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Commander In Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, And Their War

March 2023
1min read

by Eric Larrabee; Harper & Row; 723 pages; $25.00.

After a good deal of wrangling between the British and the Americans at a meeting early in 1942, it was decided that instead of two committees directing the war—one here, one in London—there would be just one. Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, was there, and he knew instantly what this meant: “The Americans have got their way,” he wrote, “and the war will be run from Washington.” So it was, and how it was is the subject of this big and utterly absorbing book.

As the title suggests, FDR dominates the account. Some historians have asserted that the President pretty much left the running of the war to the military; Larrabee believes he took the title of Commander in Chief with the greatest seriousness, and that he was the moving force behind the long process that brought us to victory.

But since much of FDR’s prowess as a leader lay in his ability to pick the right subordinate and then stick by him, this is also very much about FDR’s lieutenants. In fact, the book is composed of nine biographies of the top chiefs, the story of each spanning the entire war, yet each advancing the narrative so artfully that in the end we are given a lucid and comprehensive picture of the whole titanic undertaking, from Midway to the Kasserine Pass, Guadalcanal to Berlin.

Larrabee writes of complex things with admirable clarity: whether he’s telling about the Ploesti raid or the terrible night action off Guadalcanal, he is at ease with the action on both the strategic and the tactical levels, and while he is concerned with those who were highest in command, he never loses sight of the men in the turrets and the foxholes. He is frank in his judgments (he thinks that MacArthur as a military commander was a posturing second-rater, and that Roosevelt treated Joseph Stilwell both poorly and stupidly), and the writing throughout is spirited, idiomatic, and relaxed without losing touch with the grandeur of the subject. It all adds up to a book that is every bit as entertaining as it is valuable—and it is very valuable indeed.

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