05.12.09

World War II's Team of Rivals

If you want to learn how the Allies really won the war, Andrew Roberts’ impeccable new history retraces the secret meetings between FDR and Churchill.

Of course everybody envies the job of book reviewer—the glamour, the fame, the parties, the lavish presents, beautiful women throwing themselves at him in the hope of kind words about their latest bodice ripper.... Well, but it also has its downside. First of all, one has to read the books, in an age when everybody’s ambition is to avoid reading altogether, and receive all information on the screen of one’s cellphone; and second, unless one has led the life of a hermit, half the books one has to read are written by old friends, or people with whom one has some connection.

Churchill is infinitely more human, lovable and infuriating than FDR, who made something of a fetish at hiding (or faking) his emotions.

Best, therefore, to be frank at the beginning—I am a huge admirer of Andrew Roberts, and think he is one of the best of the younger British historians (by which I mean, I suppose, a generation or two younger than my own). That he writes well almost goes without saying—unlike American academic historians, British historians do write well, and with a certain felicitous wit and a gift for the human anecdote. The huge, turgid work of history, sinking under the weight of its own “politically correct” thesis and its foot- and source notes, is not the British way of writing history, and never has been. Even bona fide academics like the late Sir John Wheeler-Bennett and Lord Dacre (formerly Hugh Trevor-Roper) wrote with dash and style, and out of much experience with the great and the famous in the real world, and Andrew Roberts is no exception to this happy rule. He not only writes about the high and mighty, he sits on numerous committees with them, comments about the royal family on television, and gave a lecture in the White House to an audience which included former President Bush (who did not seem to have learned anything from it, however). And I must confess further that his biographies of the Marquess of Salisbury and Lord Halifax are models of political biography (particularly the former, which I have read many times over), and that I published two of his books, one, Eminent Churchillians, which opened up, at last, a whole new dimension to writing about Churchill; and the other, Napoleon and Wellington, a brilliant and concise account of Waterloo. As if all that were not enough, we share the same American publisher, and I once recommended him to Henry Kissinger to be his “authorized” biographer. Perhaps only thing we do not share is that he is a Cantabrian, whereas I am an Oxonian, but nobody is perfect.

book-cover---masters-and-commanders
Masters and Commanders. By Andrew Roberts. 720 pages. Harper. $35. ()

Let it be said at once that Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, is an enormously ambitious book, which sets out to describe and analyze the conduct of the war in the West on the part of the Allies by retracing the important high-level meetings (the phrase “summit conference” did not then exist) between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and their respective service chiefs and principal military advisers. This is already a huge task, because the total record of those conferences would produce enough paper to sink a battleship, but it also means that Roberts has had to weave together biography, history, the (now) public record, and a large amount of previously unknown or unpublished new material into a coherent whole, and produce out of it all a readable story (which is not always the case with ambitious works of history, in which the story is subsumed by vast amounts of undigested information, charts, numbers and graphs that are not integrated into the narrative, and in fact stop it dead before it can get moving). Roberts has managed to bring this off brilliantly, and I speak as the author of a 778-page biography of Dwight David Eisenhower.

Like a good novelist, he never introduces a character without giving the reader a concise biography of him, and he manages to maintain the flow of his narrative so that one is kept reading by the sheer force of events, while keeping him or her awake when discussions of policy become heavy going by glimpses of the real man behind the words. (He is wonderful at this with Stalin and British Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, who is, in fact, the “hero” of the book, very good with Churchill, and less successful with FDR and Gen. George C. Marshall). Still, all in all, if you wanted to know how “the Grand Alliance” worked, and how the decisions were made that eventually led to the Allied victory in World War Two, this would be the book to read, unless you are prepared to read Churchill’s six volumes, Sir Arthur Bryant’s two volumes based on Brooke’s diaries, the 1,400 letters between FDR and Churchill (gathered in three weighty volumes), plus the standard biography of Marshall, Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe, the memoirs of innumerable generals, air marshals and admirals, etc. In short, Roberts has taken all the material and condensed it down into one very readable and notably fair-minded volume.

That is not to say that it does not have its drawbacks, but they are those of its conception. Perhaps because Roberts is British (so am I), he clearly likes and admires Brooke more than Marshall, and has more fun with Churchill than with FDR. And of course there is no doubt about it, Brooke, with his flaming temper, his impatience and his passion for bird-watching at moments of stress is a more engaging personality than the almost inhumanly remote Marshall, and Churchill is infinitely more human, lovable and infuriating than FDR, who made something of a fetish at hiding (or faking) his emotions. There is, therefore, whether conscious or not, a certain pro-British bias to the book, much of which comes from the fact that there is much more interesting material available on the British side, inevitably, because FDR never lived to write his memoirs.

The other problem—also derived from the ambitious conception of the book—is that it shows the war from the top, as it were, from the summit, and does not attempt to give the reader a description of what the decisions that were reached at this high altitude felt like to those who were doing the fighting (the one exception being the Dieppe raid). This is war from the Oval Office, 10 Downing Street, the Mena House Hotel in Cairo, and so on—policy, as opposed to fighting. Having said that, if you want to know why Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, took place, or why the capture of Sicily was followed by a bloody and indecisive battle of attrition with the Germans up the whole length of Italy, or why the Normandy invasion was such a political hot potato and a source of bad feelings between the Americans and the British right the way to the top, or how the differing British and American strategies for attacking Nazi Germany and finishing off the war became a highly charged inter-allied dispute, this is the book to read. I would go so far as to say that anybody who is interested in World War Two owes it to themselves to read this book—nothing like it exists, and without reading it, the actual history of the campaigns themselves will make no sense.

There are some extraordinary things in this book—the story of Lawrence Burgess’ secret notes of the British War Cabinet meetings is extraordinary (I do not propose to spoil it for the reader), and would make a whole book, as well as a potential novel, as is the story of how and why Field Marshal Sir William Robertson’s Soldiers and Statesmen, a very frank account of the quarrels between brass hats and bowler hats in World War One, became mandatory reading in Washington in 1942, much to Churchill’s dismay. As well, Roberts reinstates the importance of certain figures that have been allowed to slip into the background in the shadow of Churchill’s enormous fame, one of the most important being Field Marshal Sir John Dill, who became, most improbably, the essential, ever tactful and judicious link between the British chiefs of staff and government and FDR and Gen. Marshall—indeed the friendship that developed between Marshall and Dill was one of the “secret weapons” that led to Allied victory.

This is a great story, wonderfully told, impeccable history, but history with feeling, humanity, and a sense of the absurd, that never skips the engaging moment, the human failing (wait until you read about U.S. Admiral Stark), the moments of decency that make Allied policymaking so very different from that of Nazi Germany, and even the moments of humor particularly where Churchill is concerned.

It is usual in reviewing a long work of history for the reviewer to nitpick for small errors, but I can find none here (except for a photograph in which General Patton, clearly wearing the 1st Armored flash on his sleeve and his neatly brushed long silver hair under his forage cap is misidentified as General Eisenhower). Instead, I should add that the maps are superb and very clear, a useful addition to the book, instead of simply confusing the lay (i.e. non-military) reader, as is usually the case. This is a book that should have been read by the “Bush team,” for it shows, very convincingly, how decent, honorable men arguing their case, yet willing to listen to those who don’t agree with them, and even willing to change their mind and abandon a preconception, can win a war—the biggest of all wars, in fact. It is a book to put beside Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as a model of how a democracy can win a war without losing its decency, and how people in positions of power and responsibility can disagree sharply without losing their respect for each other.

One hopes that President Obama will put it on his reading list. But I feel sure it is already there.

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New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.