Delivering a magisterial account of Franklin Roosevelt’s and Dwight Eisenhower’s roles in World War II, situated within their separate lives and presidencies, may seem an outright impossibility in the space of 100 pages. Yet it is what Philip Terzian has done in Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century. This brief volume will probably do more to correct current misperceptions than anything since Roosevelt became simply the polio victim who launched the New Deal, and Eisenhower the reluctant, anti-war soldier who inveighed against the military-industrial complex on his way out of office.
Mr. Terzian has no time for any of this – and neither, after this brief tour de force, should any reader. For Mr. Terzian, both Roosevelt and Eisenhower, whose historical overlap coincided with the greatest crisis in modern history, were primarily and absolutely determined that America end the war against Germany as the undisputed global power, and remain so afterwards – and were willing to act ruthlessly to that end. Roosevelt turned quickly from the champion of the New Deal to the man who conducted “undeclared naval war against German shipping” before Pearl Harbor in the face of “every effort of Congress to enforce American neutrality” – deliberately misleading powerful isolationist sentiment to do so.
Later, Roosevelt coldly delayed American action in Europe in order to enjoy a greater material advantage, even though that advantage was purchased with the deaths of millions of Russian allies left, “in Churchill’s phrase, to ‘tear the guts’ of the German army.” Similarly, he ensured that America focused on the steady destruction of the German military, ignoring the British desperation to attack Berlin and so end the war without utterly depleting their resources (which sustained, among other things, the British Empire).
That Eisenhower shared Roosevelt’s absolute commitment to American supremacy is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his willingness to bring down the British government by insisting on curtailment of French-English-Israeli action at Suez for little more than failing to consult him beforehand. He was also willing, less than a decade after Hiroshima, to threaten the use of tactical nuclear weapons in order to end the Korean War on terms acceptable to America.
As regards each man’s private calculatedness, and the misdirection they were willing to engage in, Mr. Terzian is a defender where others have been troubled. Was Roosevelt duplicitous and hypocritical, “an instinctive deceiver” who “always had been,” as one historian notes? Mr. Terzian bracingly observes that “These are harsh words, but they are not untrue. Nor are they necessarily a judgment on Roosevelt’s presidency.” Mr. Terzian similarly disposes of a biographer who remarks Eisenhower’s “crafty… self-protective nature,” simply pointing out that Eisenhower, “the son of a yeoman householder in a rural town of remote Kansas, can hardly be accused of cynicism when the upward path was so self-evidently steep. A man whose power derives from his native capability and personal ability to exude command may be excused a certain calculated intensity in life.”
As the rhythms of that sentence suggest, Mr. Terzian possesses a capacity for aphoristic compression almost Johnsonian in its elegance. Elsewhere, he notes of the British Empire that “political death is seldom decorous;” that “Europeans who look to the United States to find the origins of the cold war would do well to recall the circumstances that made the cold war inevitable;” and that “the long, slow decline of the Soviet Union began at the moment of its greatest influence.” Nothing except the authority that comes of decades of careful study can support this kind of prose, and Mr. Terzian’s slim volume makes an enormous contribution to the revivification of the historical essay, something of a casualty of the fat histories that clutter the serious rungs of the bestseller ladder.
There are endless pleasures in this book. One is the remarkable command of an enormous sweep of history, which allows Mr. Terzian confidently to agree with or toss aside the very-hard-won theories of previous historians. Indeed, the bibliography opens with the observation that “Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoys the distinction of having defeated three historians in their successive attempts to write a multi-volume biography. A second is the convincing account of remarkable similarities between two quite different men: one born to power who concealed astonishing, disciplined ambition behind a mask of affability that led his cousins to call him “Feather Duster;” another who went to West Point for the free education and the football, but never once missed an opportunity to climb the ladder that would ultimately make him the most powerful man in the world.
Occasionally, Mr. Terzian is hagiographic. He seems to excuse Roosevelt’s refusal to act to relieve Jewish suffering on the theory that he probably expected the Germany of WWII to be like that of WWI – not, that is, genocidal. He also suggests that the rise of the Soviet Union could not have been mitigated by a different course of action – something with which Churchill, begging Roosevelt to race East, would not have agreed. Finally, was Eisenhower’s low-to-middling graduation from West Point simply “a signal of uncertainty not unexpected in someone of his background”? But these are, ultimately, quibbles.
To the too-casual observer, this might appear to be a book about two presidents, who faced aggressive, expansionist enemies. As Mr. Terzian implies in his prefatory “Apology,” it is really about three — the third being the unnamed occupant of the White House. Mr. Terzian writes to correct the historical record because “the world is full of people and doctrines and historical trends that are … hostile to the West.” Democratic success can lead to “a dangerous complacency. Roosevelt saw this, and Eisenhower understood it, and both acted upon their perceptions…. The question for our time is whether we recognize this as well.” 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, take note.
Mr. Rosenberg reviews books for The New York Sun.