All American presidents are commanders in chief by law. Few perform as such in practice. In Roosevelt’s Centurions, distinguished historian Joseph E. Persico reveals how, during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt seized the levers of wartime power like no president since Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Declaring himself "Dr. Win-the-War", FDR assumed the role of strategist in chief, and, though surrounded by star-studded generals and admirals, he made clear who was running the war. FDR was a hands-on war leader, involving himself in everything from choosing bomber targets to planning naval convoys to the design of landing craft. Persico explores whether his strategic decisions, including his insistence on the Axis powers’ unconditional surrender, helped end or may have prolonged the war.
Taking us inside the Allied war councils, the author reveals how the president brokered strategy with contentious allies, particularly the iron-willed Winston Churchill; rallied morale on the home front; and handpicked a team of proud, sometimes prickly warriors who, he believed, could fight a global war. Persico’s history offers indelible portraits of the outsize figures who roused the "sleeping giant" that defeated the Axis war machine: the dutiful yet independent-minded George C. Marshall, charged with rebuilding an army whose troops trained with broomsticks for rifles, eggs for hand grenades; Dwight Eisenhower, an unassuming Kansan elevated from obscurity to command of the greatest fighting force ever assembled; the vainglorious Douglas MacArthur; and the bizarre battlefield genius George S. Patton. Here, too, are less widely celebrated military leaders whose contributions were just as critical: the irascible, dictatorial navy chief, Ernest King; the acerbic army advisor in China, "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell; and Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, who zealously preached the gospel of modern air power. The Roosevelt who emerges from these pages is a wartime chess master guiding America’s armed forces to a victory that was anything but foreordained.
What are the qualities we look for in a commander in chief? In an era of renewed conflict, when Americans are again confronting the questions that FDR faced - about the nature and exercise of global power - Roosevelt’s Centurions is a timely and revealing examination of what it takes to be a wartime leader in a freewheeling, complicated, and tumultuous democracy.
©2013 Joseph E. Persico (P)2013 Random House Audio
"[A] sweeping, top-down account of 1939-45 from the point of view of FDR, his cabinet and his leading generals and admirals.... Long wars demand long books, but these are 550 pages of lively prose by a good writer who knows his subject." (Kirkus Reviews)
"When I was a boy growing up in the South Bronx, my heroes were Roosevelt’s centurions. As a soldier for 35 years, I made them my mentors and models. These men were heroes. They were fallible and occasionally vain, but we were certainly blessed to have such Americans leading the Greatest Generation during the world’s greatest conflict. Of course, the greatest centurion of them all was FDR himself, who knew how to lead his commanders, stroke their egos, and get the best from them, yet never left any doubt as to who was commander in chief. Joe Persico, my valued collaborator on my memoirs, has brought his formidable talents to bear to bring the centurions to life. He is at the top of his game in this defining classic." (Colin L. Powell, General, U.S. Army, Retired)
This book is a decent overview of World War II and likely to be informative to those who have not previously read much about the war. Mr Persico gives us a decent recounting of the events of the war in those theaters where Americans were involved, along with pocket biographies of the major US figures, but ignores those theaters where no US soldiers were fighting. This may seem reasonable considering the title of the book, but the decision leaves out important events. For example his discussion about Stillwell and China suffers because he chose to completely ignore the Burma theater where General Slim's and his British soldiers were fighting. Those who have read any general histories of World War II will find that there is nothing new here and might want to consider skipping this book.
As long as he sticks to facts Mr Persico does a decent job of describing the events that were central to the war but he is on shakier ground when he wanders into the areas of criticizing strategy, moralizing and psycho-analysis. If he insists on moralizing about decisions made during the war he should, at least, include the reasons those decisions were made.
In his telling of the bombing of Dresden he makes the comment that the US planners knew the Russians wanted Dresden bombed but says that was no excuse. In fact the Russians did not just “want” Dresden bombed, they specially asked for it to be bombed to prevent German reenforcements from being sent to the front during one of their attacks and, had the US and British refused, Stalin would have had a perfectly good reason to stop what limited cooperation he was providing to the allies.
Similarly Mr Persico says the US should have bombed the German Concentration Camps to disrupt the killings there. He may be right, but should have at least mentioned why Franklin Roosevelt made the decision not to bomb the camps. Roosevelt, in a discussion with Henry Morgenthau, said that he refused to authorize the bombing because it would only make people say that the US was killing the Jews rather than the Germans. I do not suggest that this was a valid reason to not bomb, only that Mr Persico owed it to Franklin Roosevelt to properly explain his reasons.
Additionally, Mr Persico's attempt to blame George Patton's behavior on his falling from horses when he was young is just plain embarrasing, and I don't mean embarassing to George Patton.
Mr Woren's narration of this book is less than stellar. His tone and inflections are OK but he needs to learn the proper prononciation of some of the words he is reading. I have listened to books far less well read than this one, but also to many read much better.
So. California native, now living in Austin, TX
I read this book as part of a History Book Club's pick and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I'm not a fan of FDR, but respected the portraits of the generals that served him. Many interesting things about their lives that I've never heard made the read most interesting.
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