Franklin D. Roosevelt died nearly 70 years ago. His generals and admirals, including George Patton, Fleet Adm. Ernest King, George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower, have been gone for the past 40 to 70 or so years.
Yet, in “Roosevelt’s Centurions,” Joseph Persico describes the president and his military team so vividly that they seem to come alive and rise from the pages.
Persico, a Guilderland resident, began his writing career in 1977 with “My Enemy, My Brother,” about the Battle of Gettysburg. He has a gift for telling a story, with a combination of good writing and dogged research that brings new insights to the people or subjects in his books.
‘Roosevelt’s Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II’
AUTHOR: Joseph E. Persico
PUBLISHED BY: Random House, 672 pages
HOW MUCH: $35
The format of “Roosevelt’s Centurions” is chronological, following the timeline of the pre-war years and events in the war. At the end is a glossary of military terms and excellent maps of the major military campaigns.
Persico includes biographical sketches of the generals and admirals who guided the American war effort, as well as segments on topics including segregation in the military and on the home front; communicating the war to the public; mobilizing the economy; training soldiers and sailors; breaking Axis military codes; and the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.
Winston Churchill plays a big role in this book. Persico shows how the friendship and interplay between Churchill and Roosevelt brought successes and setbacks to the war effort. Churchill and Roosevelt, Persico asserts, wisely focused on beating the Germans in Europe first. Yet Persico also asserts that the war could have been won faster if Roosevelt had not supported Churchill’s proposals to invade Sicily and Italy.
Persico has the right pace in his writing about World War II. The war was a harrowing, all-consuming experience, and Persico’s writing respects the sacrifices of Allied soldiers and sailors. Of the nearly 80 million military and civilian deaths he writes, “Numbers on so vast a scale numb rather than shock. What is lost is the personal tragedy behind every impersonal statistic: a youth never granted time to grow old, the mother sending off a son and getting back a folded flag . . .”
He uses vivid phrases to capture the drama of events. He describes Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, in the months before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, as “the cobra and mongoose of world powers.” His chapter on a 1941 Congressional vote on whether to extend the peacetime draft is titled “The Day We Almost Lost the Army.”
At the same time, humor can be appropriate in wartime. Persico shares some bon mots at the right time. For example, the Soviets captured the 360th Division of the German Army, which repelled the British invasion of the French seaport Dieppe in 1942. The division’s records included a critique of the invasion, which Persico describes as a “virtual how-not-to manual” for invading Europe.
While Persico is an excellent writer, this book would not have worked without his strong organizational skills. He gives battles and events the right amount of emphasis, pulling the best material from tens of thousands of pages of books and records. For example, he condenses the several days of the Battle of Midway, the subject of many books, into a few paragraphs, but his decision works. In just a few paragraphs, he gives readers a strong sense of Roosevelt’s generals and admirals.
In “Roosevelt’s Centurions,” Persico shows how the president’s disability from polio affected his mobility, giving the reader an even greater respect for his strength during the war.
With the limits of a wheelchair and heavy iron braces, Roosevelt could have just guided the war from the Oval Office. However, he traveled tens of thousands of miles, including a trip to the front in North Africa. He regularly visited the troops. He made perilous trips between American warships, once in a breeches buoy.
Persico will discuss “Roosevelt’s Centurions” at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 27, during the Roosevelt Reading Festival at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center on the Roosevelt Estate, 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park. For more information, call 845-486-7745.