Wednesday, August 14, 2013

GREAT SOLIDER, OKAY PRESIDENT



A review of Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower: Solider and President (1990)

(Rating 4 of 5)
 

Stephen Ambrose has written a few books of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  This book is a condensed one-volume biography on the nation’s thirty-fourth president.  As the book’s title suggests there are two main focuses in the work, Eisenhower the solider and Eisenhower the President. 

The early part of his life is glossed over.  The important moments are there, the time he almost lost his leg as a kid, his rebellious West Point years, courtship and marriage, his disappointment with his lack of involvement in World War I, the death of his first-born son, and his time in the Philippines.  This is stuff is only briefly touched upon but it is there.

Ambrose portrays Eisenhower as brilliant general who was not only a talented tactician, but also a great leader who could identify talent and put in the best place to be successful.  Eisenhower could take conflicting personalities and make them work together and successfully.  He hated war but he hated Hitler more, and that stronger hatred drove him though Europe. 


As president however, Ambrose portrays a different picture.  Contrary his later defense in the closing chapter, Ambrose does present him as a ‘Whig President’ who acts more a chairman of the board and not a chief executive.  Unlike most presidents, Eisenhower did not need the presidency he didn’t worry about his ‘legacy’ he already had one.  Ambrose presents a president who would refuse to take bold stands at home or abroad.  This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing with the tensions with the Soviet Unions being what they were refusing to draw lines in the sand was probably a good thing.  He enforced Supreme Court decisions on segregation, despite that he wanted the Court to wait to the next president was in office.  It is easy to see why John F. Kennedy’s claim that ‘we need to get the county moving again’ caught on to a lot of people.  Eisenhower just wanted to cruise through the fifties.

I enjoy Ambrose take on Eisenhower’s retirement.  In some ways Eisenhower was more prepared then many of his predecessors to become the president, having been a world figure for over a decade before taking the office.  Eisenhower in the same respect was more unprepared for the challenges of retirement.  The scene where Ambrose describes Eisenhower’s attempt to use a phone is hilarious. Although I may have preferred Michael Kordra’s Ike this is a good one-stop book to learn about one of America’s most important leaders in history.

{Video is one of the earliest color broadcast}

Sunday, August 11, 2013

AN ENGLISH LION



A review of Marin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life (1991)

(Rating 4 of 5)



Martin Gilbert’s biography of Sir Winston Churchill is a straightforward account of the life of one of the great (if not the greatest) statesmen in British history.  Considering how long British history goes, that is quite a thing to be.  His career was long and enduring; it began in the reign of Queen Victoria and ended during the reign of Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II.   During his career he would go from being a conservative to a liberal to a conservative again.  In the end he would prove to be just as much a riddle wrapped in an enigma as he proclaimed Russia was. 

A commoner of noble blood Winston Churchill was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.  His father was Lord Randolph Churchill a member of British House of Commons who rose all the way up to Chancellor of the Exchequer, and fell due to his own missteps.  Young Churchill would earn a commission in the British Army and fight in India.  He would also go to war as a correspondent reporting on the Boer War to the press, while simultaneously getting captured and having an adventurous escape.
Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer

His accomplishments as a writer would equal his political accomplishments.  His works would include but was not limited to a History of the English Speaking Peoples; his own accounts of World War I and II, and a biography of his famous ancestor, John Churchill the 1st Duke of Marlborough.  
Churchill the solider
 
Churchill would enter the Commons as a member of the Conservative Party, his father’s party, but would switch to the Liberals.  He would rise through the Liberal ranks holding various offices in Liberal governments.  One of his best, although to him distasteful and to the world forgotten, was his work in the Home Office.  There he would introduce many reforms most notably of the British prisons.
new member of the House of Commons

In the early years of World War I he was in a prime position as First Lord of the Admiralty but during a low point in the war with blame flying he lost his job.  So his response is to go and command a regiment in the actual fighting.  It is at this and several other moments in the book that I am consistently drawing parallels to the career of President Theodore Roosevelt.  

The one drawback of the book is while it does successfully detail Churchill’s career it negates to bring to life his world.  Churchill’s career spans the Victorian Age to the Cold War yet these periods do not come alive for us.  When we met other actors from Franklin Roosevelt, Neville Chamberlain, Adolph Hitler, George V, or Joseph Stalin, we see them as Churchill does.  Gilbert makes no effort to explain who these people are on their own terms.  The author works with the assumption that the reader knows who everyone is.  That is fine in regards to President Roosevelt but I knew of very little of Anthony Eden going into this and did not learn anything new about him.
            
 Nevertheless, some things I did take away were the fall of relevancy of David Lloyd George and the disgrace of Stanley Baldwin.  After the First World War, Lloyd George was one of the most powerful men in the world by the end of next decade he did not even matter—although he has one more fleeting moment of greatness when Chamberlain falls.  It is amazing how a powerful man and party can just disappear.  Then there was the case of Baldwin.
Prime Minister Baldwin more concerned over the King than Hitler

Stanley Baldwin, although Britain does rearm, the progress is slow and the Prime Minster seems to be more concerned with who the King is marrying then what the Germans are doing.  When the King, Edward VIII is determined to marry who he wants, Wallis Simpson, the Prime Minster seeks to drive him from the throne.  What might have been considered outright treason Baldwin saw as normal behavior, he gets the King off the throne and retires himself before the coronation of the new King, George VI.
 
A year that began and ended with King George
When Baldwin leaves Neville Chamberlain, a prime minister whose legacy is forever linked to the failed policy of appeasement, replaces him.  Churchill is brought back into government and before long is running the entire program.  In the early days of his premiership Churchill and Britain stood alone, but with Hitler’s blunder in invading the Soviet Union and the Japanese blunder in attacking the United States, Churchill became a member of great triumvirate that would help bring the allies to clear and absolute victory.
"Peace in out time" That was not true
 
V for victory


As the Prime Minister, Churchill was a hands-on manager.  He appointed himself his own minister of defense and simultaneously arranged many face-to-face meetings with his allies, Roosevelt and Stalin, doing his best to build personal relationships that would enable them to work together and defeat the Axis powers. 


The enemy

war planing with Roosevelt
 
After the war the electorate threw out the conservatives (with Churchill) out of power despite Churchill himself being personally popular.  He would have to be an observer in the post-war world he had worked so hard to bring about.  Churchill would continue to focus on his literary works while leading the opposition.  When returned to power in 1950 Churchill would try to use his second premiership to bring a rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union.  That would end only in disappointment.  The career of the man who led his country through war and coined the phrase the ‘Iron Curtin’ while also dreaming of a United States of Europe, would come to a more quite end of resignation and insufficient replacement, as Eden did not last long in power. 

Martin Gilbert gives us a very 101 look into the life of a great statesman.  As I earlier noted this book could have explored his world a little more.  I must also add I love the capitalization in this book.  I much prefer the style of Prime Minster of the United Kingdom to prime minister of the United Kingdom.  Gilbert gives a good start into the life of Winston Churchill.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY


A review of Conrad Black’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (2001) 

(Rating 5 of 5)

Lord Conrad Black’s plus one thousand-page biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt is one heck of a read.  It is not only long but you are going to want to find a thesaurus while going through it.  Your knowledge of vocabulary will rise a few points once you are done with this book.  This book is both my second biography I have read about FDR and the second book that I have read by Lord Black.  What I appreciated about Black is his ability to examine issues from multiple angles before coming to an opinion of them.  Lord Black is a conservative politically, which makes his take on Roosevelt as a historical figure mostly championed by the left very intriguing.  The recent right wing has taken to a renewed attack on the welfare state.  Black not only defends it—for conservative reasons—he goes on to declare the Roosevelt was the most important person of the twentieth century.
  
Lord Black begins with the standard look at Roosevelt’s ancestry and the world that grew up in.  The same thing was covered in Smith’s biography and I will not go into any detail here only to say that Roosevelt was a child of extreme economic privilege.  Black goes on to discuss his marriage to his distant cousin[1], who so happened to be the niece of the great President Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR’s early entry into politics.


FDR rises fast and ends of becoming the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for President Wilson—the same job TR had when joining the McKinley Administration. Roosevelt was successful at his job with the Navy Department—so much that Wilson did not let him leave to put on a uniform and fight in the field.  When the war was over he was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President.  Roosevelt showed the party that he was a natural campaigner.             

“Roosevelt was a popular performer on the campaign trail and fulfilled the expectations Cox had when he chose him as his running mate.  He was remarkably impressive in appearance, a confident and eloquent speaker already endowed with the melodious voice, rich inflection and animated gestures that would eventually become world famous.  And he was a tireless campaigner, prepared to go anywhere, no matter how remote or politically hostile.  He had not, however, completely cured himself of the habit of talking liberties with the truth that the press could expose.” (p.128)

Franklin Roosevelt was distantly related to Theodore Roosevelt.  They were from separate branches of the family whose most common ancestor was a man named Nicholas Roosevelt who lived in New Amsterdam (New York) when it was a Dutch colony.  His son Johannes would father the branch that became the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (TR and Eleanor) and the son Jacobus would father the branch that would become the Hudson Valley Roosevelts (Franklin).  Oyster Bay was a Republican branch, and Hudson Valley Roosevelts were Democrats.  Yet Franklin would assume the mantle and legacy of the whole Roosevelt family, so much  that it would bother Theodore Roosevelt’s children, especially the one named Theodore Roosevelt.          

“Another family matter that became a considerable vexation was the elevation of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. to the family seat of assistant secretary of the navy in the Harding administration.  Franklin Roosevelt’s exchanges with his cousin had been fairly acerbic during the campaign as young TR was deployed by the Republican strategists to deny FDR the political succession to President TR.  There was bound to be a rivalry, and this was heightened by the Oyster Bay view that Franklin Roosevelt was a usurper of the family’s political renown and a shirker for apparently ignoring his late distinguished cousin’s advice to wear the country’s uniform during the Great War.  This skirmishing, with the inimitable Alice playing her predictable role, would run and run.” (p. 135)
The First President Roosevelt, TR was Eleanor's uncle

Lord Black goes on to describe how Roosevelt viewed issues such as race and bigotry.  His views were advanced for his times although they are mostly behind ours.  To Black, Roosevelt general open-mindedness contributed to his humanitarian polices and his ability to identify with what would become his core constituency, the American underdogs. 

“To Roosevelt bigotry was a good deal more un-American than any individuals or groups who were the victims of it.  Beyond that, he was eventually offended by the failure of his natural peers to support him as he set out to make safe their sheltered world, which the Great Depression so morally threatened.
This heightened his appreciation of the groups that they despised and that voted in overwhelming numbers for him.  He enjoyed ethnic jokes, including those directed against WASPS, but not ethnic or sectarian slurs.  He believed in himself and in the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Yankee sociological type of which he was such an exemplar.  But he was more impressed with those who strove and achieved in American society with a few initial advantages than he was with those who claimed for themselves from the existence of their well-placed forebears a license to condescend to the less fortunate.” (p.155)

One of the subjects that Lord Black dives into that I find fascinating is the personal and political relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Alfred E. Smith.  Smith and Roosevelt were occasional allies but also adversaries.  Roosevelt had aided Smith in his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.  When Smith received the Democratic Nomination for President in 1928 he realized that despite being a popular governor he was weak in his home state.  To help the party against Herbert Hoover, Smith drafts Roosevelt to run to replace himself as Governor of New York.  Smith believes that with popular Roosevelt running for governor would get more democrats to vote and turn the election in his favor.   

“Roosevelt conducted a vigorous campaign for governor, violently attacking bigotry in every form, which endured him to the huge Catholic and Jewish (and perhaps even black) populations of New York.  He promised to complete the reforms sought by Al Smith, especially the eight-hour and forty-eight hour work week for women and children industrial workers.  He called for an old-age pension and, in moving terms, for the abrogation ‘forever and ever’ of the Poor Law and the County Poor House.  Even more evocative was his cal for better care for handicapped and crippled people.  He referred straightforwardly to his own experience, asserting that only his and his family’s resources had enabled him to make the recovery he had, and that the same care should be available to everyone (as it was in Warm Springs).” (p.184)
In many ways Smith created a monster.  Smith lost the presidential election and now the chief executive position of one the largest and richest states was no longer his.  Roosevelt was now in the driver’s seat.  
“In barely six weeks, Al Smith had been eclipsed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had wanted to remain a while longer in the shadows.  But he was now the unofficial leader of the opposition.  Should anything go awry with the endless prosperity of the time, he would be the president in waiting.  At the decisive moments of their political lives, Al Smith’s judgment was defective, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s luck was good, and Herbert Hoover would prove to be both lacking in judgment and highly unlucky.  Thus were the greatest political fortunes won and lost and the world changed.” (p.188)

Smith would find himself completely usurped.  When the Great Depression hit it was Governor Roosevelt not Governor Smith who was active in taking action.  When the 1932 Democratic Convention assembled Smith discovered the monster he created.  Smith encountered the hard bitter truth that most of those who get the presidential bug have to eventually swallow: you will never be the President of the United States. 

“A disgusted Smith left the hall in Chicago before the vote was officially announced, without releasing his delegates, preventing the customary move to unanimous acclamation.  Roosevelt’s old adversary and now ardent recent supporter James Gerard, the party treasurer, sent Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson, a close friend of Smith’s, to the gallery to ask Smith to move a unanimous nomination.  She returned after a few minutes with Smith’s reply: ‘I won’t do it,’ repeated mindlessly and fixedly as in a mantra.  The proportions of his underestimation of Roosevelt and the madness take his place as governor of New York must have finally become evident to him.  It was an unsportsmanlike and therefore uncharacteristic and unseemly end to Smith’s great career as the official Democratic Party leader.  Even now he could have salvaged a significant role for himself, albeit in a subordinate position to someone formally junior to him, had he behaved sensibly.  Instead he opted for a bitter exile and was marginalized as an ever-popular figure of a receding past.” (p.237)
Smith helped get FDR to Albany as governor and killed his own presidential dreams

The part of President Roosevelt's New Deal that is still felt today is the Social Security system.  Politicians since do not want to mess with it and those who do generally get burned in the attempt.  Paul Ryan attempted to and backlash was so that he had to change his tune.  In 2012, while running for Vice President, he had to go around the county calling Obama a Medicare Scrooge.

“Social Security was an idea whose hour had come.  At a time when the United States had been stricken by an economic crisis that had left nearly a third of the county destitute, it gave promise of an imminent time when there would be emergency support for everyone.  This measure raised the hope of the nation that it would never again be defenseless against the vagaries of economic fortune, which had shown itself more capricious and dangerous than most Americans had ever imagined possible.” (p.343)
President Roosevelt

New Deal-bashing has been become very popular in modern times especially by those who would like to dismantle the welfare state and go back to the world of the 1890s.  The current ‘Tea Party’ movement on the ground and some of the higher end think tanks have often criticized the New Deal with revisionist history.   Black debunks critics and praises the New Deal from a conservative point of view.

“The myth has lingered that the New Deal was ineffectual, because progress in the private-sector reduction of unemployment was sluggish until late in the thirties.  But the Roosevelt administration’s policies greatly alleviated the condition of most of the needy and permanently reformed the economic system without greatly disrupting it.  The New Deal bears comparison with the performance of other advanced industrial countries and was certainly judged preferable to what was on offer from the domestic opposition.” (p.382)

One of the more interesting points that Black raises is how Roosevelt’s example helped other nations see the legitimacy of liberal democracy.  In a time of international economic depression, young republics and developing nations were looking for systems to emulate.  Franklin Roosevelt’s United States provided a good democratic example as opposed to Britain or France.

“By 1937, as had been demonstrated in South America, Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed very great prestige not only in every region of the United States but throughout the world.  He was the only leader of a major county who appeared decisive, energetic, and benign.  The French and British statesmen seemed dyspeptic, ineffective, and unimaginative, as, with few exceptions, they were.  The same adjectives could not be applied to Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, and they all had their admirers in the Western democracies.  But to the great majority in the democratic countries, these were sinister men with blood-stained hands preaching and practicing hatred and violence.  There were much-admired leaders in secondary countries, but only Roosevelt carried the ideals of Western liberal democracy with the originality, courage, and panache that could universally attract admirers, reassure democratic believers, and refute the widespread theory that democracy was doomed to be surpassed by the Fascists or the Communists.” (p.403)
“If Hitler were allowed to consolidate this position, not only could Germany rival America as an industrial power, but Nazism could more successfully compete with democracy for imitators than it already had.  This competition could become bothersome in Latin America, where attachment to democracy was tenuous, and where Hitler and Mussolini had no shortage of swaggering emulators in overstuffed uniforms.” (p.564)
In the early days of World War II the British Government, with Roosevelt’s approval, began courting American public.  The largest propaganda push came with the arrival of King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth.  Over one hundred and seventy years prior Americans revolted against their current guest’s great-great-great-grandfather, King George III.  Yet, you would not have been able to guess Americans harbored any ill feelings against any British king with the amount of enthusiastic crowds welcoming the first British monarch to visit America[2].  
The Roosevelts taking the Windsors for a ride, King George is looking really nervous
 
“The king and queen made a great and very positive impression on American opinion.  They were not physically imposing people as Franklin D. Roosevelt was, but were regal gracious and pleasant looking.  The king was rather handsome and the queen quite pretty.  There was not a hint of British stiffness, much less condescension.  Millions of Americans realized for the first time how close their country really was to Great Britain, especially in a world where strident dictators apply brute force in domestic and international affairs were so prevalent.” (p.524)

1940 would be the most important presidential election since 1864.  It would decide the fate of the world.  Roosevelt was breaking a tradition that had been held since the days of President George Washington: that the President of the United States serve no more than two terms.  Black presents in his book a Roosevelt who vanquishes all of his enemies.            

“Willkie’s mighty effort broke the momentum of his career.  Disliked by and disliking the conservative Republicans, he became friendlier with his opponent than his erstwhile followers.  But his health and political fortunes began to deteriorate.  John L. Lewis resigned as head of the CIO as he promised he would.  He came back as head of the United Mine Workers, but never had a fraction of the credibility in the country he had enjoyed though Roosevelt’s first two terms.  Charles Lindbergh continued to speak to smaller and less respectable audiences about the virtues of isolationism, but he would forever be seen as almost a neo-Nazi.” (p.600)
Roosevelt's biggest enemy was aboard

Lord Black makes a strong case that United States under President Roosevelt was fighting World War II long before the United States was officially fighting it.  While doing this Black also gives an incredible explanation to why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union that I have never heard before: Hitler was afraid that Stalin was going to use the U.S. entry into the war as a means of blackmailing him.  

“Now that Roosevelt was reelected and had extended the U.S. territorial waters almost half-way across the Atlantic Ocean, and Lend-Lease was coming into effect, Hitler had to worry about the possibility of eventually facing the British, Americans, and Russians simultaneously.   He must have become convinced by now that, as his embassy in Washington had continually warned him for several years was the case, Roosevelt was dedicated to the destruction of the Nazi regime.  The contemplation of that fact, more than any other consideration, may have caused Hitler, the supreme gambler, to think of a preemptive strike against Russia.  If Hitler did nothing while Britain and America became steadily stronger, Stalin would be in a position to blackmail him, an opportunity Stalin would be unlikely to resist.  If Hitler struck at the Soviet Union now with overwhelming force, while Britain was still recovering from Dunkirk and the United States was just emerging from pacifist isolationism, Germany might be able to secure a fastness in continental Europe that the British and Americans would be unable to shake or assault for generations.” (p.617)

 When reading Black’s take on Hitler I kept thinking about the Joker in the second Nolan Batman movie ‘the Dark Knight’.  In the movie Alfred explains to Bruce Wayne that Batman forced the mob in desperation to turn to the Joker a man ‘who they didn’t understand’.  Germany, humiliated at Versailles and broken by the continued failures of the Weimar Republic, was in a desperate position.  In desperation they turn to man, named Hitler, who in many ways they didn't totally understand.  

“He concluded by announcing that Germany and Italy had declared war on the United States.  Roosevelt and Churchill were greatly relieved.  Hitler’s speech was insane, both in its torrent of paranoid resentments and in its strategic misjudgment.  Though Goebbels thought it a brilliant speech, no other Germans seemed to be uplifted by the prospect of making war simultaneously on the Americans, British, and Russians.  In addition to the imbalance of strategic forces and potential in Germany’s disfavor, Hitler, who had so easily outwitted his rivals in Europe in the min-and late thirties, was no match as a perceptive statesmen for Roosevelt, Churchill, or Stalin.  He retained his maniacal tenacity and his power to rouse the Germans, but he was now less astute than his rivals.” (p.698)

 Black also treats Eleanor Roosevelt as fairly as Franklin.  Although she is not the subject of the book, as his wife she is hard to ignore.  From Black’s point of view Eleanor was in some ways politically naive, especially to the faults of the far left.  Yet she was an absolute hero when it came for championing the rights of the oppressed and the ignored.  This ended up helping the U.S. war effort by taking up the cause of African-American servicemen who would do a great deal of damage to Hitler’s domain in the skies of Europe. 

“Eleanor Roosevelt also played an important and entirely admirable role in improving the lot of African-American servicemen.  The beautiful and talented black singer Lena Horne concluded that German prisoners of war had a better chance of hearing her when she performed than her own people in the U.S. armed forces did.  Eleanor received a great quantity of information about the segregation of African-American service and bombarded General Marshall with such a volume of questions and suggestions on the subject that he ultimately had to engage two assistants just to deal with that one important correspondent.” (p.824)
Mr and Mrs Roosevelt

I also enjoyed Black’s take on President Roosevelt’s view on the Post-War World.  When you see the big three of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill; you have the representative of the former great Hyperpower of British Empire that was now in the final phases of decline, and the two great Superpowers that would battle to replace it.

“He was also convinced that imperialism generally was doomed.  Roosevelt thought that sophisticated colonial entities like India should quickly become self-governing.  Others, like Indochina, should be in limited-duration transitional trusteeships.  And more primitive areas, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, should be started on what would be a long process of preparation for independence.  Roosevelt was an authentic Anglophile, and liked and respected Churchill, but they were now seeking somewhat different ends.  Roosevelt feared (again with good reason) that Communism could have considerable appeal to colonized peoples.  As we have seen, unlike Churchill, he also thought Stalin could be prevented from surging to the English Channel or recomposing his differences with Germany only to by a prompt Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe.  Churchill, thought largely resigned to Overlord, continued to be tempted by strategically nonsensical alternatives involving Norway, Turkey, and Slovenia.” (p.850)

“Roosevelt’s attitude was not greatly more positive of Communism as much as Churchill did, he was less afraid of it.  He was convinced that progressive democratic government would easily be seen as preferable in every way to Communism, as long as the West did not become mired in lost causes such as the defense of untenable imperial commitments.” (p.984)





Churchill sitting to the left represents a dying empire.  Roosevelt and Stalin the new superpowers
Also Black takes apart the Yalta myth that Roosevelt was too old or too sick to deal with Yalta effectively.  Black correctly points out that the Yalta meeting was handled very well.  The problem was not what happened at Yalta the problem was what happened after.

“At Yalta the United States and its leaders achieved virtually everything they sought.  If the agreement had been adhered to, it would have been a triumph of diplomacy.  That this proved not to be the case was because of the noncompliance of the Soviet Union with the agreements.  The forty-five year Cold War ensued, which had many vicissitudes, but never a shot fired between Soviet and Western forces, and eventually the Western victory in the Second World War was completed with the total disintegration of the Soviet Union.” (p.1079)
I would say in conclusion that this is a very advanced look into the life of President Franklin Roosevelt.  I would still recommend Jean Edward Smith’s book to a person who is just discovering an interest in President Roosevelt; Black’s work is for the advanced reader.    
 
[1] Fifth cousin, so it’s not so icky.
[2] I should add ‘while on the throne’, many British monarchs came to the United States prior to becoming monarch.

{Video is a preview of the movie Hype Park on the Hudson}