Saturday, April 15, 2017

Franklin and Winston


Lincoln never got to write his. Or FDR. Or JFK. If you think you might be president it’s advisable to start before the assassination. Posthumous ones are never reliable.

On the other hand there have been almost 16,000 books written about Abe. Five years ago someone had the idea of building a monument of such works at the new Ford Theater in Washington D.C. It was eight feet around and over three stories high.

I expect the Trump presidency will be a subject to fill libraries of apocalyptic  books, dystopic movies and TV series, fantastical operas, drinking songs and aviaries for his tweets.

Franklin Roosevelt’s long tenure in office, the turbulence of hard times and war time would have fetched a juicy sum if he had survived to tell it. Eleanor wrote a newspaper column, helped draft the U.N. Charter for Human Rights and distinguished herself in many ways but she never wrote about her husband. Nor did Harry Truman or even Ralph Bellamy who played FDR in Sunrise at Campobello.

Nigel Hamilton has written three volumes which set out to be the memoir FDR never got to write. Most of what he has written has been taken from other witnesses diaries. In addition he has poured over manuscripts, letters, remembrances and interviews to get the skinny on this most complex, sometimes inspirational, other times duplicitous president. I have just started reading the second book, Commander-in-Chief. 

Churchill-devotees may not like what they read. Sir Winston takes a hit. These two larger-than-life figures, he with his cigar, him with his cigarette, were not always the affable couple they are made out to be. Roosevelt ran the show over Churchill’s loud and ill-conceived military notions. The landing at Normandy was delayed needlessly because of Downing Street. If he had had his way the channel-crossing would not have happened until 1945 or '46.

Churchill is seen as a 19th century man with a colonial-imperialist mind-set determined to protect India, their jewel-in–the-crown and wrongly committing ground-troops to the under-belly of Europe. His rhetorical flourishes obscured a muddled world view. Roosevelt saw the two fronts, not only the Pacific theater and Europe, plus the eastern and western flanks but had to deal with an obstinate Churchill as well. Surprisingly he also had to dissuade our own generals from an earlier European invasion. In the end it was Roosevelt’s charm that won the day over his comrade-in-arms.

Hamilton’s book is a welcome counter-weight to Churchill’s account which omitted their disagreements. Roosevelt has come under attack in recent years for turning away the ship of Jewish refugees and the Japanese internment camps so this book arrives to restore his towering position as Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces in, arguably, the most perilous presidency in American history. 

The book also rightly credits FDR with his plans for the United Nations avoiding the mistakes made with the League of Nations. In early 1941 before our declaration of war, Roosevelt had the foresight to have plans drawn up sketching his notion of a post-war world. He came up with the name of the world body and it's make up of a Security Council and General Assembly. He saw the new map of a world free of all colonies. Drawing from his son Elliot's memoir Hamilton writes that FDR believed without the greed of the Dutch, British and French this war would never have happened.

A book like this always comes up with historical tidbits which are my meat. I have long believed that the movie Casablanca, made in the summer of 1942 but set before our entrance in the war, was so named because its subtext was a veiled appeal for our White House to declare war against the Axis. Hamilton reveals that the Germans knew Churchill and Roosevelt would meet at Casablanca in early 1943 but they assumed that was code name for the White House. The Nazis and I thought alike. Ugh!

WW II is a frequent topic at my lunches with octogenarian buddies, as if it happened last Thursday. Maybe it’s because we lived through it, albeit as pre or early-teenagers. Now we can’t get enough of it. Those were the glory days when we were clearly the good guys. Franklin Roosevelt has a place in my memoir, that one I haven’t written. It was his face and it was his voice. After reading this book it was also his vision.

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