We have just finished celebrating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in a whirlwind of patriotism, nostalgia, weirdness (the dancing—OMG!), and most important, a reminder of the essential links which connect us to Europe. (It would be a bit churlish on my part to observe that D-Day did not really win the war. The Soviets were in the process of destroying Army Group Center in June 1944, and even if the invasion had been defeated, the USSR would still have prevailed over Nazi Germany. The greater significance of D-Day is the preservation of Western Europe from Soviet domination).
The names of Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, and Churchill were often spoken over the last few weeks, but the most important name was, curiously, often omitted. The true hero of D-Day, and of WWII in general, is Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Today FDR is most often praised (and frequently vituperated) for the New Deal, which radically reshaped the life of almost every American. We tend to forget that he was also a war leader, and a great one. It’s hard to overstate the role of Churchill, of course, and Stalin led Russia to a great victory after almost ensuring his country’s defeat in the first few days of the war. By contrast, FDR’s critics point to Yalta and claim he let Stalin pick his pocket.
I think such claims are overblown. Regardless of the postwar occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviets, however, which in my view was inevitable, the war would not have been won without FDR’s strategic insight. Virtually every critical strategic decision he made was correct. He saw more clearly than anyone what were the essential elements for success. It is not at all hyperbole to say that he was the architect of victory.
Even before the war, Roosevelt saw clearly the danger to the world posed by Hitler. He gradually worked to shape public opinion, which was overwhelmingly isolationist, laying the groundwork for US participation in the war. By 1941, there was a draft (renewed by only 1 vote (!) in Congress in late 1940), Lend Lease, and dramatic increases in US armaments production. His meeting with Churchill at the Arcadia conference in August, 1941 did much to assure that the US and Great Britain would be able to work together, and agreements were reached on the fundamental issue of “Germany first.” Even after Pearl Harbor had enraged the public toward the Japanese, Roosevelt ensured that the great majority of US resources would go to the European theater.
In another brilliant insight, Roosevelt took seriously the concerns of Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and others that an atomic bomb was possible and that if it was to be produced, it must be the Allies and not the Nazis who produced it. FDR made sure that this is in fact what happened.
Once war came, Roosevelt analyzed the world situation and identified the keys to victory. First, he understood that no serious attack on Germany from the West was possible unless Great Britain stayed in the war. He therefore directed that the necessary aid be sent to Britain, and gave great priority to the Battle of the Atlantic. Next, he realized that however odious the Soviet system was, Germany could not be defeated without the USSR, and he also gave great priority to aiding the Russians and keeping them in the war. After the war the conservatives and the McCarthyites would make much of how close the Roosevelt administration was to the USSR, but none of them seemed to consider how many Americans would have died if at least 10,000,000 Soviet soldiers had not.
Roosevelt also took a lot of heat, both from contemporaries and from historical second-guessers, about his continued support of China. Again, however, his critics don’t seem to consider how many Japanese troops were in China and Manchuria even up to 1945, troops that US forces didn’t have to confront, and who would not have been in Japan had the planned invasion of Japan been carried out.
FDR pushed Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, against the wishes of most of the US military establishment, even those of General Marshall, whom Roosevelt respected above all others. Later, Marshall understood that in a democracy the people must be given victories to keep them positive and engaged, and credited Roosevelt with a keener political sense (which you would expect).
Of course, the fight that the Americans had with the British over an invasion of France is well known. The fact is that neither Churchill nor the British military establishment had any stomach for once again confronting the German Army in the fields of France. As one senior British general said to Marshall, “you are arguing against the casualties on the Somme.” It was the US military, ultimately directed by Roosevelt, who dragged the British kicking and screaming into the D-Day invasion.
And no account of Roosevelt’s wartime leadership would be complete without taking notice of his genius at selecting and/or approving senior leaders. Marshall was his man, and Eisenhower was Marshall’s man, a selection backed all the way by FDR. Ike may not have been a strategic genius, but no other general, British or American, could have led the coalition and kept it together as he did. Roosevelt chose Ernest B. King as the top US admiral in the war, and that was an inspired selection. King was irascible as hell (his own daughter once said he was the most even tempered man in Washington—he was always in a rage), but his wartime leadership of the Navy was brilliant. FDR also selected/promoted/approved Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance, and the rest of the top Navy leadership.
Military historians like to try to analyze war in terms like strategy, tactics, grand strategy, operational art, etc. At the very highest level—call it national strategy if you will—a great war can only be won if all the nation’s resources are brought to bear. This means that in a democracy, the people must be rallied to support the war, and FDR did that. The military must be built up, and that was done, but in addition the economic resources of the nation must be concentrated, directed, and focused on the task of victory. The US was obviously the pre-eminent economic power in the world, but so was Britain in 1914, and four years of war ruined the British economy. Roosevelt and his appointees managed to arm both the US military and those of Britain, China, Russia, France, and many others, and still keep not only Americans but millions of our Allies’ citizens fed and clothed. At the end of the war, a balanced economic expansion had actually left the country better off economically than it had been, without crippling inflation, and the war was not followed by recession or depression. None of this was accidental.
In the sphere of national strategy, FDR can only be compared to Lincoln. The Union also managed to focus national will, military and economic power, and emerged from its “fiery trial” as the strongest military power in the world. By contrast the economy of the Confederacy under Davis was disastrous, with armies poorly fed and equipped, civilians starving, and inflation rampant.
You don’t have to be a proponent of the notion that the US is God’s chosen nation to marvel at the great good fortune that put Lincoln in charge of the war effort in 1861, and FDR in charge in 1941. Victory in the Civil War and in WWII may look inevitable in hindsight, but this is not so. Such victories only result from leadership. It is the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, more than any other single factor, that brought us to victory in the greatest and most terrible war in human history.