Fareed Zakaria hails historian Nigel Hamilton’s series as the memoir FDR never had the opportunity to write

Historians in the News
tags: FDR, Fareed Zakaria, Nigel Hamilton

Thumbnail Image -  By Nigel Hamilton, CC BY-SA 3.0

ZAKARIA: We don't know where Donald Trump will go for his first foreign summit, but we can be pretty sure it will be an easy flight in the comfort of Air Force One. That is in great contrast to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's trip to meet Churchill at a summit in Casablanca in 1943. 

That voyage entailed a long train ride to Miami, a 10-hour flight to Trinidad, a nine-hour flight to Brazil, then a 19-hour flight to Gambia and finally another flight to Casablanca -- all this for a man who was paralyzed, had a failing heart and had not gotten on a plane since 1932. 

Why did he do this? It is all explored in a book that explains how the current world order, the one that's been keeping the peace in the world for 70 years, was built by Franklin Roosevelt. It is that world order, of course, that Trump sometimes seems intent to disassemble. Nigel Hamilton joined me. He is the author of a terrific book, "Commander in Chief: FDR's Battle With Churchill, 1943," that gets into all this.

ZAKARIA: So the big project that you've been trying to do, in a sense, is write the memoirs, the war memoirs, that Franklin Roosevelt never wrote?

HAMILTON: Right. Unfortunately, he died very young, 63, in office, in April of 1945. So -- and just at a moment when he was about to begin the United Nations, on behalf of us all. So that was a great tragedy. But he -- I would argue that he had, in the years between Pearl Harbor and his death, he had actually, more or less, fulfilled his vision of how the world order could be changed for the better. 

ZAKARIA: And it was a very different idea. I mean, what I was struck by, reading your book, was how, if it had been any other president, it might have looked very different because most others were very practical, pragmatic. Roosevelt was deeply idealistic about how he wanted the post-War world to look.

HAMILTON: Yes. The president was basically an anti-colonialist, an anti-imperialist. And right from the beginning, even before the war, when he met Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, the two great leaders were arguing about the future. I mean, Churchill, obviously, is the prime minister of this vast British, ancient empire, and the president looking ahead to how these countries would achieve self- determination after the war. 

ZAKARIA: You talk about when he was at Casablanca and he starts telling the Moroccans the world he imagines. And the Moroccans get fascinated because he's describing something -- Morocco was, of course, a French colony. Tell that story. 

HAMILTON: Well, the president went out to Casablanca in early 1943 to decide on how best the allies should defeat Nazi Germany. The Americans had overwhelmed Morocco and Algeria. And the president met Churchill in Casablanca and -- but made quite sure that he met the Moroccan leaders at the time. And the Vichy French were furious with him. They wanted the United States to win the war and then restore their empire. Well, that's not how FDR saw the future. 

ZAKARIA: You point out, at the end of that dinner, he has a private conversation with his son, Elliott Roosevelt. And he says "I'm going to work with all the strength in my body to ensure that, when this war is over, we don't just give back the colonies to the British and French," because he saw that as the problem in the first place.

HAMILTON: Exactly. And that was his vision of a post-War that would be different from the post-War after World War I. 

It was a moral vision. And in that respect, even though he admired Churchill very much as a leader and a spokesman for democracy and principles of freedom, freedom of speech, nevertheless, he really -- he and Churchill were at opposite poles in terms of how they viewed the future. 

ZAKARIA: Big differences; as you point out, Churchill lived to write his memoirs, in which he presented his version of everything, including World War II. He pretended he was in favor of the Normandy invasion, when you point out he was opposed. But Franklin Roosevelt never got to write his memoirs. And it's really strange to me that, until your project, we have not really had Roosevelt's view of -- of World War II. 

HAMILTON: I think that's a tragedy. I mean, part of the problem, of course, is that Churchill was a brilliant writer. He wrote six volumes about how he won World War II, and it was so wonderfully written that it won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, that is very difficult for most historians to combat, and it was very much how Churchill saw his own -- the way he considered himself to be the mastermind, the architect of the winning of World War II. 

What I'd like to do is to change history, if history is the way we look at the past, by showing how, at every step in World War II, it was the president of the United States who was directing the war, not just in terms of vision and diplomacy but in terms of the military, the strategy for defeating first Nazi Germany and then the empire of Japan.

ZAKARIA: And you point out that, almost always, Roosevelt was right and Churchill was wrong. Roosevelt was vindicated by history. 

But I'm going to leave it to people -- they have to read the book to find out exactly what I meant by that. 

Thank you, Nigel. 

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