(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The era of World War II seems more distant with every passing year. In a precomputer age, it took a half dozen secretarial staff members working furiously to make ready-for-delivery Franklin D. Roosevelt’sFireside Chat of September 7, 1942, the first anniversary of matriarch Sara Delano Roosevelt’s death. The subject of the speech: economic stabilization policies that would require sacrifice to stave off inflation and boost production efforts.

[Bill] Hassett and [Grace] Tully took the marked-up seventh draft and carbon copies of the sixth draft into the [Hyde Park] dining room, where they carefully entered upon three of the carbons, in longhand, the corrections and revisions that had been made of the final rough draft. Not until midnight was the job completed. The material was then rushed by special messenger, via automobile and railroad, to the capital, where in the early morning hours of Monday, hectic labor by stenographers and mimeograph operators ensued. The deadline was met.

Davis was part of a distinguished group of Roosevelt biographers, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Frank Freidel, James MacGregor Burns, Geoffrey Ward, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Scholars will not find many revelations in The War Years, but it is scintillating reading and a provocative synthesis of the existing secondary literature. A journalist turned historian who also wrote critical biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adlai E. Stevenson, and Charles Lindbergh, the author included fascinating tidbits about these notables, such as the fifty secret combat missions Lindbergh flew against the Japanese. The aristocratic Dean Acheson once compared Roosevelt to a manor lord, serenely secure of his station in life. In The Roosevelt Presence (1993), Patrick Maney asserted that FDR was not so much enigmatic or complex, as many thought, but simply a very private person. Davis sees two public sides to Roosevelt: the compassionate reformer committed to justice and fair play versus the cautious politician who at times had an exaggerated fear of the obstacles in his path. In his late fifties in 1941, he was frequently ill or weary from a host of anxiety-breeding problems as he attempted to juggle his conflicting responsibilities as world statesman, United States’ foreign policy maker, military commander in chief, and Democratic Party leader. Believing democratic institutions to be in deadly peril, he sought by fits and starts to prepare the nation for the inevitable battle ahead. Revisionists such as Walter LaFeber have decried FDR’s secrecy in negotiating with the British, lack of candor during the Greer incident, and heavy-handedness toward isolationist dissenters during the autumn of 1941, believing they set dangerous precedents. Davis is less concerned with these tactics than about two wartime moral failings: his refusal to take aggressive action to save European Jews and his authorization of the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. In the first case FDR took the dubious position that action might deflect from the war effort. In the second instance he bowed to pressure from the press (even columnist Walter Lippmann), politicians (including Californian Earl Warren), and the military. When his wife, Eleanor, protested, he told her never to bring up the subject again. Evidently she never did.

In the wake of Pearl Harbor the president’s top priority was to solidify a grand alliance against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. A central theme in The War President is the relationship between FDR and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Facilitating their face-to-face encounters was FDR’s alter ego, Harry Hopkins, and always lurking in their thoughts was Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, on whose resolve the fate of Western civilization depended. At first impression Churchill reminded the president of New York’s pugnacious mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia, a comparison Davis thinks the British leader might have found demeaning but an apt one nonetheless. Davis repeats the story oft told by Hopkins of FDR bursting in on a naked Churchill who then said that he had nothing to hide from the president of the United States. Churchill later angrily denied it had happened, adding that it would have been disrespectful of him. Davis, a master of the telling vignette, characterizes it as plausible legend. Davis includes many such face-to face presidential interactions:

April 23, 1941: A jealous William Bullitt urged the firing of troubleshooter Sumner Welles for having made homosexual advances toward a Pullman car porter, claiming he could be subject to blackmail. FDR rejected the advice, pointing out that the press would never...

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