Monday, July 1, 2019

Franklin and Winston

In geopolitical terms there were two iconic men who dominated the 20th century and saved Western Civilization with their decision making. One’s star is still in the ascendant and the other seems to be both stained and fading. One is British and the other American. The Brit is an American hero. I’m not so sure how he ranks in his own country.

I don’t recall any movies about Franklin Roosevelt since Sunrise at Campobello. Yet we can’t seem to get enough of Sir Winston Churchill. Sixty actors have portrayed him on film. More even than Henry the 8th. The acceptable narrative has Winnie the hero of World War II. Why not? He wrote the book. Actually six volumes with ample omissions and distortions. He assembled a team of writers and researchers to put together his Nobel Prize winning epic. FDR, of course, died in office and never got to write his memoir. It would have been a counter-narrative to Sir Winston’s.

This all comes to mind with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy, known at the time as Operation Overlord. The fact is that Churchill did everything in his power to postpone, discourage and even scrap that momentous event until the very last moment.

He was, without a doubt, a great orator. He rallied his people. He wrote metaphorically with a gift to move his audience with the rousing phrase. The years from 1939-1945 was his finest hour….and yet he was also a Racist and military blunderer. A 19th century imperialist. A stubborn, duplicitous even treacherous ally to the real Commander-in-Chief of Allied operations, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Churchill squandered lives with his reckless folly in Gallipoli (190,000 dead) and Antwerp during World War I. He coined the term, soft underbelly of Europe, describing the Balkans which he pursued in both wars. He was wrong about an ill-conceived Norwegian landing, in a proposed Turkey invasion and he was wrong pouring resources into the capture of Greek islands. He later admitted that the underbelly was not at all soft.

After agreeing with Roosevelt at their Quebec conference in August, 1943 to launch a second front in northern France he later tried everything in his power to sabotage that plan going so far as leaking and doctoring an inter-Allied message to Stalin behind Roosevelt’s back. With Churchill’s tampering of the communique it gave the impression that Overlord would be further delayed. He manipulated Eisenhower’s report to make it seem that the Italian campaign required more troops and weaponry rendering the cross-channel operation abandoned until the Mediterranean and Aegean seas were under Allied control. Churchill insisted that the capture of Rome was paramount even though Italy had already surrendered and the city had no strategic importance.

At that time it was rumored that Hitler and Stalin might again reach their own settlement because the U.S.S.R had borne the brunt of casualties (by war’s end 23 million dead compared to combined U.S. and U.K less than a million) with no help except Lend-Lease from the Allies. This was unfolding in November 1943 as FDR and Churchill were both on their way to Tehran to assure Stalin the Normandy landing would proceed on schedule.

President Roosevelt as American Commander-in-Chief, along with Generals Marshall and Eisenhower prevailed only because they ignored Churchill whose agenda put preservation of the British Empire first. It was Roosevelt who deserved credit for strategizing the conduct of the war. It was difficult enough to allocate troops and materiel for both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation. The logistics at times seemed insurmontable. At times he had to override his generals and History proved his instincts correct. He possessed the temperament, historical perspective and military genius to see us through to victory. The outcomes were certain but pity he didn’t live to witness those days of unconditional surrender.

For anyone doubting Churchill’s military bumbling and his obstructionist partnership with FDR I recommend the British historian Nigel Hamilton’s three volumes, particularly the just published, War and Peace. 500 pages plus 54 more of footnotes.

Roosevelt can well be criticized for Japanese internment and not demanding asylum for Jews in flight from Nazi Germany. However he was a supreme military and political visionary whose place in history has been largely usurped by the more flamboyant high functioning alcoholic Prime Minister with the silver tongue.

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