Commander in Chief

Title:                      Commander in Chief

Author:                  Nigel Hamilton

Hamilton, Nigel (2016). Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943. Boston ; London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LCCN:    2015037253

D753 .H249 2016


  • Part I. A secret journey — A crazy idea — Aboard the magic carpet — Part II. Total war — The United Nations — What next? — Stalin’s nyet — Addressing Congress — A fool’s paradise — Facing the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Part III. Casablanca — The house of happiness — Hot water — A wonderful picture — In the president’s boudoir — Part IV. Unconditional surrender — Stimson is aghast — De Gaulle — An acerbic interview — The unconditional surrender meeting — Ptv: kasserine — Kasserine — Arch-admirals and arch-generals — Between two forces of evil — Health issues — Part VI. Get Yamamoto! — Inspection tour two — Get Yamamoto! — “He’s dead?” — Part VII. Beware Greeks bearing gifts — Saga of the Niebelungs — A scene from Arabian Nights — The God Neptune — A battle royal — No major operations until 1945 or 1946 — Part VIII. The Riot Act — The Davies Mission — A dozen Dieppes in a day — The future of the world at stake — The president loses patience — Part IX. The first crack in the Axis — Sicily; and Kursk — The Fuehrer flies to Italy — Countercrisis — A fishing expedition in Ontario — The president’s judgment — Part X. Conundrum — Stalin lies — War on two western fronts — The Fuehrer is very optimistic — A cardinal moment — Churchill is stunned — Part XI. Quebec 1943 — The German will to fight — Near homicidal negotiations — A longing in the air — The president is upset; with the Russians — Part XII. The endgame — Close to disaster — A Darwinian struggle — A talk with Archbishop Spellman — The empires of the future — A tragi-comedy of errors — Meeting reality — A message to Congress — Achieving wonders.


Date Posted:      March 31, 2017

Nigel Hamilton is highly pro-Roosevelt, and I don’t dispute that. Roosevelt was one of the few people who are precisely the right person at the right time in history. Roosevelt understood how to lead in the U.S. form of democracy, where until the Japan sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationism in the United States prohibited any real involvement in the war in Europe. To me, however, Hamilton denigrates Churchill as a meddler, a Victorian out of time, and an incompetent regarding military affairs. Hamilton frequently accuses Churchill of having written his memoir of World War II as self-justifying, perhaps even self-aggrandizement.

I do not believe Hamilton has actually read Churchill’s six volume memoir[1]. Hamilton accuses Churchill of a seriously flawed, dangerous Mediterranean strategy, attributed to Churchill’s futile effort to maintain the British empire. He states that Churchill claimed Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, as his own plan, where it was in truth that of Roosevelt. On and on Hamilton goes, attempting to tear down Churchill in order to elevate Roosevelt.

Did Churchill make mistakes? No doubt. Was the failure of the British in fighting the Germans in North Africa the fault of Churchill? Hamilton’s arguments that it was are specious at best. Britain was plagued with poor commanders at the outset of the war. One could go all the way back to Field Marshall Haig, the worst general, perhaps, in the history of war. His descendants were too much aristocrat, and too little fighters to accomplish much more than surrendering British troops.

In truth, Churchill strongly felt that Italy must be taken, at least up to the midpoint of the boot. LSTs were available, and would not be needed until June 1944 for Overlord. Why should British (and American) troops sit idle when there was an opportunity to take an aggressive move in Italy, draw German troops from the eastern front, and perhaps do something to counter Italian communists, as had been done in Greece. How is that incompetent meddling?

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[2]

Review by David M. Shribman[3]

It is a commonplace that World War II was a two-front war. But only now, nearly three-quarters of a century after the war ended, do we fully realize that America’s president was fighting a two-front conflict of his own—one against the Axis powers and one against Winston Churchill, one requiring remarkable organizational skills and the other all of the 32nd president’s political powers and personal diplomacy.

The struggle between the pair—portrayed in Churchill’s memoirs as the closest of allies—produced what Nigel Hamilton describes as “one of the most contentious strategic debates in the history of warfare,” adding, “it is not too bold to say that upon its outcome rested the outcome of World War II, and thus the future of humanity.”

The year 1943, the focus of Hamilton’s Commander in Chief, was the staging ground for the supreme test of trust between the English-speaking leaders, one that revealed Churchill as “a Victorian not only in his colonial-imperialist mindset, as President Roosevelt often remarked, but in his understanding of modern war.” Hamilton’s book is the second volume in his biography of FDR as a war president, following his Mantle of Command (2014)[4]. The project is thus the rebuttal to the Churchill multivolume history of the war that, through its Book of the Month Club edition, sits on the shelves of thousands of homes, mostly unread but still holding sway over the great narrative of the great generation.

In this latest book, Churchill—characterized by FDR as his “active and ardent lieutenant”—emerges neither as visionary (a popular misconception, Hamilton would argue) nor as villain in the crafting of Allied battle plans, but mostly as obstinate. He understood, better than most and perhaps more clearly than Roosevelt, the threat posed by the expansionist impulse of the Allies’ Soviet partner, but he did not understand the broad contour of the military struggle and was preoccupied with the Mediterranean and continually underestimated the power and skill of the Wehrmacht. Indeed Hamilton, a senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School at University of Massachusetts, Boston, contends that had Churchill prevailed in the dispute over whether to mount a cross-channel invasion of Europe—he was adamant in his skepticism—the Allies may well have lost the war.

It was in this period that Roosevelt began to shape his ideas of what became the post-war United Nations, different in structure and intent from the League of Nations that had failed to win Senate approval and that had broken the heart of his Democratic predecessor and onetime boss, Woodrow Wilson. FDR was not going to repeat Wilson’s error of leaving the post-war world to the post-war period.

The wonder of it is that after all these years and all the thousands of books written on the subject, the war still retains the power to shock and surprise. Here is one of Hamilton’s shocks and one of his surprises: General George C. Marshall favored a 1943 invasion of France over one of Sardinia because, he argued, the former would cost only men’s lives but the latter would imperil ships, which be believed would be harder to replace than troops. And the Germans knew that FDR was to meet Churchill at Casablanca, but they thought the venue was Casa Blanca, or the White House.

One of the principal themes is Hamilton’s contention that Churchill was a deeply flawed military strategist, the result of what he called “the irreconcilable difference between his grand strategic ideas and his too-often-ill-considered opportunism—a difference affecting tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives.” He portrays Churchill as a prisoner of his reliance on air power and small offenses at the periphery of Germany’s new European empire.

FDR, too, saw the flaws in the man he nonetheless considered an historic figure. He vigorously opposed Churchill’s determination to retain Britain’s colonies, describing his wartime partner as “a great man for the status quo.” Of Charles DeGaulle, scourge of a parade of American presidents, he said: “I can’t imagine a man I would distrust more.”

Roosevelt had a broad historical view of the origins of World War II that would have troubled both Churchill and De Gaulle. “Don’t think for a moment, Elliott, that Americans would be dying in the Pacific tonight, if it hadn’t been for the shortsighted greed of the French and the British and the Dutch,” he told his son. “Shall we allow them to do it all, all over again?”

In the end, Roosevelt coaxed the British rather than cajoled them, and persuaded rather than pummeled Churchill. He sent the British military leaders on a Williamsburg holiday and bid Churchill to accompany him to Shangri La, now known as Camp David. The tactic of what Hamilton called “extreme hospitality” worked extremely well with British military officials. The prime minister would take more time. But the president would prevail and so, in time, would the Allies.

Review by Patrick J. Garrity[5]

The sequel to Nigel Hamilton’s The Mantle of Command, this book continues to explain, as he sees it, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s political and strategic thought and action in the Second World War. As one reviewer put it, Hamilton seeks to compose the memoirs FDR himself was never able to write.

Hamilton implies that the record must be corrected because for decades, the true story has been distorted, even covered up, by the statesman who was able to write his memoirs, Winston Churchill. As the title suggests, in midst of the greatest war in human history, Roosevelt believed that he was being forced to fight a multi-front conflict—in which the Axis powers weren’t his only adversary.

The Hamilton Case

FDR, Hamilton is certain, was the dominant strategic genius. Without his wisdom and force of personality, the war likely would have been lost, or at least taken a much darker turn. In 1942-43, FDR successfully resisted his own advisers, who advocated a likely fatal invasion of France before American forces had gained essential combat experience. The United States had to do something to build up that experience—and to deflect domestic pressure to put the main U.S. effort into the Pacific. Thus FDR prudently supported a British-proposed campaign in North Africa and, to a limited extent, elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

At the same time, Hamilton argues, Roosevelt understood that the war could only be won decisively via the most direct path to Germany, beginning with a cross-Channel invasion, as conducted in mid-1944. That route was dictated both by geography and the need to convince Stalin (and the American public) that the Western Allies were whole-heartedly in the European war. FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender was part of this master plan.

The obstacle, Hamilton says, was Churchill, who advocated the preferred British strategy of the indirect approach—“closing the ring”—with its emphasis on further operations in the Mediterranean and southern Europe, and possibly in the north via Norway. In FDR’s mind, such approaches would delay the cross-Channel invasion (what became known as Operation Overlord) indefinitely, in the vague hope that something would somehow turn up and make that invasion unnecessary—the revolt of Hitler’s allies, or the collapse of the German government under internal strife. In FDR’s mind, Churchill was fighting not only—maybe not even primarily—to defeat Hitler’s Germany, but to preserve the British Empire and Britain’s postwar sphere of interest in the Middle East and beyond.

Churchill, FDR was convinced, was deliberately sabotaging Overlord with his wild and impractical schemes in the Mediterranean, Italy and the Balkans. Not only would Churchill’s proposals compromise the war effort; they might scotch FDR’s plan for a postwar peace under his envisioned “Four Policemen” (USA, UK, USSR and China). Stalin, whose support was key, would not long tolerate the West’s tergiversations in fighting the real war. And FDR believed European empires, Britain’s included, must be broken up, not reinforced, if the vision of the Atlantic Charter was to emerge from the carnage. While Churchill never quite gave up on the Mediterranean theater—promoting what Hamilton regards as an unnecessary and disastrous campaign in Italy—FDR finally and unmistakably gained control of Allied strategy.

At the same time, Roosevelt could not risk a public rupture with the British. Hamilton argues that FDR played the mercurial Churchill like a virtuoso, with a mixture of patience, charm, and arm twisting. The decisive point came when FDR, meeting privately with Churchill prior to the Quebec Conference in August 1943, threatens to terminate sharing secrets with Britain over the atomic bomb, unless Churchill ceases his resistance to Overlord.

Hamilton’s Churchill

Hamilton makes a strong rhetorical case for Roosevelt, in appealing to a popular audience that has perhaps not attended the historical court proceedings. If there is anything new in his general argument, it his claim that there was well-thought out integration of FDR’s wartime strategy with his postwar objectives. His specific “blockbuster” evidence is the supposed confrontation between FDR and Churchill over the atomic bomb. But as Jonathan W. Jordan (Wall Street Journal, August 19) points out, respected scholars such as Warren Kimball, Richard Langworth, and David Reynolds have written extensively on FDR’s atomic diplomacy without finding such a quid pro quo. Hamilton provides no footnote for evidence that reveals this supposed secret understanding.

Hamilton says FDR fully appreciated Churchill’s moral courage, which kept Britain in the war; his political acumen, needed in negotiations with Stalin; and his loyalty to the Anglo-American alliance and to Roosevelt as Allied leader. But Churchill was excessively romantic, too fearful of casualties, and determined to vindicate his Dardanelles strategy in World War I (aimed at attacking the enemy on the periphery). Ignorant of the character of modern warfare, and even of geography (especially the difficulties of fighting in northern Italy and the Balkans), Churchill was deceitful in his dealings with Roosevelt, other leaders, and his own staff. Churchill’s judgment, Hamilton implies, was further clouded by excessive drinking and general ill health and fatigue.

There is nothing new in these charges. Churchill’s supporters will grate their teeth at what they will regard as the one-sided view of the relationship between the two men (Hamilton quotes selectively from the record, privileging, for example, the diary of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King[6]). Those sympathetic to the British side can and have offered rebuttals, rehashing old arguments.

In building up Roosevelt Hamilton feels compelled to tear down not only Churchill but FDR’s own subordinates. Secretary of War Stimson and General Marshall are essentially dismissed as dunderheads for their advocacy of an early cross-Channel invasion, and for taking other positions against the President. They may have been wrong—or at least, less correct than Roosevelt—but they were not dunderheads. They were distinguished statesman whose views are due a full accounting, rather than an abrupt dismissal.


One is tempted to recount Roosevelt’s flaws, which Hamilton arguably glosses over, including deceitfulness and haphazard management style, and his own strategic missteps. But this would tend to diminish Roosevelt’s greatness as a wartime leader, something Churchill never failed to credit. Perhaps it is sufficient to say, with respect to Overlord in particular, that Churchill (as Hamilton aptly notes) favored strategic flexibility over inflexibility. Roosevelt, by contrast, argued for strategic determination rather than opportunism. Both men naturally saw the conflict through the prism of their own experience and understanding of war, and sought to protect their respective national interests.

Although he had urged and sparked preparations for an Allied return to the continent since 1940, Churchill clearly had reservations about Overlord. Because the invasion proved to be a triumph and a decisive step toward winning the war, we tend to assume that it must have succeeded when it succeeded. But success was contingent on many factors, some of which were beyond Allied control (such as the weather), and others which the Allies could only hope to influence (such as the disposition of German defenses). At the very least it was an incredibly complicated and risky undertaking. Overlord’s commander, General Eisenhower, himself famously drafted an announcement to be issued in the event of failure; and such a failure would have had incalculable consequences. For instance, it might have led to the political downfall of Churchill or FDR or both—and radically different calculations by Stalin.

The Mediterranean theater, once the Americans were fully engaged there in 1943, did offer opportunities—perhaps not as great as northern France, but without the same order of risks.

That is not to argue that Overlord was a bad idea. It became a good idea under the circumstances. But for a long time, Churchill clearly hoped that successful Allied operations elsewhere would make it unnecessary. His approach was less an effort to sabotage the cross-Channel invasion, than to be sure that if it had to be carried out, it would deserve success. That required whole-hearted material commitment by the United States, meticulous planning, and competence at the highest levels of the American military command. In 1943, the year covered by Hamilton’s book, the United States had yet to demonstrate fully any of these elements.

Churchill also sought to ensure that the preparations for Overlord would not needlessly sacrifice strategic opportunities elsewhere.  When these conditions were met in 1944, at least as far as he could reasonably ask, Churchill (as he put it) “hardened” in his support of Overlord.

“The Terrible ‘Ifs’ Accumulate”

Churchill wrote of actions leading up to World War I: “The terrible ‘Ifs’ accumulate.” They certainly accumulated in the closing, decisive actions leading to the end of World War II. If Churchill had simply let Roosevelt and the Americans have their way, without compelling such a commitment of essential resources and leadership to the cross-Channel invasion, things in might not have gone so well. If, after D-Day, more resources had been committed to the Italian campaign than to the sideshow landing in the south of France, no one can say whether or not they could have shortened the war. Hamilton to the contrary, modern scholarship supports the case that air and ground operations in the Mediterranean, including Italy, did have a favorable, even decisive, effect on the balance of forces arrayed against Overlord—as well as the Soviets. Victory might have been achieved more cost-effectively, especially in terms of Allied lives in Italy. But such are the vagaries of war.

The Churchill-Roosevelt partnership, and the Anglo-American alliance, succeeded not because of harmony produced by one leader running roughshod over the other; but rather through prolonged arguments among serious leaders, led by two men of great political character, if not identical visions. Those arguments were painful and exhausting and neither quite got what he wanted. Everyone in retrospect remained largely convinced they had been right. Roosevelt and the Americans eventually gained the upper hand because he who has the gold rules. But wisdom and good will were an essential part of the equation.

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

[2] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[3] David M. Shribman, “Saga of how FDR worked the shortsighted Churchill on war strategy,” Boston Globe (June 3, 2016). David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at Downloaded March 31, 2017

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

[5] Patrick J. Garrity, “’Commander in Chief’– by Nigel Hamilton, The Churchill Project – Hillsdale College (October 19, 2016). Garrity is Senior Fellow in Grand Strategy Studies, Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University.

[6] The diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King are available and searchable at the Library and Archives Canada.

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