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Three dissimilar books cast new light on Franklin Delano Roosevelt

His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt by Joseph Lelyveld; Knopf, 399 pages ($30)

The question has haunted historians now for 70 years:

Was a fading President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoodwinked by a deviously clever Joseph Stalin into turning over Poland and much of Eastern Europe to the Soviets during the closing year of World War II?

Or was a dying, yet keenly engaged president focused on a much larger and more profound prize than simply how Europe might be carved up after the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany?

This is the enigmatic question Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Lelyveld explores in his riveting recounting of the tumultuous final 14 months of Roosevelt’s life.
Lelyveld’s answer, like the very question he poses, does not lend itself to a simple sound bite. His conclusion, painstakingly extracted from the diaries and letters of FDR’s closest confidants – mostly women – serves as an entry into the complex motivation of the man usually considered America’s greatest president of the 20th century.

Lelyveld’s is one of several recent books on our 32nd president. We will highlight three in this review, but “His Final Battle” stands out as the most solidly analytic of the three.

As a longtime New York Times reporter and editor, Lelyveld’s storytelling skill, his investigative thoroughness and his total dedication to historical fact remain evident throughout.

In his telling, Lelyveld leaves little doubt that FDR knew he was dying. Just five days before his death, he confided to his cousin and traveling companion Daisy Suckley that he hoped to resign the presidency at war’s end, just as soon as a mechanism for lasting world peace, was “well started.” The phrases “lasting world peace” and “post-war world peace” rolled off his tongue often in those final months.

On the question of why he sought a fourth presidential term in the face of almost certain impending death, Lelyveld argues FDR was driven to avoid another world catastrophe – in this case World War III – like the one precipitated a generation earlier by the victors of the Great War, and he thought only he could stand up to Stalin.

For Roosevelt, peace meant creation of a powerful organization led by the world’s four strong policemen to assure some semblance of peace for a generation. (France would be added as a fifth after his death.) That organization, of course, would become the United Nations with its five permanent members of the Security Council.

Lelyveld lays out a convincing case that Roosevelt’s overriding motivation at the summit with Churchill and Stalin at Tehran and then at the Yalta Conference in his dying months was lasting post-war peace.

If anything, Roosevelt was a pragmatist. It was obvious and beyond argument that the Soviets already occupied Poland and large parts of Eastern Europe by 1945, and the U.S. and Great Britain were in no position to push them out.

“I didn’t say it was good,” Roosevelt said of his agreements at Yalta. “I said it was the best I could do.”

The world never will know how FDR would have handled Stalin after the war, but there was no World War III in the 20th century.

This book, while not lengthy, is intense and substantive in its conclusions. It is a mostly benign look at the final months of FDR’s life, and is red-meat reading for anyone already familiar with Roosevelt’s presidency and the final year of the war.

The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined the Presidency by Kathryn Smith; Touchstone 341 pages  ($28)

Kathryn Smith’s “The Gatekeeper” offers a contrasting glimpse of Roosevelt, a personal view of the man’s humanity rather than his geopolitical prowess. It is ostensibly the biography of Missy LeHand, FDR’s private secretary for 21 years.

Largely forgotten by history, Missy – her real name was Marguerite – became Roosevelt’s constant companion after he was paralyzed by polio. It was common knowledge in Washington that if you sought an audience with the president, or even a few seconds on the phone, you went through Missy LeHand. And if she said “no,” the president’s answer was “no!”

Missy was within shouting distance of the president for 18 hours a day, even taking notes in his bedroom before he fell asleep and sharpening his rhetoric in the morning while he was being shaved in bed. She attended his infamous children’s hour with his closest associates at the end of each day, and she smoked, drank and joked with the president, Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins.

Devoted and discreet, she kept no diary and wrote no memoirs, but she did write letters and confide in close friends whose words and papers survive. Her years at FDR’s side ended in 1941 when she suffered a heart attack and then a paralyzing stroke, but her devotion to the boss continued to her death in 1944.

After a brief introduction to this Irish Catholic girl from suburban Boston, Smith slides into what might be described as the story of the women who surrounded and cared for a paraplegic president. Have no doubt, this book is about Franklin Roosevelt.

Author Smith is a newspaper editor and book critic for a small-town publication in rural South Carolina. There is a certain charm in her storytelling, unpretentious, almost plain in a setting of world-altering events. Middle of the night phone calls informing the president of a seismic shift in world politics are written with the simplicity of a social event in Anderson, S.C.

This little book is gossipy. As history, it is a bit flimsy, but it can be fun. And at times it is quite successful in cracking the emotional steel shell the president constructed around himself.

Commander In Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943 by Nigel Hamilton; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 480 pages  ($30)

Nigel Hamilton’s “Commander In Chief” is markedly different in content and tenor from “Roosevelt’s Last Battle,” and of course is light years from “The Gatekeeper.”

This work is less about world politics and more about Roosevelt as the commander of a wartime military operation, the man in the map room, the adviser to generals. It rebuts the notion of Roosevelt as a hands-off commander, and shows him as the indisputable leader of the Big Three.

Hamilton, while writing from an academic background, is what you might describe as an advocacy historian. This is Volume II of a planned three-volume celebration of FDR’s leadership role in World War II.

It is designed as the Roosevelt memoir FDR never was able to write. This book is part of a huge undertaking meant to correct for posterity Winston Churchill’s wonderful but highly self-serving and sometimes fanciful four-volume “The Second World War,” in which the American president was not the equal to Churchill or Stalin.

Hamilton sets out to demolish Churchill’s principal thesis that he – Winston Churchill – was the central figure in the Allied coalition, and that he – Winston Churchill – was the mastermind behind all successful Allied operations and stood in opposition to its failures. For Hamilton, FDR was the glue which bonded the diverse enemies of world Fascism. Where Stalin sought territorial gain, and Churchill sought to resuscitate a withering and outdated British Empire, Roosevelt alone sought to defeat the Axis powers in such a way that would impose peace on the world.

In “Commander In Chief,” Roosevelt is constantly at odds with Churchill and is always distrustful of Stalin, certain the Soviet leader seeks to control all of Europe. Clearly Hamilton’s Roosevelt was clairvoyant: Post-war peace would demand Russian participation, even at a huge price: Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Russia will “come around” in 10 or 20 years, Roosevelt told those close to him. Well it took 45 years.

This book is about Roosevelt the war strategist. It is about a Roosevelt as adept at manipulating his generals as he was at manipulating his political allies and foes. To Hamilton, Winston Churchill, the outstanding war strategist, is a fantasy created by the great statesman himself.

This volume ends with Roosevelt planning for Tehran while forcing a reluctant Churchill to accept a cross-channel invasion of continental Europe, and then insisting the largest amphibious landing the world has ever seen be commanded by an American.

This study of the critical period in World War II when to the world beyond the Allied censors, the U.S. and the United Kingdom were walking in lockstep, shows the two men in the real world marching to different drummers.

In Hamilton’s view, the world was fortunate Franklin Roosevelt prevailed.

So we have three dissimilar takes on Franklin Roosevelt, each complementing the others while casting new light on a story that is 70 years old, a story that engrossed two generations and only now is beginning to recede into history. It is a story that probably never will be fully told.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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