Monday, October 21, 2013
"Roosevelt's Centurions" by Joseph E. Persico (2013)
Of all the biographical compilations I have ever read, this one is the most personable and informative. Combining history with the biographies of the men who made it, author Joseph Persico creates a clear and vivid portrait of the group of extraordinary men who literally saved the world for Democracy.
At the same time he delivers an accurate and lively history of the war itself, introducing each character as they enter they enter the narrative and then giving you the back story on each. And what stories they are!
Filled with anecdotes, interlaced with the actual events, many of these stories have been ignored by other authors who were focusing more on the history of the war, rather than the personalities of the men who waged it. Looking at history in this manner is a breath of fresh air. I love history in any form, but when it is presented in this way, that history springs to life.
From the affable “Hap” Arnold, who was quite a pioneer in his own way; to the gruff Admiral King, the highly organized General Eisenhower, the extremely competent General Marshall; and President Roosevelt; along with Winston Churchill; the author displays each in all their glory.
Winston Churchill is particularly interesting. The man drank like a fish, and his brief relationship with White House Butler Alonzo Fields, just days after Pearl Harbor, will make you laugh out loud. Churchill was quite a character.
Roosevelt is portrayed as highly intelligent and in command at all times, in spite of his illness. His ability to switch gears from the stress of the war and still retain his composure was astonishing. He had definite ideas about how the war should be prosecuted, but was wise enough to back down when necessary. The insights into his illness and his strategy are of paramount interest to anyone interested in the full story of the war.
The decision to concentrate on a policy of “Europe First” didn’t sit too well with the American public, who were still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. That outrage gave way to the Doolittle Raids.
The planning of the first strikes on Japan with the Doolittle Raids is a fascinating story all on its own. In order to let our pilots fly in the Chinese Air Force as the Flying Tigers, the pilots had to resign their American commissions and then be employed as Mercenaries at $600 per month plus $500 for each Japanese plane destroyed. Major Chennault was in charge. This was a bit of a stretch for the United States, which at the time, was still neutral.
The preparations for the Normandy Invasion, including the wrangling between the British and the Americans about which was the more important task; invading North Africa, or rushing the Invasion at Normandy, are explored extensively. The thinking and rationale for the landings is laid bare, making the reader feel like part of the decision making process.
The major events in all the Theaters of Operations; as well as the men who planned and executed them; are extensively covered with some surprising facts of which most readers will be previously unaware. I know I was.
The “dance” with Russia and Molotov’s visit to the White House; with the Soviet representatives locking their rooms and sleeping with pistols beneath their pillows; will have you wondering just what the Secret Service was thinking by allowing the weapons to be openly carried in the White House.
How Eisenhower became the war’s architect is also of interest. He was primarily the best logistical commander in history, using his will and knowledge of history to make the most of all the assets available to him and our Allies to achieve victory.
From the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, to the peace which followed the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the beginnings of the Cold War; you will find no better account of the men; and some remarkable women; who were able to lead our nation, and the world, through one of the darkest times in our collective histories.
Director Tom Hooper, who made the epic mini-series from David McCullough’s book on John Adams, should take note of this book. Filled with the many rich and varied characters who played such a part in winning the war, this could just be another blockbuster.