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Insights into FDR's generals

How the president handled the solid old reliables and the useful loose cannons.

"Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II" by Joseph E. Persico
"Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II" by Joseph E. PersicoRead moreFrom the book jacket

FDR and the Commanders He Led
to Victory in World War II

By Joseph E. Persico

Random House. 672 pp. $35.

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Reviewed by Paul Jablow

The president of the United States' role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces is never as clear, of course, as when the nation is at war.

Abraham Lincoln's short administration is defined largely by the Civil War, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's last two terms by World War II. And much of each president's story can be told by the generals he chose, and didn't choose, to lead American forces.

Lincoln's key choice was fairly simple: Ulysses S. Grant was finally picked over a series of generals who were reluctant to engage the Confederacy head-on. Roosevelt's choices were more difficult, especially in a two-front war in which key players such as Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had their own agendas.

It would be no exaggeration to say that FDR's key generals could be put into two categories: solid, reliable leaders, and loose cannons who were useful if aimed in the right direction at the right time.

Roosevelt, of course, was renowned for his ability to handle men, using their strengths and avoiding the dangers posed by their weaknesses. Some might say manipulate would be a more appropriate word than handle and, yes, the reference to "men" is intentional. There were no women in FDR's inner circle, although he did have one female cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.

As Joseph E. Persico paints it in Roosevelt's Centurions, the first group included chief of staff George C. Marshall; Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led allied forces in the invasion of Europe; and, to a lesser extent, Army Gen. Omar N. Bradley and Air Force chief Henry H. "Hap" Arnold.

The second group included George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and perhaps Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations.

King's flaws apparently included a volcanic temper and an unfortunate tendency to reach under the table at state dinners to grope women other than his wife. His daughter once described him as the most even-tempered man she had ever known: He was always in a rage.

But King was also a strong tactician, and Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, was able to overrule him and wisely commit greater resources to protecting convoys supplying Britain against German submarines in the days leading up to America's entry into the war.

MacArthur was a very different story. Persico tells of an incident when Roosevelt, while still governor of New York, told an associate that he considered Louisiana Sen. Russell Long, known as "the Kingfish," to be one of the two most dangerous men in America.

When the associate asked who the other one was, FDR instantly replied, "Douglas MacArthur."

MacArthur was kept reasonably well in check by FDR, who used his talents to advantage in the Pacific Theater and left it to his successor, Harry Truman, to fire him years later when his insubordination got out of hand.

Patton was another story entirely. FDR chose to ignore the public relations disasters he created by slapping GIs, recognizing that when given a limited objective, he was almost peerless as a field leader.

Marshall and Eisenhower were masterful organizers and leaders rather than battlefield geniuses, most distinguished, perhaps, by the advice they gave FDR that he didn't follow.

Both advocated concentrating Allied strategy in a thrust into continental Europe rather than the diversions Churchill successfully encouraged: North Africa and Italy.

Interesting tidbits abound: Marshall is constantly losing an endless series of dime-store reading glasses. Patton often expresses strong emotions by urinating in public. FDR delights in embarrassing MacArthur by telling him his fly is open.

Structurally, though, the author struggles to concentrate on his theme except in the summary chapter, turning the book into an oversimplified World War II history.

His account of the highly complex Battle of Midway - turning point in the Pacific War - is boiled down almost beyond recognition and contains at least one key error.

The author describes an American pilot hitting a carrier during the battle as shouting "scratch one flattop" when in fact that remark - one of the war's most famous - actually was made a month earlier by an American pilot during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

But treated as a collection of insights and anecdotes, this is a worthwhile effort.