Reviewer: Archie Henderson
War and Peace, by Nigel Hamilton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Winston Churchill, so the legend goes, said that history would treat him kindly for he intended to write it. Even if he never actually said it, he did write it. His six volumes of The Second World War, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, has long been a standard reference for historians and World War 2 buffs.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his friend, ally and often sparring partner in the war, did not get the same treatment, dying in February 1945 relatively young at 63, before the war ended and before he got the chance to tell his side of the war. Nigel Hamilton has recently completed what amounts to Roosevelt’s memoirs, a three-volume work, FDR at War.
War and Peace is the final volume, with the sub-title FDR’s Final Odyssey: D-Day to Yalta 1944-45. The first volume was The Mantle of Command: FDR at War 1941-42, followed by Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill 1943.
All three are deeply researched, as all Hamilton’s books are, and told in a lively and colourful style. Hamilton, who also wrote a three-volume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, was urged by his publisher to confine his ambitions to a single volume, so he went in search of another publisher who would take all three. In one of those odd quirks, he found the same publisher that produced Churchill’s history of the war.
By the time War and Peace gets underway, FDR has won his personal battles against Churchill and also against his own military advisers, among them the tough army chief of staff, George Marshall, the stubborn chief of naval operations Ernest King and even the secretary of war, Henry Stimson. Churchill has grudgingly accepted that a cross-channel invasion of occupied France is the way to go and that the overall military commander will be an American, Dwight Eisenhower. The FDR course is ultimately successful.
Roosevelt finally became the grand strategist of the war and its aftermath, but for the next few decades he would be second-guessed, portrayed as weak, especially in concessions to Stalin at Yalta, and generally sniped on in his absence. Hamilton has set out to correct that history – and succeeds brilliantly.
Of course, Hamilton will be criticised by the Churchill lobby, which is strong and led by Andrew Roberts, who has already accused him of a “passionate partisan approach rather than truly objective history”.
But for all their personal rivalry, and contrasting personalities, FDR and Churchill got on well, not only because they had to, but because each man charmed the other. But on odd occasions, according to Hamilton, Roosevelt had to play hardball with Churchill. When the British prime minister was hesitant about the Normandy landings, Roosevelt threatened to keep the atomic bomb secrets from the British. Churchill quickly buckled, although the Churchill lobby has questioned the veracity of the story.
By the time of his death, the war was virtually won and FDR’s wartime legacy was in place. His vision of a United Nations came about and still holds, if in a somewhat fragile manner today. An often forgotten part of that legacy is the Atlantic Charter, a set of principles he signed with Churchill before the US came into the war that spelled the end of colonial empires and emphasised national self-determination. Not many give FDR credit for that today, so Hamilton’s trilogy is a good reminder that the great manipulator was also a great humanitarian.