Five go on a vital mission
MICHAEL Fullilove’s superb account of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt and five of his personal envoys took the US into World War II is one of the most fascinating works of history I have read in many years.
Fullilove, executive director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, has combined faultless scholarship and a captivating narrative style to produce an unforgettable book that spans the period from Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 to the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On June 27, 1936, Roosevelt, accepting his renomination for the presidency, presciently claimed: “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
As Fullilove so eloquently demonstrates, in their different ways, the five president’s men – flawed, high-born, heavy drinking Sumner Welles; war hero and later spymaster William “Wild Bill” Donovan; FDR’s former Republican presidential rival Wendell Willkie; the long-serving Averell Harriman; and especially Harry Hopkins, that frail and unlikely confidant of Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, all kept their rendezvous.
Without the invaluable aid of these highly talented envoys, FDR arguably would not have been able to take a previously isolationist, anti-interventionist and divided US into a united and energetic war against Germany and Japan.
Fullilove convincingly argues that, as a result of its activities and interventions in World War II, the US was able to achieve a pre-eminent place in world affairs.
Shortly before Pearl Harbor, FDR was still wedged between isolationists and non-interventionists who regarded him “as an adventurer or a traitor”, and increasingly vocal interventionists who “regarded him as a laggard”.
All five of Roosevelt’s envoys were to a greater or lesser degree involved in the events of December 7, 1941 – even more directly than they had been in September 1939. Fullilove puts it thus: “Once peripheral, their missions had drawn them in to the centre of power.” The previous work of the “bold five” from 1939 to 1941 made it so much easier for congress, with only one dissenting vote, to declare war on Japan.
With the unflinching aid of Welles, Donovan, Harriman, Willkie and Hopkins, during the previous two years Roosevelt had worn down and considerably marginalised his isolationist opponents. Pearl Harbor finished them as a viable political force.
On December 8, 1941, the president signed a declaration of war at 4.10pm in the Oval Office. Britain also declared war on Japan, and its empire, including Australia, followed suit. As Fullilove describes it: “Three days later, on 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The European war was now a world war, and America was in it. Finally, Franklin Roosevelt was a war president.”
Of all the president’s envoys, it was his trusted friend Hopkins who held pride of place. In his three missions overseas, Hopkins helped to establish what Fullilove usefully terms “the pattern of the triangular relationships between the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union”. As one canny operator observed: “Incredibly, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt each trusted Hopkins more than they trusted each other.”
Hopkins was the chief intermediary between Roosevelt and Churchill and between Roosevelt and Stalin, advising them about each other’s thinking and current needs and predicaments while retaining the confidence of all three.
After the war, Churchill wrote that Hopkins had been “the most faithful and perfect channel of communication between the White House and Downing Street. He had also become a symbol of American aid to a besieged Britain.”
When Churchill proposed a toast to Hopkins at the tripartite Tehran conference in 1943, FDR leaned over to him and said, “Dear Harry, what would we do without you?”
In mid-1941, when a British diplomat observed Hopkins was “Winston Churchill’s white-haired boy”, Roosevelt replied: “Yes. Yes. But even more so Joe Stalin’s – we joke with him, Churchill and I, about being ‘Uncle Joe’s favourite’.”
Regretfully, Hopkins and Roosevelt, whose minds and bodies had suffered a terrible toll as they guided the US into armed conflict, fell out shortly before Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Hopkins followed soon after, on January 29, 1946. His nurse expressed considerable surprise when her “very cantankerous patient”, a “grey-looking person” with “the feeling of greyness about him”, received personal calls of sympathy from Stalin, Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.
Of the many fine black-and-white photographs in ‘Rendezvous with Destiny’, one of my favourites is that of a handsome Harriman playing croquet in England in November 1940. While he was duchessing Churchill, the president’s special envoy was sleeping with the prime minister’s flirtatious young daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill, whom years later he married.
Another favourite photo is that of Hopkins posing with Stalin for the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White in the Kremlin in July 1941. As befits the pair of chain-smokers, the tall Hopkins and the shorter Stalin are both holding lit cigarettes.
‘Rendezvous With Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt And Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into The War And Into The World’
By Michael Fullilove
Viking, 470pp, $29.99
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.
The Weekend Australian, June 15-16, 2013, Review, Books pp 24-25.