Saturday, March 29, 2014

Roosevelt's Centurions - Joseph E. Persico

I guess this is the book my dad meant to have answer my question about whether FDR was a meddler on par with the other leaders. The answer would appear to be no. He didn't always go for the operations they favored - Marshall and the others wanted to invade Europe across the Channel right from the start, but FDR kept letting Churchill divert it - but once the direction of the war had been decided, he largely left it to them. He selected his commanders, and trusted them to not only conduct the war, but choose their subordinates.

Persico's picture of FDR is of a man deft at playing political games, the trick of keeping everyone happy, but he has his eyes on the greater goals at the end.He comes off as mostly pragmatic, where morals or idealism largely does not factor into his decisions. He knows Stalin is a mass murderer on par with the one they're trying to defeat, but he also figures they need the Soviet Union in the war fighting the Germans, so he looks the other way and offers massive amounts of material, while the Soviets do only about as much as they must to assist the Western democracies (one thing the book taught me about was shuttle bombing, American bombers attacking Germany, then flying on to the USSR to refuel and rearm, then bombing Germany again on the way home). I don't have a sense that FDR particularly cared about ending segregation, but whether he did or not, he wasn't going to risk losing the support of racist southern Democrats in Congress by pushing for it. It was only when manpower needs became dire that he went for it. In other words, practical, not idealist.

And of course, there are the internment camps. Persico notes that FDR was deeply concerned with subversion and sabotage, believing that was the only way Germany could have conquered all those countries so quickly. While The Collapse of the Third Republic certainly demonstrated to me that there were plenty of people in France ready to welcome Fascism with open arms, that hardly explains locking up Japanese-Americans, rather than German-Americans. It doesn't explain locking up over 100,000 people living on the West Coast, but not the more than 100,000 living in Hawaii, where there was an actual naval base that was actually attacked. Unless you figure that transporting all those Japanese-Americans to the mainland was the point where practical concerns won out over keeping the hysterical racists under control.

It's not a new question, the one about how far someone should be willing to bend their principles to win, but it was one I thought about a lot during this book. Of course, I'm looking at it from my perspective, as if my ideals are FDR's, when for all I know, he found none of it morally objectionable. He drew a line when Marshall pushed to use gas against the Japanese, but seemed entirely willing to use the A-bomb on the Germans, if we had one ready by then (we didn't). He had no problems with the use of incendiaries on Japanese cities, which caused firestorms that killed more people than the A-bomb, or in leveling entire cities. I don't know, what constitutes an acceptable use of force in a war? Does it matter the method by which someone dies, whether they're bombed or incinerated? How do you weigh the lives of civilians in the enemy country against the lives of your own soldiers? I tend to think that was a large part of the point behind them bombing campaigns (and it's the primary justification for the atomic bombs they used), and it's an understandable one, but isn't it still mostly killing non-combatants? Unless you figure there were no non-combatants.

That's one thing I'm not sure about, how much, if at all, these questions wore on FDR. He demanded unconditional surrender, even though plenty of his advisers, as well as Churchill argued against it, because it might encourage the Axis to fight to the last man, believing they were going to be exterminated anyway. So maybe once he set himself on that course, there was no stepping back from it? If he had doubts about it, they weren't readily apparent in here.

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