“Commander in Chief” – by Nigel Hamilton
Nigel Hamilton, Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 480 pages, $30.00, paperback $16.99, Kindle $14.99.
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 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). 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.
Patrick J. Garrity is Senior Fellow in Grand Strategy Studies, Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University.