Author Interview: Joseph Persico on ROOSEVELT’S CENTURIONS
“[A] sweeping, top-down account of 1939–45 from the point of view of FDR, his cabinet and his leading generals and admirals. . . . Long wars demand long books, but these are 550 pages of lively prose by a good writer who knows his subject.”—Kirkus Reviews
Random House interviews author Joseph E. Persico on ROOSEVELT’S CENTURIONS: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II
Random House: What led you to write Roosevelt’s Centurions?
Joseph Persico: I had already written books on the Civil War and World War I. But my overriding interest had always been in World War II. That plus the fact that Franklin Roosevelt had fascinated me – and that I had already written two books about him led me to ask how good a commander-in-chief had he been in the Second World War?
RH: And how good was he?
JP: That depends on how you rate him in three wartime roles: as Recruiter-in-Chief, as Morale Officer, and as Strategist-in-Chief.
RH: Let’s take Recruiter-in-Chief first?
JP: In his choice to run the Army, General George C. Marshall, he chose brilliantly. Marshall not only built a puny army to a powerful force, he was also FDR’s sturdy oak on all war time decision. FDR appointed Admiral Ernest King to run the Navy, a crusty old sea dog and a fighter, although Admiral Chester Nimitz would have been just as good. And in Hap Arnold he picked a general who became essentially the founding father of the U.S. Air Forces.
Interestingly, his appointees stayed in place from the first to the last day of the war, while Winston Churchill fired generals and admirals left and right.
RH: What did you mean by Morale Officer?
JP: A wartime president has to inspire the people that the disruptions of normal life, the sacrifice, the inevitable battle deaths are worth enduring. In his speech declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor, he stirred the American people vowing that whatever it took, the country would go on to inevitable victory. In his radio Fireside Chats he invited Americans to get out a map and follow the War’s progress with him. He made modest steps to integrate the armed forces, but not enough. His greatest spur to home front morale was the GI Bill of Rights which promised veterans that they would not be forgotten the day they took off their uniforms. Post war, millions of men and women who would have gone back to lower level jobs instead became, doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and other professionals because the GI Bill put them through college.
RH: And FDR as Strategist-in Chief?
JP: He pretty much left the tactical decisions, the day to day fighting, to his commanders. But he took the major strategic decisions into his own hands. For example, he decided to beat Germany first, his insistence on Unconditional Surrender by our enemies, where to invade and when were his decisions.
RH: How good were these decisions?
JP: It is a mixed record. Beating Germany first made sense because defeating Hitler would eventually mean the defeat of Japan. But defeating Japan would not have meant the defeat of Germany. His launching of the Manhattan Project to build an atom bomb certainly brought Japan to her knees over night. Unconditional surrender is debated to this day as to whether or not it prolonged enemy resistance But if you don’t demand unconditional surrender, then you have to negotiate. And who were we going to negotiate with, Hitler? Himmler? Goering? Goebbels? And these Nazis remained in the saddle until the last days of the War in Europe.
RH: Did FDR make any strategic mistakes?
JP: His commanders were unanimous in urging an invasion across the English Channel, then across occupied Western Europe and on to Berlin. Against these leaders’ strong objections, FDR decided to put U.S. troops into the European war first in North Africa. Then he again bucked their advice by invading Sicily followed by attacking Italy proper.
RH: Why did he buck his commanders to make these decisions?
JP: These were campaigns that Winston Churchill urged. Churchill knew that securing the Mediterranean sea lanes would protect the life line of the British Empire. Churchill cleverly pitched these campaigns as militarily sound rather than aimed at preserving the Empire. FDR went along because he was anxious to engage American troops quickly somewhere and saw Churchill as more experienced in mioitary affairs — a commissioned army officer, a veteran of the Boer War, twice First Lord of the Admiralty and Prime Minister of a country at war well before we entered the conflict.
RH: So what was the impact of these questionable decisions by FDR?
JP: The campaigns into North Africa, Sicily and Italy, postponed D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, by at least a year. Thus they may have extended the War by that amount of time.
RH: So where in your judgment does Roosevelt rank as a wartime leader?
JP: All told, taking into account his brilliant choices of commanders, his inspirational leadership of the American people, and despite certain questionable strategic decisions, he was on balance the right commander-in-chief at the right time. It is hard to quarrel with victory.
For more information, visit Joseph Persico’s website.