rescue Britain and most of the rest of the world from fascism’s advance. In August of 1941, Churchill arrived on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland for a secret rendezvous with Roosevelt. The British prime minister brought grouse and rare turtle soup, as well as a full military band. American and British sailors joined in singing Anglican hymns; Churchill wept. The entire production had been carefully rehearsed to win a declaration of war from the American president against the Nazis. But Churchill was disappointed. He was induced instead by Roosevelt to sign a declaration of principles that spelled the end of the British Empire by emphasizing national self-determination.

For all his stirring speeches and indomitable will, Churchill was playing with a weak hand. The Empire was spent. Its armies were led by “toffs” and “blimps,” and its men performed poorly against fanatical German and Japanese soldiers. Churchill was crushed by the failure of British troops to put up more than a token defense of Singapore against outmanned Japanese invaders in February 1942. He had by then been forced to accept reality, that he would have to play the role of “vizier” to Roosevelt, whose nation had the material wealth required to win the war.

Roosevelt was also not well served by his military, at least at the outset. The Navy was caught napping at Pearl Harbor, and the Army’s great hero, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was something of a charlatan. While congressmen were demanding that Roosevelt install Mac­Arthur as supreme commander of the war effort, Roosevelt knew that MacArthur was making wild claims from his besieged headquarters on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines and taking a large bribe from the Filipino government.

Roosevelt was willing to put up with the showboating MacArthur—the public needed a hero after the shock of Pearl Harbor. But the commander in chief was determined to run his own war. At one point during the siege of Corregidor, when MacArthur seemed to be flagging, Roosevelt sent him a coldly bracing signal to stand “as prolonged as humanly possible.” The message, Hamilton writes, transformed “MacArthur from a near-wreck into his old self: a great commander.”

To professional soldiers, the genial Roosevelt could seem like a lightweight, an enthusiastic amateur. He was romantic about the Navy—he relaxed by reading Jane’s Fighting Ships[3] and enjoyed sitting up on the bow of a warship and watching the spray fly. But he was crafty, too. He required that “outgoing presidential messages continue to be enciphered and sent by the Navy Department, while incoming messages be deciphered and sent over by the Army Department.” Roosevelt wanted to be “the only person who knew everything,” observed his military aide, George Elsey. The president could be secretive and manipulative. As it turned out, he also had better instincts than the military men who served him.

The top brass—particularly Gen. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, backed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson—wanted to establish a second front and relieve the pressure on Russia with an Allied invasion of Europe as early as the fall of 1942. Roosevelt wisely foresaw disaster. He knew that the invading force, of necessity largely composed of British troops at this stage of the war, was likely to be driven back into the sea. Roosevelt appreciated that the Allies needed to strike a visible blow against the Nazis, but he also saw that American forces required seasoning and time to build up before cracking Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. He insisted instead on invading North Africa and forming a pincer with Britain’s Eighth Army to trap Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

With defiance that bordered on insubordination, Marshall and Stimson maneuvered and inveigled to get their way. But Roosevelt—now with Churchill by his side—insisted on chipping away at the Axis from the periphery. Invading northern Africa, then southern Italy, the Allies learned from battlefield experience, slowly and sometimes painfully, and they were ready when the time came to storm Normandy’s beaches on D-Day in June 1944.

Hamilton ends his story of Roosevelt’s command less than a year into America’s involvement in the war, in November 1942. (“The tough challenges that came thereafter are the subject of another book,” he writes; such a work would have to deal with Roosevelt’s weakening at the end.) The author of a three-volume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Britain’s gifted if prickly World War II ground commander, Hamilton is better known in this country for Reckless Youth, his marvelous biography of the young John F. Kennedy, and for a less successful pair of books on Bill Clinton. Some readers may find that Hamilton, a writer of decided opinions, is overly fond of italic emphasis and, possibly, of Franklin Roosevelt[4]. But the author has an eye for telling detail. In one scene, he describes Churchill pretending to enjoy Roosevelt’s sickly sweet martinis while excusing himself to the bathroom to pour his out and splash in tap water. Hamilton writes with brio and narrative drive. On the whole, The Mantle of Command is splendid: It’s the memoir Roosevelt didn’t get to write.

We seem never to tire of books about World War II, in part because the action was so great and the stakes were so high. But stories of leadership in World War II also live on as a vindication of the Great Man Theory of History, long discarded or debunked by the academy, yet still very much in fashion on best-seller lists. It is probably true that America’s mass-producing factories won the war; Hamilton describes Roosevelt’s gleeful tour of industrial plants in the fall of 1942, watching the planes and tanks rolling off the assembly lines in such volume that by the end of the year the United States would produce more war material than all the Axis powers put together. Nonetheless, Hamilton makes a convincing case that Roosevelt’s shrewd judgment—joined with Churchill’s lionlike spirit—enormously helped to save the day.

[1] Evan Thomas, “War Comes to America,” New York Times (August 1, 2014, p. BR19). Downloaded March 22, 2017. Evan Thomas, the author of Ike’s Bluff, is writing a biography of Richard Nixon.

[2] Churchill, Winston (1948, et al.). The Second World War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

[3] Jane’s Fighting Ships (1969—). London: S. Low, Marston & Co.; New York: Arco

[4] I [FLW] agree that Hamilton is exceedingly fond of FDR, and that is not a fault. I remember coming home from school on April 12, 1945. My mother was working at the sink and tears were streaming down her face. Quite choked, she told me “The president died.” Generations today cannot grasp how revered FDR was during those terrible war years. But Churchill—Hamilton really has a bug about him. On the one hand he blames Churchill for every mistake made by the British Army, and on the other decries the poor generalship of the British forces. He cannot have it both ways. Churchill did have a hand in every pie, but the fall of Singapore cannot be laid at his feet. The military totally failed to provide any defenses on the north of the island. They considered the jungle approach impenetrable. Not a gun faced north. The surrender of Tobruk can hardly be the fault of Churchill. He did not have a ready group of able commanders at hand.

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One Response to The Mantle of Command

  1. Pingback: Commander in Chief | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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