Expectations of Infamy: Roosevelt and Marshall Prepare for War, 1938-41.

Position::Franklin D. Roosevelt - George C. Marshall

Singapore had fallen. American and Filipino troops were in bitter retreat on the Bataan peninsula. The whole of Southeast Asia appeared open to the Japanese. Time magazine put it plainly, if melodramatically, on February 23, 1942, "this was the worst week of the war. The nation took one great trip-hammer blow after another--vast, numbing shocks. It was a worse week for the U.S. than the fall of France; it was the worst week of the century. Such a week had not come to the U.S. since the blackest days of the Civil War.... Now, as in 1864, the fate of the nation was plainly in the balance. Now, as in 1864, only immediate and sustained miracles of effort and speed could tip the scales in the nation's favor."(1)

Yet less than one year later, the tide had turned so surely that ultimate Allied victory could not be in doubt. Japanese advances were blunted in the Pacific, allowing President Roosevelt's Europe-first strategy to be put in motion. This was not the result of logistical "miracles," whether immediate or sustained. The pipeline for development and production of the simplest weapons system is more than the matter of a year. Although one cannot discount the importance of Soviet forces confronting the bulk of Nazi arms or British heroism in both the air and the desert, the course of conflict had changed so irrevocably by the beginning of 1943 because the potential of American might was already being brought to bear.

This mobilization of resources was not initiated on December 8, 1941. It resulted from the close cooperation, starting in 1938, of a very small number of military and civilian leaders in Washington and the timely, if calculated, willingness of the president who had assembled them to follow their counsel. Foremost among them was Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. His relationships with Harry L. Hopkins, Henry Morgenthau Jr., and, after June 1940, Henry L. Stimson were pivotal to Marshall's access to the White House. Although Marshall was the principal strategic architect of America's contribution to Allied victory in World War II, the influence of the others waned as that victory was achieved. The always frail Hopkins died in 1946. After Pearl Harbor, Stimson and Morgenthau fell out, the climax of their discord Morgenthau's doomed plan for a postwar Germany denuded of industry. Stimson's health also declined during the war. Already seventy-two when he returned to Washington in 1940, he died in 1950. It remains a remarkable achievement that four men so dissimilar in backgrounds, temperament, and experience worked so effectively together during the critical period prior to American entry into the war.

It seems even more remarkable if one accepts the prevailing view of Franklin D. Roosevelt's peculiar administrative style. The memoirs of Roosevelt's associates are replete with examples. Vice President Henry A. Wallace, even before he was dumped in 1944, noted that Roosevelt "looks in one direction and rows the other with utmost skill."(2) Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who called Roosevelt "the most complicated human being I ever knew," compared the president to a creative artist who "begins his picture without a clear idea of what he intends to paint ... and then, as he paints, his plan evolves out of the material he is painting."(3) Even so circumspect an observer as Stimson wrote after nearly three years of working with Roosevelt, "The President is the poorest administrator I have ever worked under.... He is not a good chooser of men and does not know how to use them in coordination."(4) Roosevelt once advised Morgenthau, "Never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." As presidential speechwriter Sam Rosenman put it, Roosevelt placed everything on a "personal contact" basis, with few commitments on paper to anyone.(5)

The familiar litany stresses Roosevelt's reluctance to lay down clear lines of authority, even within his cabinet. Responsibilities overlapped, with power contested rather than consigned. What had Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, for example, to do with the noneconomic aspects of foreign or military policy into which he intruded? Moreover, Roosevelt solicited the opinions of many people, in and out of government. He valued the direct observations, at least before the two fell out, of William C. Bullitt and Sumner Welles; of his old Groton and Harvard classmate Joseph C. Grew; and of Adolph A. Berle Jr., Averell Harriman, and especially Harry Hopkins.(6) Such competing counsel often bewildered Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In 1939, when Roosevelt was maneuvering for his third-term nomination, James A. Farley confided to Hull his growing perplexity and frustration with a president he was beginning to perceive as devious. "God, Jim!" Hull exploded, "You don't know what troubles are. Roosevelt is going over my head to Welles and Berle ... to ambassadors. He is in communication constantly with British leaders and others. He doesn't consult with me or confide in me and I have to feel my way in the dark."(7) Roosevelt left many of his associates with similar uncertainty and with priorities that could seem set in sand.

Such an improvisational approach may yield positive results when one is coping with the crisis of an economic depression, but it hardly represents a model of coordinated planning for a nation preparing, however covertly, for war. There is little doubt that Marshall's greatest challenge, abetted by his collaborators, was to convince the president of the need for a balanced preparedness program and then somehow to keep him on track. Yet, this justifiably prevailing view of Roosevelt overlooks a point of immense significance. It was precisely his loose administrative style that enabled Roosevelt to get what he needed out of those who had proven most valuable to him. Roosevelt, after all, was the ultimate arbiter; in preparing for war, he made skilled use of the men he had learned to trust.

Consider that as late as 1940, the ardently isolationist Henry H. Woodring was still secretary of war, while former American Legion commander Louis A. Johnson--who energetically opposed everything Woodring stood for--served as his assistant secretary. Meanwhile, the listless Charles Edison put in his time as secretary of the navy. If Roosevelt deserves blame for such pragmatic balancing acts--even the Tennesseean Hull was essentially a political appointment--the president was a master of maneuver. For example, he justified delegating the responsibility for purchasing arms to Morgenthau on the rather specious grounds that the Treasury Department's procurement division had experience in large-scale buying. John Morton Blum writes, "The caution of the State Department and the sluggishness of the War Department forced Roosevelt often to turn to Morgenthau, who, for his part, constantly prodded the president to bring the country to a state of readiness."(8) Frank Freidel observes that by 1940, Hopkins had become "an ardent advocate of Britain's cause. Soon he was in advance of the president in urging all possible aid to opponents of Hitler."(9) Although they may have "prodded" Roosevelt on occasion, their unconditional loyalty made Hopkins and Morgenthau the most reliable conduits to the president. As Roosevelt explained to Wendell Willkie, after defeating him in 1940, "Someday you may be sitting here ... where I am as president of the United States.... You'll learn what a lonely job this is, and you'll discover the need for someone like Harry Hopkins who asks for nothing except to serve you."(10)

Morgenthau had known Roosevelt all his life. Hopkins met Roosevelt in 1928. But what of Marshall, almost the prototypical career soldier? He had only a passing acquaintance with Roosevelt prior to 1938. As a low-key candidate for chief of staff in 1939, Marshall was convinced that the president viewed him only as "the best of a bad bargain."(11) Yet, less than four years later, Marshall would be denied the only command he really desired because he could not bring himself to request it, prompting a relieved Roosevelt to tell him, "I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country."(12) And so Eisenhower went on to become the preeminent American hero of World War II. What was it that Morgenthau and Hopkins came to admire in the austere Marshall? The word austere invariably precedes Marshall in whatever has been written about him, reminding one almost of "Stonewall" Jackson, that other notable graduate of Virgina Military Institute (VMI). In fact, Marshall's was only a surface austerity; a sense of propriety or rectitude would be more to the point.

As a young lieutenant, Marshall had served in the Philippines and what was then the Oklahoma Territory before making his mark at the Infantry and Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. By the summer of 1912, he was charged with planning complex military maneuvers witnessed by, among others, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. As aide to General John J. Pershing, Marshall saw combat in World War I and gained a lifelong friend and supporter. After command of troops in China and a term at the War College, Marshall was given his most significant posting. As assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in only five years he revamped the way tactics were taught. Stressing the new ideas of a war of rapid movement, Marshall cemented his reputation not as a brilliant originator of military...

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