Weekend Reader: ‘The Mantle Of Command: FDR At War, 1941-1942’

Weekend Reader: ‘The Mantle Of Command: FDR At War, 1941-1942’

Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 by award-winning biographer Nigel Hamilton. Based on years of archival research, The Mantle of Command is a comprehensive account of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strong leadership during a pivotal time, as well as the crucial decisions he made when developing a strategy to defeat Hitler and Japan at the height of World War II. Hamilton explains that despite the counsel of his closest advisors, who were often wrong, Roosevelt’s confidence in his own military training helped him make the best decisions — and ultimately led to the Allied victory. 

You can purchase the book here.

The President’s summary of U.S. naval losses was all too accurate. His belief that Admiral Kimmel’s remaining naval forces— his carriers—were moving toward battle with the Japanese Navy, however, was overly optimistic.

In truth, neither the Japanese nor the American fleet commanders were anxious to join battle at sea. Enough, for the moment, was enough.

The same held true for the President’s plans for his appearance before Congress the following day. Rocked by the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the President was reluctant to ask Congress for a declaration of war on Nazi Germany in addition to Japan. Thus when, in his study, the President read out to the cabinet members the draft of his proposed speech to Congress, Secretary Stimson objected that the declaration only covered war with Japan. It was, Stimson wrote in his diary that night, too simple, “based wholly upon the treachery of the present attack.” Although in that respect it was “very effective,” Stimson allowed, it did not “attempt to cover the long standing indictment of Japan’s lawless conduct in the past. Neither did it connect her in any way with Germany,” as he and Secretary Hull felt it should— in fact Stimson claimed “we know from the interceptions and other evidence that Germany had pushed Japan into this.”

Hitler as Hirohito’s éminence grise? The President was unimpressed, and “stuck to his guns,” in Hopkins’s words, that night— as if more determined than ever to avoid the moniker “warmonger.” There was no evidence of collusion between Germany and Japan, Roosevelt countered—despite the suspicions voiced by his military team, such as Admiral Stark’s remark to Rear Admiral Bloch in Hawaii, asking about an enemy submarine reported to have been sunk in the harbor: “is it German?” As President he would continue to take one step at a time.

No sooner was his meeting with the cabinet over than the ten invited leaders of Congress— interventionists and former isolationists alike—now herded into the Blue Room.

It was 9:00 p.m.— with yet more bad news streaming in from the Far East. Word had come from Britain that Malaya had been invaded. Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore had also been bombed. The American Pacific islands of Guam and Midway were under attack. Japanese carrier planes were confirmed as having bombed the Philippines— in fact, they seemed to have annihilated General MacArthur’s air force at Clark airfield. If anything, the picture was worsening.

Labor Secretary Frances Perkins later recalled how, when she arrived in haste from the airport, the President did not even look up. “He was living off in another area. He wasn’t noticing what went on on the other side of the desk. . . . His face and lips were pulled down, looking quite gray. . . . It was obvious to me that Roosevelt was having a dreadful time just accepting the idea that the Navy could be caught off guard. His pride in the Navy was so terrific that he was having actual physical difficulty in getting out the words that put him on record as knowing that the Navy was caught unawares, that bombs dropped on ships that were not in fighting shape and not prepared to move, but were just tied up.” And on top of that, the destruction of Hawaii’s army air forces.

The mood began with collective shock, but soon gave way to congressional fury, as the President repeated the account that he had already given the cabinet, and then took questions.

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Asked about losses suffered by the Japanese, the President was evasive. “It’s a little difficult. We think we got some of their submarines, but we don’t know,” he responded lamely but truthfully. “We know some Japanese planes were shot down.” Quoting his own experience in World War I, he cautioned against premature assumptions, or wishful thinking. “One fellow says he got fifteen of their planes and somebody else says five. . . . I should say that by far the greater loss has been sustained by us, although we have accounted for some Japanese.” About the rumor that a Japanese carrier had been sunk off the Panama Canal Zone, he was dismissive—“Don’t believe it,” he warned; the U.S. forces there were “on the alert, but very quiet.” It had been, in short, an unmitigated naval and air disaster for the United States in the Pacific.

Unconfirmed reports had come in that the Japanese government had already proclaimed a state of hostilities with America, the President went on. With this in mind, he wished to ask the members of the Senate and House for authority to address Congress the next day, at 12:30 p.m.—though he did not read out his proposed speech, mindful that it would only spur more discussion, and leak within minutes. Assured he would be invited to speak to a joint assembly of Congress, he now had to field more questions from the senators and congressmen about how the fleet and garrison at Pearl Harbor had been so unprepared.

“Hell’s fire, we didn’t do anything!” asserted Senator Tom Connally, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee from Texas, banging his fist on FDR’s desk.

“That’s about it,” responded the President glumly.

“Well, what did we do?” Connally asked the navy secretary, Frank Knox, directly. “Didn’t you say last month that we could lick the Japs in two weeks? Didn’t you say that our navy was so well prepared and located that the Japanese couldn’t hope to hurt us at all? When you made those public statements, weren’t you just trying to say what an efficient secretary of the navy you were?”

Poor Knox knew not how to answer. Nor did the President help him out—he merely listened to the verbal attack with “a blank expression on his face.”

Connally kept up his assault on the navy secretary— asking why “all the ships at Pearl Harbor” were so “crowded” together, and wanting to know about the log chain he’d heard had been pulled across the harbor entrance, so they could not get out.

“To protect us against Japanese submarines,” Knox explained.

“Then you weren’t thinking of an air attack?”

“No,” the secretary admitted.

Connally was almost apoplectic by this time. “I am amazed by the attack by Japan, but I am still more astounded at what happened to our Navy. They were all asleep. Where were our patrols? They knew these negotiations were going on.”

Knox fell silent. Attempting vainly to calm the temper of his meeting, the Chief Executive confided it was “a terrible disappointment to be President” in such “circumstances,” in the aftermath of an attack that had “come most unexpectedly.”

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Excerpt from The Mantle of Command by Nigel Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 by Nigel Hamilton. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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