tv Book Discussion on Commander in Chief CSPAN2 September 6, 2016 2:00am-3:01am EDT
look at the same first four times it is with the four gospels so that is a good way to read the bible. i was also challenged once to read the bible over a short period of time it is suggested over three months. my sign and i both to the challenge and did it and you can do that with any bible just look at the number of pages and / that number of days and you read that many pages each day if you do that you are looking at the big picture is said of the individual versus. that is a little bit of what i am reading and doing with my summer. i go home pretty much every week and of course have to come back and that is a three block trip.
good job we're early. okay. thanks very much for that very gracious introduction. as you know, i'm always delighted to have a chance to talk about my new book here at my local bookstore. because i live in summerville for half the year. once it starts to snow, i go south to new orleans where my wife's family comes from, and they have very good book shops there but not quite as good as this one.
so i'm going to talk today about fdr and the sort of thought behind what i'm going to say is the, the notion that, the rather extraordinary thought that winston churchill very nearly lost us world war ii. last weekend, together with ike williams here also a local resident, i was in richmond, virginia. and the city, as you probably know, is full of memorials and statues relating to the civil war.
and here we are again. not just the civil war, but a very un-civil war. a presidential election, an election in which the candidates have indulged in extraordinary, i think probably unique, bombast, insult, mutual detraction. and it does make you wonder given that we are about to vote for and elect a new commander in chief of the armed forces of the united states, it does make you
wonder about that role, that constitutional role which the president holds. is the candidate really up to it? and i think for that reason not just history, but for that reason it's very interesting to think back, to look back 73 years and consider what happened in 1943. what can we learn from the role of the president in the middle of a world war? what qualities were needed to win that war as commander in
chief of the armed forces of the united united united states? well, i've called this volume "commander in chief" because that was fdr's role. but i subtitled it "fdr's battle with churchill, 1943." because that is what the book is about. now, there are many stories in the book, but the cardinal, central story or saga within this book is, i think, one of the most important confrontations that has ever taken place in the leadership of the united states in war and on a global scale. a confrontation between the
president of the united states and the prime minister of great britain and effective leader of the british commonwealth of nations. now, after world war ii winston churchill wrote his memoirs not just one book, six volumes. six magisterial volumes which helped him to win the nobel prize for literature. in 1953. and that was a great day for literature. it was not a great day for history. here was a british prime minister who had survived the
war where fdr had not survived the war, a british prime minister who was intent on telling story of how he had won world war ii, not the president of the united states. in fact, during the research for this book i came across a wonderful diary entry when winston churchill, half drunk in north africa dining with general eisenhower boasted that he would, quote, bury his mistakes when he came to write the story of how he'd won the war. bury his mistakes. and bury them, he did, in those six volumes. but they were so wonderfully written and the world was still
so admiring of this great figure who alone had stood for the democracies in 1940, who had insured, this one man who'd insured the atlantic alliance, who brought these two countries together to fight hitler which no other briton could have done, not chamberlain or the deputy prime minister, no one else could have done it, or halifax. that was winston churchill. but once the united states entered the war after pearl harbor and after the german declaration of war on the united states four days after pearl harbor, the united states took over the direction of world war ii. and reading winston churchill's memoirs, you would never believe it.
i think in terms of history and histy yokingty -- his tier yoking my, the fact that winston churchill won the nobel prize was a great thing for literature but, as i say, not for history. and in this fdr trilogy, i am doing my best to change history, if by history we understand the way we look at the past and the way we interpret the past. the first volume, "the mantle of command," covered fdr in the first year of the war after pearl harbor, up to the moment when american troops finally went into, on to the offensive and landed in north africa in operation torch. and this second volume takes the story up several months later
when the president of the united states becomes the first president in american history to fly while in office, flying across the atlantic to north africa, and the first president to inspect american troops in war abroad. he flies to north africa at the beginning of this book not only to meet with winston churchill and decide the strategy, the offensive strategy of world war ii, but to make an announcement to the world. unconditional surrender. to the astonishment to the hundreds of reporters who were brought secretly to north africa for this press conference. the president announced there would be no negotiation with evil, with tyranny, with
military conquest with genocide. with japanese atrocities. two million jews, he knew, he'd been told by rabbis who'd visited him only a week before, two million jews were thought to already have been exterminated by the germans. unconditional surrender, the president said. it was never going to happen again. there would be no league of nations. there would be, instead, a united nations backed by the super powers and with the mission of making sure that that kind of war by conquest leading to world war would never happen again. and i mention this because if
we're looking at the qualities that make a united states commander in chief, we have to look at the moral dimension, not just the military leadership dimension of the presidency in his role as commander in chief. the president the year before or just over a year before had, before congress, spoken of the four freedoms. in the summer of 1941, he'd signed the atlantic charter. and here he was in casa ballooning ca -- casablanca at the beginning of the book stating his absolute determination to follow a policy of unconditional surrender of the germans and the japanese. no negotiation. and winston churchill deferred to the president. in fact, winston churchill had
already gone before the british parliament and had said he was the president's ardent and active left tenant -- lieutenant. but what happened after cat that blank ca is? -- casablanca? that is the story that many of us have either forgotten or were never made aware of. and that is a year of battle not only on battlefield, but between washington and london. not even washington and london. winston churchill in 1943 twice came to the united states in an oceanliner with over 200 military advisers and staff officers to persuade the president of the united states to abandon the strategy he'd laid down and which he'd presented at casablanca of
launching d-day in the spring of 1944 which would give the allies plenty of time to prepare, rehearse and train. churchill's visits to washington and to hyde park drove the president of the united states to distraction. at one point fdr said he was going to have to read the riot act to winston. winston churchill was not willing to commit british troops to what he thought would be a bloodbath. but the president of the united states believed that only by landing across the english channel in france and making for berlin could the germans be brought to battle and beaten,
defeated in battle which would bring unconditional surrender. and and to achieve that, the president was quite clear, american troops in north africa would crush the germans between their forces in algeria and tunisia and the british who were advancing from egypt. it was vital, the president decided, in 1943 that american troops learn the business of modern warfare against a ruthless and indoctrinated but highly professional enemy. and where better to do that than at the very extremity of german occupation in europe, north africa? where the german lines of
communication would be longest. and that is exactly what happened. the president recognized, even though he had to override his own generals who were determined that d-day should take place, if possible, in 1943. no, he said, american troops have never fired, for the most part, a shot in anger against the germans. we have to learn the business, combat, commanders as well as troops, the business of modern warfare. and where better to do it than in the relative security of north africa? and it's amazing to think that three weeks after casablanca american forces, sad to say, were trounced by rommel in a battle. the president was absolutely right. and one often wonder ors how could this man who, unlike churchill, had never worn a
military uniform -- although he had been assistant secretary of the navy in world war i -- how could he be so sure of these steps, these strategic steps that he wanted the united states to take in order, ultimately, to be sure of victory over the germans? i personally think it came from somewhere inside him as a truly great politician that he listened to people. he was paralyzed, as you know. he loved meeting people. he listened to people. he went to north africa to casablanca to meet the troops on the ground as well as the commanders, eisenhower and patton. and to judge for himself what it would take for these people to learn to defeat such a professional enemy. how right he was.
and yet win son cur chill -- winston churchill still decided for his own part that the british would not go ahead with d-day. the british would rather abandon d-day. churchill came, as i explain in the book, in may of 1943 to washington and went behind the back of the president of the united states to have hearings or meetings on capitol hill with senior senators and congressmen to try and persuade them not to support d-day in 1944. all this story has, sadly, been covered up not only by churchill, but by those who fold churchill's lead in the historiography of world war ii.
which is one of the reasons i so believe in biography or modern biography. i believe in the biographer's mission to use forensic evidence to reconstruct history and, where necessary, to correct it. to me, the story of fdr in 1943 is an amazing saga. on the one hand, you have a prime minister who has certainly great qualities. he's inspiring. he's wildly popular. he's very photogenerallic with his cigar -- photogenic with his cigar and hat. but he is impetuous, and he
doesn't know what he is doing. he has no vision, no moral vision of the future, only of the past, of britain's glorious past. and he has no understanding of how determined the german troops are to defend this part of southern europe which he thinks will be so easy for the allies to invade; italy, the aegean. if only the president will give him 10,000 more poor american sons to throw into action. he is strategically ignorant but so sure of himself. and somehow this president, this
paralyzed president in his wheelchair, accepts that winston churchill -- for all his faults -- is absolutely essential, nevertheless, to the winning of world war ii. d-day not be mounted -- cannot be mounted without an equivalence of british troops, raf, british naval forces. i know. my father landed on d-day, age 25, commanding a thousand men. lost 600 of them in casualties just in the six weeks of the normandy battle. but that was going to be the deciding battle of the war. hitler is on record saying this will be the deciding battle of world war ii, and the president was determined to go through with it. and, therefore, his challenge was how to bring this
recalcitrant, obstinate and yet brilliant british prime minister along with him, coalition warfare under american leadership. that is the guts of this story and how close we came to losing world war ii if churchill had had his way. if those senators and congressmen in washington had listened to the old boy who was a wonderful orator and who had such wit, who could invent a phrase like that. phrases like north africa, the troops are moving very slowly. north africa was meant to be a springboard, not a sofa. who but churchill could think up
those wonderful witticisms? which you can find on the internet. but that is not military leadership in a global war. and at a time -- how are we doing? we're going to have questions afterwards, so you can challenge me as much as you wish. but i want to say in a year when we have to decide who will be our next commander in chief, should it be a politician or a supposed politician who is popular, who is a master of twitter? or should it be someone who has some experience of how to
listen, how to build a coalition, how to follow a moral basis for which americans are willing -- if they have to -- to fight and to die? because that's what fdr did in 1943. the debt we owe him is incalculable. i'm only sorry that it's taken seven decades to set this out as clearly as i can. i hope you will enjoy the book as much as i've enjoyed researching and writing it. and thank you very much for listening to me today. [applause]
i think they have a microphone if people would like to ask questions. is that right? you're just going to point. >> how much was churchill's involvement with the disaster in world war i at gallipoli involved in his thinking about an invasion of normandy, and and also what effect was the russian front having on the thinking about the invasion of normandy? >> well, to answer the second question, what was happening on the russian front, did it affect the business of the invasion, i don't think it had, i don't think it was, i don't think it was a major factor in deciding when to launch the invasion. it was clear both to stalin and
to fdr that the germans, with something like 400 divisions, could not be beaten militarily unless they were sandwiched between the eastern front and the western front. so the two did depend on each other. but, obviously, a failed landing across the english channel would not have helped anybody, and that was the argument churchill had used for not carrying out d-day in 1942 or 1943. why he didn't want to do it still in 1944, churchill, when american troops by that time had been many battle, had -- had been in battle, had proven themselves in battle, where the commanders had learned to marry air, ground, naval forces, that
is another matter. and many people have speculated that the disaster of gallipoli where churchill hoped to go sort of round the back of germany through the dardanelles, explains why churchill became obsessed with the mediterranean and the aegean and possibly bringing turkey into the war. i think there is clearly some psychological motivation there that he wants to prove it was a failure in world war i, but if it was a great success in world war ii, that would make up for it, that would atone for this failure. the saddest thing is that not even his own, churchill's own chiefs of staff believed that it could ever be done. at the end of the book, churchill is trying to persuade the president of the united states -- and if he can't persuade the president, he will even go behind his back and deal
directly with eisenhower which he wasn't supposed to do. he's trying to persuade the president of the united states that if only the allies would put all their effort into taking roadses, costs -- i don't know be any of you vacation in the aegean, but these are pretty small islands in terms of the strategy of world were -- world war ii. there is a diary kept by churchill's chief of staff, his british chief of staff saying, basically, the old man has gone mad! he is totally obsessed with landing in rhodes. where the hell will that get us? so even today amongst historians it's, you know, some i think amateur historians believe that if only we had landed in the balkans or moved into the
balkans, we could have cut off stalin before he'd reached central europe. complete fantasy. i've been through the chiefs of staff records. i mean, they asked their own planners to draw up maps. just how high the mountains would be that we would have to fight over to get through to austria. you know, this was fantasy on churchill's side. but churchill was a a romantic and a fantasist, and that's why i say the saga is actually a very touching one because here is a president who can't simply bang the table because he still does need the british. when my father landed on d-day, there was an equal number of brits who landed and died. so he needs churchill. somehow he has to bring this obstinate fellow to agree to
work with him. and by the -- it's an extraordinary story of how he actually achieves it. i'm not going to give, give the -- to try and make you read the book. [laughter] but i do explain the president's, i won't call it a trick, but a maneuver of how he gets churchill not only to agree to d-day in 1944, but gets churchill to surrender the agreement that they had had up til then that it would be a briton who would command the d-day armies. from that day in the summer of 1943, fdr said an american will command the d-day invasion. i'm sorry. it's a long-winded answer to your question, but it's an interesting one. sir. >> the trip to casablanca for
the two of them seems extraordinarily risky. was that controversial at the time? did anyone say you're doing what? >> yes. should the president have taken the risk of flying for the first time as a united states president -- [laughter] not just flying to south america, but to fly across -- which he did, he went to brazil -- but then to fly across the whole atlantic. i, you know, one of the delights of being a biographer rather than just a historian is that you're sort of entitled to put some coloring into the story, and i was working in the library of congress, and i came across this unpublished sort of memoir or chapters for a fugitive memoir kept by the president's naval aide who was a naval
captain. and he said nobody wanted the president to go. and the president knew this. so he was very sneaky. he said, john, i'd like you to bring me some travel maps of morocco and possibly algeria. and captain mcclay said -- mcrae said why would you need these? he said, well, i want to see where my troops are fighting. but, in fact, he was planning his trip. and when mccrae realized he was serious, there were many people who tried to dissuade him. he flew on one of these huge boeing clippers from miami. after casablanca he flew home,
and a similar plane flying to lisbon in portugal had it, made a poor landing, and i think 29 men were killed. so it was a very dangerous scheme. but i think it, it illustrates another aspect of the commander, the role of commander in chief, and that is courage. he recognized that at that moment of the war, particularly after seeing those rabbis, that he really -- just words would not be enough. he went before congress, he gave his a state of the union speech -- his state of the union speech, but he had to actually go out to north africa and meet the commanders in the field of battle. not just patton, not just eisenhower, but mark clark and a host of divisional and corps commanders there.
so couraging is another element -- courage is another element within commander in chief. joe. >> yeah. nigel, we hear a lot of discussion about the invasion of italy considering what happened, how it didn't work out very well. >> yeah. that's a most interesting question strategically. italy, i think i'm right in saying that the allies suffered getting on for half a million casualties, ultimately, in italy. it doesn't mean necessarily killed, but wounded and missing. and i talked to my quasi- godfather a lot about italy because monty was,
commanded the british eighth army right from the very toe in italy a all the way up. and, you know, monty always said it was an absolute hiding to nothing and winter warfare in italy, any of you -- has anybody been to italy in the winter? well, you know, certainly in the mountains. you know, the saddest part in many ways in the book is churchill's fantasy that we could have been, we could be in rome within three or four weeks of landing, american troops landing at salerno south of naples. churchill's military judgment really was so bad and so many men, you know, died as a
consequence of this. i won't say it's unforgivable because, you know, mistakes are made in war. but it gives you an idea of just how difficult this man was, that the president of the united states had to make all these compromises and say to winston, okay, we will do some fighting in southern italy. we americans only want the airfields around naples, we don't want to go any further. and there is churchill saying, oh, but i have german intelligence that shows that hitler is going to withdraw all his divisions back to the alps. we won't even have to fight, we'll just follow them. i quote the document here to. it's too sad that churchill really did not understand that it wasn't just hitler who was directing the german armies. the germans themselves were
directing their own armies. it was germans. i will never, til my dying day quite understand this as a historian. why germans would go on fighting to the death, not just risking, but losing their lives to fight to hold onto enemy territory which they had conquered. it wasn't like the russians who were basically defending their homeland. why would tens of thousands of germans lose their lives to hold on in italy? italy had been their partner in the war. the moment the italians surrendered to general eisenhower, germans turned on the italians and started slaughtering them. thousands of them. massacred. you know, this very fine
biographer and historian of world war ii, ian kershaw, has written this multi-volume biography of hitler and and also a very interesting book about the last year of world war ii. why did the germans go on fighting? my father's aide was killed right beside him on last day of the war. you know, this was not nice warfare, and that's why i so admire fdr for his certainty right from the beginning that it wasn't possible to negotiate with that kind of enemy. and the evil behind it. i'm sorry. >> i think, i suspect i'm fast
forwarding to volume three -- [laughter] had had fdr described, do you think he would have taken the same actions as truman in japan? >> you are projecting into volume three. [laughter] >> should i come back in a couple of years? >> please. we will reais semibl -- reassemble in this very room in perhaps a little bit later time. i'm 50 pages into the new book. and i have a pretty good idea, but i don't think i'll commit myself at this point. jim, you -- >> i was wondering how churchill's eventual deference to fdr was colored by the fact that they really needed america's industrial, military industrial strength and equipment? you know, i don't -- did he think he couldn't win war without us, which is most people's idea, that if we hadn't gotten into the war -- >> did churchill ultimately
defer to the president because without the united states, britain could not have survived? absolutely. and to me, that is partly, part of the greatness of winston churchill, that he recognized right from the very beginning. in fact, many people suspect him of kind of trying to incite warfare that would bring the united states into the war. but, obviously, he realized that world war ii could not be won without the united states. i think the larger question though is why did it take him so long to accept that president roosevelt was not just the commander in chief of the armed forces of the united states, but basically the armed forces of the united nations? and i think, yes, there was a lot of hubris and a kind of
british arrogance that, you know, here was this empire that had survived for hundreds of years, you know, rather like the rowen man empire and would continue -- roman empire and would continue for hundreds more years. hehe locked up gandhi, he was dd against independence for india. india, today the world's largest democracy, i explained in volume one how the poor president, you know, kept sending these gentle cables to winston saying, you know, shouldn't you really think about giving the indians independence so that they will fight with you? when singapore was conquered or overrun by the japanese in 1941 shortly after pearl harbor, over
40,000 indians elected to join the japanese. not because they liked the japanese or trusted them one inch. but because they were fed up with winston churchill saying there would never be independence for indians. so that mixture of arrogance, always, i mean, he was only 5-6, the president was 6-3, but the president was in his wheelchair, and somehow winston was boxing above his weight. and the reason he got away with so much of it was, i think, because of his brilliant mind. i think you all know i stayed with winston churchill as a student, college student many years ago. i'm the last perp outside the cur chill -- person outside the churchill family to have stayed with him, and this man would
always get the better of you. montgomery, my quasi-god father, had taken me to stay there for the weekend, and there was a lapse in the conversation at dinner, and monty leaned over and said into churchill's left ear, of course, you know, winston, nigel's a socialist. [laughter] to the conservative prime minister. and churchill, you know, we were having roast venison, which i'd never had before in my life, and churchill had speared one piece of venison which his dear wife had cut up for him. and i was sitting, age 19, on his right. he speared this cube of venison, and i wasn't sure if he was
going to stab me or quite what. but he held it up, looked at it and then turned to me and went, grrr. [laughter] like a lion. and i, there wasn't much i could say. laugh -- [laughter] sure. >> some years ago i was fortunate enough to visit chatwell and learned so much about churchill in such an enjoyable way. i went away remembering one little tidbit in particular. there was a bust of napoleon. and given the relationship between england and france historically speaking, i thought it was very interesting that there was such a place of honor for the bust of napoleon. [laughter] and i was told by the docent that churchill had great admiration for napoleon. and given what you just said about romanticism, imperialism, particularly reckless imperialism, i thought isn't that almost a parallel that --
>> sure. >> -- that this would be the case. would you comment on that? >> well, i think that's very true. to be honest, it's now 50-something years ago since i was in the house, and i can't remember this statuette or whatever of napoleon, but i think your story speaks to churchill's not simply his row romanticism, but -- although he had been a warrior. you know, he'd gone, he never went to college -- well, he did go to college, but a military college, sanders. and be he started life as a warrior on the northwest frontier of india and afghanistan and saw warfare in the middle east, in egypt, in the trenches in world war i, in south africa butter -- during
the boer war. you know, he had every right to consider -- i mean, he was a fearless individual. i think the nearest he came to being killed was many new york, unfortunately, by a taxi. [laughter] but he was totally fearless. and it was inevitable that he saw himself as somebody who, you know, he loved patton. he saw himself as -- after all, he'd been in the calvary -- calvary. he thought the world of tank war fare. i remember monty saying, of course you know, nigel, winston, terrific leader.
terrific leader. couldn't have done it without him in 1940. couldn't have done it without him. knew nothing about warfare. [laughter] you know, he, he just wasn't professional in that way. like you say, he was impetuous, he was all for -- in fact, his staff produced a book called "action this day," and that is very inspiring particularly if, you know, the british after several centuries of empire, you know, were becoming somewhat bureaucratic and slow, and everything was by the book and written down in longhand. and churchill wanted action this day. it's just that he had so little military judgment. and i'm sounding very critical of him, but, you know, like many people and i think including the president, i had enormous veneration and affection for
him. he was a pretty lovable individual. you know, when these two nurses brought him in to dinner, or you know, to be honest at 19 i was rather entranced by the nurses. but he, once they left the room -- [laughter] you know, here he was in his boiler suit and with this incredible, you know, baby-like skin, you know? he was pudgy and, you know, he was a difficult man to dislike. an easy man to admire. alton. >> one of the interesting things to me or updating it til today is up until your book, and i've read a lot of history, where were all the biographers that maybe either knew the story, maybe they didn't, and where was the media even at that time? even though they were falling in
love, and why not, with churchill. i find it disconcerting that we could have lost the war because of his carelessness. but where were the biographers later on all the way down to today? until you came around, they should have pointed this out. >> why has it taken 70 years for an expatriate brit, a poor immigrant -- [laughter] to summerville, massachusetts, and new orleans, louisiana, who is, i'm happy to say, documented. [laughter] why has it taken seven decades for somebody to tackle a biography of fdr as commander in chief? not as diplomat, not as
statesman, not as father of the new deal, not in terms of his numismatics or his fishing, just as commander in chief of the armed forces in the most violet war in human -- violent war in human history? i'm not sure i know why. i suspect that it's because military historians tend to, in their efforts to tell, to describe the whole picture, tend to to use the records of the chiefs of staff, of their meetings, the kind of background to the operations of war. there was one book 0 or 30 years -- 20 or 30 years ago called commander in chief by a
man called lair by, and if you -- lair bee, and if you open it, it has, like, 10 or 15 pages about the president, and the rest of the book is a series of about 15 chapters about each of the commanders in world war ii. and i think that tells us a lot. that even those writers who were attracted by the idea of tackling individuals biographically tended to go for the field commanders or even the chiefs of staff in washington like marshall or admiral king or general arnold. whether it needed a certain amount of blind courage -- [laughter] to dare to tackle fdr in his role as commander in chief, i don't know. i have to say you realize i'm in
the presence of my literary agent, so i have to be careful. you know, i -- we live in a world, i mean, thank god for this bookstore. but we live in a world of decreasing numbers of people reading actual books. rather than e-books. and it is quite difficult to get a commission, a contract to write a book. and i, i don't think i was dishonest when i told my wonderful publisher that this would just be one volume. [laughter] because, quite honestly, i began without knowing this whole story. i was simply curious. i had written book called
"american caesars" about the last 12 presidents which was modeled on a famous roman group biography, of the great roman dictators, the 12 caesars. and it was when i was writing that book or the chapter about fdr in that book and having to consult existing works that i, i could not believe that no biographer had stepped forward to write such an account, such a study of fdr in that role as commander in chief. and that was the genesis of this. i didn't start with a, any prior conviction that the president was right and churchill was wrong or whatever. i hope i've been reasonably
objective as far as one can be. but i do believe it is one of the hitherto really great stories of american leadership in the 20th century, and it has been a scandal that it hasn't been done before. and that winston churchill, by his brilliance as a writer, should have so dominated the historiography of that period that he not only won the nobel prize for literature, but that he so influenced the way that historians see the strategy of world war ii. i might just add, be we're not running over -- if we're not running over time. is anybody bored, need to go home? i think i would just add that, you know, these things, there
are some things that can't be condensed. i, i would have liked to do it in one volume. but in order to, you know, my intention, my ambition, if you like, is finally to change history. and i can't do that just in a condensation. the british publisher wanted me to do it in one volume, and they said no brits are interested in fdr. they're only interested in churchill. we'll do one, a single volume when you're done. now, i know we're on camera, so i'm not going to use the f-word -- [laughter] but, you know, i sent back my advance, and the book was not published in britain. it has only been published a few weeks ago in britain, the first volume. but i insisted. and with the help of my agent, i
was able to persuade an american publisher, houghton mifflin near boston, that this story is too important to be ignored. and this year it's even more important still. because here is an amazing example of the qualities necessary for a president to take on the role of commander in chief of the armed forces of the united states. i think with that, may i end? [applause]