No Ordinary Time

In studying history, I try to enjoy the subject by taking the time to step in another’s shoes. What was it like to live through the depression? What did you wear? How did you earn a wage? Did you work in a factory, building the US war machine? During the unrest, did you march for civil rights? If you were the President or General would you support the D-Day invasion, sending thousands into raging gunfire?

Doris Kearns Goodwin made the walk easy. A well-put-together book, I shed a tear at the end (no spoilers here I suppose) when President FDR passed. He held the job for over twelve years, winning an unprecedented four terms. Some children, who later voted for him, had trouble remembering another soul once held the highest role in the land? The White House wallpaper, never changed during his administration, yellowed behind frames. When Truman assumed the role, trucks of trinkets (and an incredible stamp collection) had to be moved.

Considering the circumstances of the times, he is considered one of the greatest presidents of any age.

Franklin and his wife, Eleanor, led us through an economic depression and worked tirelessly. Eleanor Roosevelt offered, “We should constantly be reminded of what we owe in return for what we have.” His vision and positivity proved contagious. “No factor was more important to Roosevelt’s leadership than his confidence in himself and in the American people. “His most outstanding characteristic is an air of supreme self-confidence,” journalist W. M. Kiplinger wrote as the crisis of the European war deepened. “He always gives the impression that to him nothing is impossible, that everything will turn out all right.”

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the administration worried if the US army, a far cry from a formidable war machine, would be able to stop the invaders before reaching Chicago. For anyone who feels we overspend, take heed as the Japanese would have been a challenge to stop for a nation so unprepared. By the spring of 1943, after only three years of mobilization, the American army had expanded from fewer than five hundred thousand to 4.3 million, and the president had authorized a total of 7.5 million by the end of the year. Nothing so large had ever been created in such a short time. “Just imagining it and willing it into existence,” historian Geoffrey Perrett has written in his study of the American army in World War II, “was a brilliant, thrilling adventure of the spirit.”

American Transformation

FDR formed alliances, saved Europe, and transformed the US economy into a world power. Shortly after his death, the most destructive war in history had come to an end. The best estimates put the number of deaths at an unimaginable 50 million people. The Soviet Union lost 13 million combatants and 7 million civilians. The Germans calculated losses of 3.6 million civilians and 3.2 million soldiers. The Japanese estimated 2 million civilian and 1 million military deaths. Six million Jews had been killed. The number of British and commonwealth deaths is calculated at 484,482. With 291,557 battle deaths and 113,842 nonhostile deaths from accident and disease, the United States suffered the fewest casualties among the major nations.

This book is a triumph. Thank you, Dorris, for bringing history to life. More notes, in no particular order:

Complicated Relationships

I knew Franklin and Eleanor had complicated relationships. They needed one another to push the world onward. But … the dynamic at the White House could be described as odd and filled with intrigue. Princesses. Assistants. Saints. Former lovers. Complicated relationships. All staying under the same roof. A different time.

Crown Princess Martha of Norway. Tall and willowy, full of light and gaiety, the thirty-nine-year-old Martha looked, in the words of reporter Bess Furman, “exactly as a princess should look.” Everything in her appearance, from her gray dress and her gold jewelry to her high cheekbones and chiseled mouth, bespoke good breeding.

“She bothered him because she had integrity,” Anna Rosenberg observed. “It is very hard to live with someone who is almost a saint. He had his tricks and evasions. Sometimes he had to ridicule her in order not to be troubled by her.”

Leadership Notes

Compared to Churchill, the president was more hardheaded, they felt. He was less brilliant but more likely to do the right thing. The president also gave the impression of being more under control, of never letting himself go. “I like Mr. Churchill,” Eleanor wrote Anna, “he’s lovable and emotional and very human but I don’t want him to write the peace or carry it out.” Judgment, believing you are doing the right thing. A nebulous thought in these times yet still important.

As the tenth anniversary of Roosevelt’s first inaugural approached, reporters remained astonished by his unruffled demeanor. Amid tumultuous events abroad, turmoil in Congress, and trouble at home, he remained relaxed, good-humored, and self-assured.

While Roosevelt continually renewed his energies through relaxation, Adolf Hitler diminished his strength through overwork.

Equality Notes and Failures to Act

Riots. Protests. Reforms. The US Air Force recruited African Americans; however, they refused to send them into combat for much of the war. Left only to train, repeatedly, they became the most well-trained force in the war. The Tuskegee airmen would prove to the world, a Defense Department study later noted, that “blacks could fly in combat with the best of the pilots of any nation.” In the course of 1,578 missions over North Africa, Italy, and Germany, the 99th Pursuit Squadron would be credited with shooting down 111 airborne craft and destroying 150 on the ground. Winners of a hundred Distinguished Flying Crosses, the 99th was the only escort group that never lost a single bomber to an enemy fighter.

Women left the home front and surged into the workforce. I’ll deny it to the end of my days if you use my name,” one male executive told a female reporter. “Listen, girl, I’ll deny that I ever saw you. But if you want to know how I feel, I’ll tell you . . . . If I had my way now, I’d say ‘to hell with the men. Give me women.’”

In her talks with the women at the South Portland Shipbuilding yard, Eleanor called for a wide range of creative solutions—staggering the opening and closing times of the factories, keeping bank and department stores open at night, encouraging butchers to hold back part of their meat supply until 6 p.m., asking war plants to hire personal shoppers for the women, to take their orders in the morning and have the filled grocery bags waiting at the door at the end of the shift. Considering that some of these reforms are the mark of a great employer today, these changes were far ahead of their time. After the war, society regressed. Two steps forward. One step back.

So the battle to save lives by bringing large numbers of refugees into America was lost during the crucial months of 1940, when Germany was still willing to grant exit permits to the Jews. “True, the Nazis wished to be rid of the Jews,” historian David Wyman has written, “but until 1941 this end was to be accomplished by emigration, not extermination. The shift to extermination came only after the emigration method had failed, a failure in large part due to lack of countries open to refugees.” Eleanor’s failure to force her husband to admit more refugees remained, her son Jimmy later said, “her deepest regret at the end of her life.” This shows the complicated politics of refugees and illustrates the primary reason most European governments challenge the current administration’s thinking. They’ve seen these challenges. History has answers if we take the time to study.

Notes on the Holocaust

Sending Japanese Americans to camps and a lack of action that led to the Holocaust stained FDR’s legacy. His end game to help European Jews focused on winning the war. Alas, in retrospect, this proved too late.

In Poland, it was reported, more than two-thirds of the Jewish population had been massacred. News of massive killings in Poland had been leaking out for months, but this was the first time that Eleanor had fully absorbed the enormity of the slaughter. At the beginning of the year, there was only one camp, Chelmno, to which Jews were being deported and killed; by the end of the year, a half-dozen more, including Auschwitz, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Birkenau, were in full operation. In the space of twelve months, nearly three million Polish Jews had been murdered.

Most American newspapers printed very little about the slaughter of the Jews. If mass killings were mentioned, they were generally presented not as the systematic murder of an entire race of people, but as an unfortunate byproduct of the general ravages of war.

Other Jews, like Roosevelt adviser Sam Rosenman, feared that, if too much attention were paid to the plight of the European Jews, American anti-Semitism would increase. Such divisions weakened the pressure on Roosevelt, allowing him to fall back on his rationale that the most important thing he could do to help the Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible.

The German War Machine

The First German Army was considered the best in the world. After the treaty to end WWI, many considered France as the most formidable military machine in the world. Tossing conventional wisdom aside, the Nazi regime retooled, focused on new technologies, and conquered most of Europe in less than six weeks, flying flags at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Shocking. Multiple mistakes cost them the war including not operating their factories at full capacity, failure to push onward at Dunkirk, declaring war on the United States, and starting the campaign against the Soviets six weeks late (instead of waiting to the following spring). Technology enhancements helped the German war machine conquer Europe, but not bringing certain weapons to bear faster also kept victory from their grasp:

If the V-1 and its even more formidable successor, the V-2 liquid-fuel rocket, been developed earlier in the war, the balance of power might have been fatally tilted against the Allies. But by July 1944, the Allies were moving forward in every sector of the war.

Terrors of Roosevelt’s Creation and Vision

Let us never forget how terrible war can be for the entire world. Never let the job of playing solider hide the atrocities that war brings.

“They looked like two little boys playing soldier,” Eleanor observed. “They seemed to be having a wonderful time, too wonderful in fact. It made me a little sad somehow.”

In the South Pacific, the emblematic quality was gone, and these same planes and tanks assumed their real shape as lethal weapons of destruction. Slowly, Eleanor began to absorb the terrible reality that all that productive genius which her husband’s leadership had helped to call forth was directed toward a single, brutal goal—that of killing and maiming the enemy.

President’s Death

“Harry,” she said, “the President is dead.” For a moment Truman was unable to speak. Then, at last, he found his voice to ask if there was anything he could do for her. In reply, Eleanor said: “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

Churchill once said that to encounter Franklin Roosevelt, with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescent personality, and his inner élan was like opening your first bottle of champagne. Roosevelt genuinely liked people, he enjoyed taking responsibility, and he adored being president. Alone among our modern presidents, he had “no conception of the office to live up to,” political scientist Richard Neustadt noted, “he was it. His image of the office was himself-in-office.” He did not have the time or the inclination for a melancholy contemplation of the “burdens” of the presidency. “Wouldn’t you be President if you could?” he once naïvely asked a friend. “Wouldn’t anybody?”

“He was one of the few statesmen in the twentieth century, or any century,” the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote, “who seemed to have no fear of the future.”

They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind. In those whom they have blessed they live a life again.”

Other Quotes and Notes:

  • Perhaps businessmen were not as qualified as everyone thought to run complicated government agencies. In covering state agencies for large tech companies, it’s easy to fall into the trap that government is inept but I can tell you it’s challenging to manage. My favorite quote of the book.
  • Despite war, the President’s optimism was contagious. The greatest generation believed, a far cry from today’s rhetoric.
  • Pictures taken at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, HI.