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Roosevelt and the war

Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945 - Roger Daniels

One of the decisions that a biographer faces in writing a multi-volume study of his or her subject is that of where to divide the narrative. This seemingly prosaic decision in reality plays an enormous role in shaping how that life is interpreted, even within a narrative that is written as a contiguous work. Choosing 1939 as the dividing point for Franklin Roosevelt's life, as Roger Daniels does for his study, emphasizes the sense of his presidency as distinguishable in its distinct focus on domestic policy in the first half and foreign affairs in the second. Even if it isn't a radical decision, it is certainly an understandable one.


Daniels emphasizes this pivot in other ways. The most notable is his examination early in this book on Roosevelt's reorganization of the presidency in 1939. What most historians have addressed in passing Daniels features as part of his provocative assertion of Roosevelt as not just a master politician but as a gifted administrator. Here he argues that the reorganization, which gave the president more central control over the executive branch, was done in part in anticipation of involvement in the burgeoning wars in Asia and Europe. Had Daniels concluded his previous volume with the reorganization may have made it seem as a coda for his efforts in the New Deal to reshape the role of the federal government in domestic affairs, and gives a different gloss on its consequences.


The Second World War looms understandably large in this volume, and Daniels devotes the majority of its pages to discussing the events leading up to America's intervention and how Roosevelt waged the war. Though subsumed by the events, domestic politics are not excluded, however, nor are politics ignored. Daniels sees Roosevelt's growing involvement in the war in Europe as in line with American sentiments at that time, with never less than 2/3 of Americans endorsing his support for Great Britain and his increasingly confrontational pose with Germany. Yet in Daniels's view the isolationists in Congress who challenged his policies were not unrepresentative of public opinion, either, and Roosevelt had to factor their opposition into his efforts.


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, of course, dramatically shifted this dynamic. Here Daniels avoids the lure that has distracted too many of Roosevelt's biographers of subsuming his biography into a general narrative of the war. Instead he keeps his focus on his subject, describing what Roosevelt did throughout the war to lead America to victory. While leaving operational plans to the military (a sharp contrast with his counterparts in both Britain and Germany), he did intervene routinely in making strategic decisions in North African and in Europe. This made his reluctance to do so in the Pacific conspicuous, as Roosevelt never fully resolved the dissent between General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz as to which route to take to defeat Japan. To his credit Daniels does not take sides either, preferring to illuminate both the military and diplomatic factors involved which made such a choice virtually impossible,

In writing this volume, Daniels provides readers with a rarity: a complete, multi-volume survey of Franklin Roosevelt's career and his achievements. For all those who have attempted such a task only one author has succeeded in doing what Daniels has accomplished, and for all of its merits James MacGregor Burns's own two-volume study (the second volume of which came out nearly half a century ago) is getting increasingly long in the tooth. Readers seeking such a detailed work should turn instead to Daniels's perceptive study of Roosevelt, as it is likely to stand unequaled for some time in the thoroughness of its analysis of his life and achievements.