Review of Joseph Lelyveld's “His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt"

tags: book review, Joseph Lelyveld, His Final Battle

Henry D. Fetter is an attorney and independent historian.

Joseph Lelyveld’s The Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt has a longer chronological reach than its subtitle indicates and provides a well crafted account of the last year and a half of President Roosevelt’s life, from his first meeting with Stalin at Tehran in November 1943 until his death at Warms Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945.

Lelyveld maintains a tight focus on FDR personally, his daily routine, his extensive travels (including months long trips to Tehran, Yalta and Hawaii and regular visits to Hyde Park so that in the last 519 days of his life he spent only 208 nights at the White House), his renewed relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd (with whom he had a World War I era affair that came close to wrecking his marriage and political career), and most of all his declining health, the full extent of which was concealed from the public much as his paralysis had been.

Thanks to the discovery and publication in the 1990s of the diary of FDR’s distant cousin and adoring confidante Daisy Suckley, Lelyveld is able to provide an abundance of detail on Roosevelt’s medical problems (notably high blood pressure and congestive heart failure that required the full time attendance of a cardiac specialist) and confirms that Roosevelt was aware of his heart trouble, something that earlier biographers tended to disclaim. Lelyveld does not press the point but it is hard not to read into the increased amount of time that Roosevelt spent with Lucy (who was with him when he suffered his fatal cerebral hemorrhage to Eleanor’s lasting resentment) shortly before his death a sense of impending mortality.

Lelyveld provides broader coverage of the great events of the last stage of FDR’s presidency - including the progress of the war in Europe and the Pacific, the 1944 re-election campaign, the conferences with Stalin and Churchill - than distinguished presidential historian Robert H. Ferrell did in The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt 1944-1945, a more narrowly health-focused book published in 1998, which also drew on the revelations of the Suckley diary. However, His Final Battle does not supplant James MacGgregor Burns’s classic Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom as a comprehensive treatment of the  political, military and diplomatic contexts within which Roosevelt governed.

Lelyveld draws on a wide range of primary (archival, memoir and oral history) and secondary (the numerous books by Roosevelt’s previous biographers) sources and consulted with a number of leading FDR scholars. His text is supported by 40 pages of often interesting notes and an extensive bibliography. As would be expected from a Pulitzer Prize winning author and former executive editor of the New York Times, the book is fluently written and is leavened by a veteran journalist’s sensitivity to the complexities and ambiguities of his subject’s personality. And readers - if only those of a certain age - will appreciate his proper use of the now commonly abused expression “beg the question.”

To an unusual extent for a non-academic historian, Lelyveld is scrupulous in assessing evidence and willing to acknowledge uncertainty. He observes that Roosevelt “kept no journal and routinely forbade the taking of minutes at cabinet or other high-level meetings” and portrays Roosevelt’s policy making as “so personal and intuitive, so seemingly off the cuff, that it’s seldom reflected in documents.” Lelyveld writes of one presidential decision that “as is often the case with this self-immured character, it’s easy to imagine a stew of motives, difficult to pin any single one down.” The result, given his regard for the gaps in the available evidence, is that the text is punctuated by repeated (well over one hundred) appearances of words such as “may have,” “possibly,” “maybe” and “might” which are seldom found in works of history intended for a general audience.

Health problems and prolonged absences from Washington sharply limited the amount of work that Roosevelt was able to do as his presidency wound down. “A charitable estimate of the time he spent each day doing the public business [in 1944 and 1945] was four hours and was closer to one or two,” Robert H. Ferrell wrote and nothing in Lelyveld’s book challenges that calculation. Nevertheless, Lelyveld finds that in the final year and a half of his life Roosevelt “had done his job, maybe not perfectly, but more or less convincingly in an unusually demanding time: through D-Day, his renomination and selection of a running mate, the rendezvous with MacArthur in Hawaii and the Quebec conference, the decisions on the bomb, the campaign leading to another reelection, the battle of the Bulge, and Yalta.”

By consistently giving FDR the benefit of the doubt, Lelyveld  sets up something of a running debate with Ferrell who is less confident that Roosevelt’s health did not impair his ability to function effectively. According to Ferrell, “Roosevelt in his last year was arguably as incapacitated as President Wilson had been, a shell of his former self, unable to keep abreast of the great decisions he had left to the end of the war..... He let events take their course. He was ... in no condition to govern the republic.” Lelyveld views the process by which FDR ultimately designated Senator Harry S. Truman as his preferred 1944 running mate (shunting aside such prior recipients of the president’s favor as incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace and top presidential assistant James F. Byrnes) as a skillful exercise in political gamesmanship. To Ferrell “the choosing of Truman ... was a very close call, and one suspects the president nearly lost control because of inability to focus on the problem and at crucial moments make up his mind.” In his account of the president’s month-long trip to Hawaii and back for a conference with General MacArthur and top navy commanders to plot the future course of the Pacific war,  Lelyveld applauds FDR’s ability “to soothe and flatter [MacArthur’s] ego and win his adherence.”  Ferrell’s more critical assessment is that  “there was only a single session, lasting two hours and a half, an absurd amount of time for deciding so important a matter.”

FDR’s conduct at Yalta has long been the most controversial aspect of the final months of his presidency.  On this question, Lelyveld endorses  “the views of the scholars who have followed most closely and thoughtfully the twists in the multilayered negotiations” that  [Roosevelt] "came away with most of what he wanted, just about all he could reasonably have expected.... If he failed at Yalta, it wasn’t because of his physical or mental capacity. Had he been at a peak of vigor, the results would have been much the same.” Lelyveld approvingly quotes diplomatic historian Warren Kimball’s description of Roosevelt’s “creative procrastination” in dealing with difficult issues and writes that  Roosevelt’s “statecraft not infrequently involved a conscious attempt to work around or play down problems rather than confront them head on, on the theory that confrontation tends to exacerbate, that given time some problems receded.”

But this sympathetic, and indeed rather complacent, verdict underplays the extent to which FDR’s dealings with Stalin were founded on a fundamental misreading of both the president’s diplomatic options and Soviet postwar ambitions.  It has been argued, even by a historian favorably inclined to Roosevelt,  David M. Kennedy in his volume on the Second World War in the Oxford History of the United States series, that the time to press Stalin on the future of Poland was at the Tehran conference in November 1943 when the Red Army was still engaged in driving the Germans from Soviet territory and the Soviets remained heavily dependent on American Lend Lease military assistance.  Instead, as Lelyveld relates, FDR elected not to raise the Polish issue at Tehran and deferred convening the Yalta conference until February 1945 by which time the Soviets had created “facts on the ground” by occupying Poland and were pushing into Germany itself. Nor was the American (and British) bargaining position vis a vis Stalin enhanced when FDR gratuitously told Stalin, both at Tehran and Yalta, that American troops would be withdrawn from Europe within two years after the end of the war.

Most importantly, and problematically, was FDR’s negotiating approach to Stalin as described by Lelyveld.  Convincing himself that Stalin was “get-at-able” (his word) Roosevelt decided, in advance of  meeting Stalin at Tehran, to play what he described as a “hunch” that Stalin “doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he will not try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

Indeed even in the aftermath of Yalta, according to speechwriter Sam Rosenman, who sailed back to the US from Europe with the president, Roosevelt “ felt that he understood Stalin and that Stalin understood him. He believed that Stalin had a sincere desire to build constructively on the foundations that had been laid at Yalta; that Stalin was interested in maintaining peace in the world so that the Soviets could make the industrial and social changes he thought necessary.”

Although Lelyveld believes that FDR saw through one of Stalin’s favorite negotiating ploys - claiming that his freedom of action was hamstrung by hardliners back at the Kremlin - it appears that he did not. “The only reservation Roosevelt had,” Rosenman recalled, “ was whether or not the others back in the Kremlin would sincerely go along with what Stalin had signed at Yalta. He did not doubt that on the surface they would subscribe to the Yalta agreements; he did have doubt whether, when the chips were down, Stalin would be able to carry out and deliver what he had agreed to. He was also worried what would happen if Stalin should die or be stripped of his power. But there was no doubt in his mind that if the Soviet leaders would back Stalin, a new era in world peace was at hand.” Lelyveld sympathizes with FDR’s efforts to establish a productive relationship with Stalin but acknowledges that at times Roosevelt’s approach to Stalin “cross[ed] over now and then into realms of fantasy.”

Lelyveld concludes with a brief account of the effort by FDR’s political enemies to take posthumous revenge on the man they could not defeat during his lifetime by amending the Constitution to limit a president to two terms in office. He writes that “although he has now been dead longer than he was alive, the conflict between those who blessed him and his actions in peace and war and those who loathed him has ... yet to end. And maybe never will.” It is a notable merit of Lelyveld’s book that it provides grist for both supporters and critics of a man who was without doubt one of our most consequential presidents. The debate will continue.

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