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Five go on a vital mission

15 June 2013 2,716 views 2 Comments

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.MNIR Story Ad

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.


  • Warren Boland said:

    ‘Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World’ by Michael Fullilove

    When a historian as eminent as Ross Fitzgerald has nothing but praise for a book, then it is usually time to sit up and take notice. Writing in ‘The Australian’ recently, Fitzgerald described Michael Fullilove’s account of how FDR and five of his personal envoys took the US into World War II as “one of the most fascinating works of history I have read in many years.”

    Whereas some historians may prefer to focus on the momentous battles of war – Anthony Beevor comes immediately to mind – and others may take a more socio-political approach – Eric Hobsbawm for instance – there are also those who place the emphasis on the economics of conflict; Paul Kennedy’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ is probably the best example.

    Unlike any of the above, Fullilove, head of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, has opted for the 19th century ‘Great Man’ theory of history popularised by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle believed “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”, thus reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration.

    Fullilove’s modern version of this approach means that ‘Rendezvous with Destiny’ is one of the most absorbing and original histories of World War II that has ever been written. It is the amazing story of how the work of the five personal envoys that Roosevelt sent to Europe allowed him to defeat the US isolationists and win the support of his people to wage war against Germany. It was, writes Fullilove, a massive political gamble: conflict was initially opposed by a vast majority of the US population and it was also against the advice of Joseph Kennedy, the defeatist American ambassador in London.

    When war broke out in September 1939, only one in 40 Americans favoured the US entering the conflict. Although the vast majority of the population detested Hitler, assisting the Allies was another matter altogether. The immediate task for FDR, Fullilove writes, was to find a path between benevolent neutrality and belligerency.

    So who were these five great men that made history? They were remarkably different yet all were extraordinarily gifted. Sumner Welles was an upper class, heavy drinking diplomat who met with Chamberlain, Hitler and Mussolini before his sexual misdemeanours eventually ended his career in disgrace; William “Wild Bill’ Donovan was a war hero and future spymaster who set up the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA; Wendell Wilkie, a former Republican presidential candidate against FDR, not only raised British morale but arguably did more than any other envoy to rally Americans to the cause of war; Averell Harriman, a rich banker and handsome railroad heir, ran the massive US aid program out of London and also found time for an affair with Churchill’s daughter-in-law; and last, but not least, there was the sickly and frail former social worker and New Dealer, Harry Hopkins. “Incredibly,” noted one observer “Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt each trusted Hopkins more than they trusted each other.”

    All five envoys were crucial in convincing the US president that Britain was worthy of his support, allowing FDR to defeat the anti-interventionists. As Fullilove explains: “The fall of France and the invasion of Russia were two of the critical junctures of the war, at which FDR might have behaved differently and retreated into hemispheric defence. In both cases he chose the alternative path and insisted, over the opposition of most of his counselors, that America aid Britain and the Soviet Union.”

    Lend-Lease, and later the decision to provide maritime escorts and pass an act enabling conscription, were thus vital tools in keeping ‘Britain afloat’ and preventing a Nazi victory. Their missions and the unflinching support of Welles, Donovan, Harriman, Wilkie and Hopkins, ensured FDR won the political backing of both Congress and the wider public for those key measures.

    “By rearming and aiding the Allies, he [FDR] put the country on a war footing before war was declared,” explains Fullilove. “As the situation in Europe became graver, US involvement got deeper. There were periods of drift, certainly – but the direction of the movement, and the presidential purpose behind it, was unmistakable. The journey might have been quicker had FDR been bolder, but millions of Americans would have been left behind. The nation would have entered the war divided and angry. Instead, by the time of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States had lost its illusions. Americans were united and ready for the fight. The president had carried the country with him.”

    ‘Rendezvous with Destiny’ is narrative history at its most colourful best; Roosevelt’s five emissaries are unforgettable characters. Combined, the five men and the sheer strength of will FDR displayed in his commitment to democracy ‘pushed isolationism to the margins of American life and tilted the national mood toward supporting aid to Hitler’s opponents even at the risk of war’.

    Drawing on vast archival research Fullilove has, as one critic put it, rescued these five men and their missions and given them back to history. The work they did, and the stories they told, allowed FDR to harden his policies and win overwhelming support for taking America into the war, transforming America from a reluctant middle power into a global leader. Roosevelt had, says Fullilove, worn down and marginalised his isolationist opponents. Pearl Harbor finished them as a political force. The world was never to be the same again.

    RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY by Michael Fullilove
    Published by Penguin – Viking
    Rob Minshull produces Weekends with Warren Boland and is an avid reader

  • Ross Fitzgerald said:

    Michael Fullilove’s
    ‘Rendezvous with Destiny – How Franklin D Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the the World.’

    From 1939 to 1941, with Europe at war and the United States strongly isolationist, Roosevelt sent five exceptional men to Europe as his personal envoys to assess, among other issues, America’s role. ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’ is a fascinating and well-written account of a little-known chapter that was crucial to the course of WWII and to America’s global leadership.’ Henry Kissinger

    ‘Superb . . . One of the most fascinating works of history I have read in many years’ Ross Fitzgerald, ‘Weekend Australian’.

    ‘Real Team of Rivals stuff: smart, engaging, historical storytelling’, ‘Time’.

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