Commander in Chief

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Eric Larrabee. Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War. New York, Harper & Row, 1987. viii, 732 pp. $25.00 ISBN 1-59114-445-8.


Summary

In Commander In Chief author Eric Larrabee has taken a different look at the World War II from the perspective of the Franklin Roosevelt as the war leader and the nine military men over whom he exercised command. Larrabee offers short biographies on each of the men involved in wartime decisions and strategies. He starts with Franklin Roosevelt, and then profiles four Army generals (George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph Stilwell); two Air Force generals (“Hap” Arnold and Curtis LeMay; one Marine Corps general (A.A. Vandegrif): and two admirals, (Ernest King and Chester Nimitz). Using personal papers, speeches and diaries, Larrabee describes each man’s relationship with Roosevelt. It shows how Roosevelt used each man to carry out his war plans, knowing each leader was dedicated to serving his country above all else. The book paints a picture of the grand scale of the war Roosevelt and his generals had to contend with. It is written in an easy to understand manner for any student of history.

In the view of many Franklin Roosevelt was probably the most active Commander-in -Chief of the American military since Lincoln. Larrabee uses examples to show how Roosevelt, in fighting World War II, employed the same leadership skills that he earlier used to fight the Great Depression. Most important was that he assumed the leadership role of the wartime alliance and ran the war through Washington, thereby sealing a postwar leadership position of importance for the United States (p2). However, Larrabee also examines two of Roosevelt’s failures; France and China. Charles de Gaulle was more powerful than Roosevelt thought and by writing off China, Roosevelt ensured instability in the region for many years.

Larrabee looks at the background and education of each of the military men he profiles. The military academies of West Point and Annapolis play an important part in this story because the men were middle class and in many instances the military academies provided their only chance at an education. Since the military was still small at the time, many of these men went to school together or knew each other through the military family.

The epilogue briefly summarizes what each of the men had accomplished by the end of the war. Larrabee spends most of the epilogue on Roosevelt. As commander-in-chief Roosevelt was the looming presence throughout the book. Each of his “lieutenants” had a unique relationship with Roosevelt. Larrabee points out that Roosevelt’s strategies were so complete and carried out so thoroughly that it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Roosevelt contributed to the overconfidence of the postwar years.(p631). The victory in World War II fostered a belief that every American objective must be readily attainable and encouraged the tendency to resort to pure power or military solutions over diplomatic ones.

Commentary

Pat Kelly, Fall 2007


Larrabee presents a convincing analysis of Franklin Roosevelt as a shrewd and capable leader during the war. He also discusses Roosevelt’s responsibility for the war. One of the lingering myths that many historians have spent lifetimes trying to prove or disprove was that Roosevelt knew about the coming attack on Pearl Harbor and sacrificed the Pacific fleet (p83). He discusses all the angles and comes to the conclusion that there is no information that points to FDR knowing about the attack. Larrabee points out that the war came about from more of a cultural and communications gap between the United States and Japan. Yet Larrabee doesn’t explain why Roosevelt didn’t try harder to send the right signals to the Japan about its foreign policy in regards to what America would tolerate. Whether the war could have been avoided remains in Larrabee’s view a greater unanswered question for both sides. Larrabee also references the fact that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t have the long agony of Lincoln in finding the right men for the jobs (p5). This may be unfair to Lincoln since most of the better commanders from West Point chose to fight for the South during the Civil War.

Each of the profiles are terrific with great descriptions and anecdotes that bring each man alive to the reader. Larrabee doesn’t back off and looks at each man’s personality, their battles and the consequences of their decisions. The section on Marshall not only describes Marshall the planner, who hand picked most of the men, it also tells the reader what Marshall stood for as a man. Larrabee describes Marshall’s love for the Army and the people who served in it. As a child I can remember seeing Eisenhower as the grandfatherly figure. Larrabee brings Eisenhower to life and the reader can see why he was chosen as the Supreme Allied Commander. When describing Eisenhower Larrabee simply states that “behind the grin lay a sharp, cold, intelligence as icy as has ever risen to the higher reaches of American life,” (p412). Larrabee reserves his harshest criticism for General Douglas MacArthur, portraying him as a dangerous personality, who believed in his own importance long before the war and after. In looking at all the military men chosen, Larrabee lets the reader see how they viewed World War II and how they viewed the future.

The epilogue deals mostly with Roosevelt and leadership. It wanders in different directions with Roosevelt. Some of it could have been left off. Towards the end of the epilogue Larrabee again gets back to Roosevelt’s ability as a strategist and his ability to run the war. It also discusses post war diplomacy and the interaction of war with politics. Larrabee makes the argument, and rightly so, that the military men featured in the book were never apolitical. They had learned early the ground rules in trying to get funds and equipment for the military before the war.

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