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THE TITANS OF THE GREATEST GENERATION
By Martin B. Deutsch
April 18, 2013 -- This is a crucial week in the history of World War II. In 1945, there were key battles on Okinawa and Mindanao, the collapse of Mussolini's German-backed puppet regime in Northern Italy and the suicide of German Field Marshall Model. Less than three weeks later, the war in Europe would be over and Japan under new Prime Minister Baron Suzuki would be trying for a negotiated peace.
Such a rush of history leads me to recommend three noteworthy works about the leading figures on the political and military scene: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor; Harry Truman, who took over as president on April 12, 1945; Winston Churchill; George C. Marshall and Sir Alan Brooke, among others. These volumes are vivid glimpses into their personal lives and how these may have influenced the momentous events of their times.
This is not the usual light spring literary fare that you toss off between flights or on a lonely evening at the hotel. But I promise that they are engrossing and highly readable and absolutely appropriate for the times.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL PARTNERSHIP
Hazel Rowley's 2010 nonfiction work, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, covers the entirety of this unconventional relationship, from the day the distant cousins first meet (at age two for her, age four for him), to his death in 1945 and hers in 1962. Even their wedding in March, 1905, on Manhattan's posh Upper East Side, was hardly your run-of-the-mill affair. The bride was given away by her uncle, then-president Theodore Roosevelt, a distant cousin of Franklin. This is followed by six children, five boys (one dies in early childhood) and a girl.
It's a plush lifestyle, with fancy city apartments; a huge family estate in then-rural Hyde Park, New York; and a vacation retreat in Campobello Island (located between the United States and Canada). And it's all under the domineering eye of Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. At some point along this seemingly enviable road, Franklin has a romance with Lucy Mercer, although the author points out that the physical side of this affair has never been proven beyond a shadow of doubt. It is also Franklin's first of several such liaisons.
In the summer of 1921, Franklin, then a healthy 39-year-old, contracts polio and will forever lose the use of his legs. This fact is deftly kept from the American people almost until his death in the early months of his fourth term as president. This man's willpower and determination to carry on as usual, despite this handicap, goes beyond the incredible. Embarking on a career as a lawyer, Franklin's interests turn to politics. In 1928, he becomes the governor of New York and, four years later, he is sworn in as the 32nd president of the United States during what became known as The Great Depression.
Meanwhile, Eleanor begins her married life as a conventional housewife. Over time, however, she evolves into a significant national figure and moves out from behind the large shadow cast by her husband. She becomes deeply committed to women's rights, champions the poor and speaks out against injustice wherever she finds it. She also launches a daily newspaper column with a substantial national following. She'll write the column, My Day, almost until her death. She also becomes a highly political cheerleader for her husband's many campaigns. Along the way she engages in at least one lesbian relationship and, possibly, a heterosexual affair.
Overall, I think the author gives a more intimate and thorough picture of Eleanor than Franklin, although both of these larger-than-life partners, who maintained a difficult marriage through thick and thin, are fully drawn and fascinating subjects. I agree with the author that this was an extraordinary union on several levels, but I am still more than surprised that it endured.
THE TITAN AFTER ROOSEVELT
Harry S. Truman succeeded FDR after his death and he subsequently published his memoirs in two sizeable volumes: 1955's Memoirs By Harry S. Truman, Volume 1: Year of Decisions and 1956's Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope. Like Truman himself, the memoirs are dry, wry and spry and more like a written documentary than an emotional tell-all. Truman rarely defends or explains and never complains. As an unequivocal admirer of Truman, I might complete that couplet with the line "What a guy!"
A Midwest farmer, courageous artillery captain on the front lines in France during World War I and a failed haberdasher in Kansas City, Truman eventually became a politician in Missouri's mighty Pendergast Machine. That brought him to the Senate, replete with powerful committee chairs. Yet Truman barely knew FDR when he was nominated as his vice president in 1944. He did not seek the role nor did he welcome it.
Indicative of his distant relationship with Roosevelt, Truman didn't know about the atom bomb project underway in Los Alamos, New Mexico, until after his inauguration. It came as a total surprise and probably a shock. Ironically, just months later, Truman made the momentous decision to drop these new weapons of mass destruction on Japan.
It was also Truman who represented his country as one of the triumphant Big Three at the Potsdam Conference near Berlin. It was at Potsdam where he realized that Stalin had no intention of keeping the commitments he had made to democracy at the earlier conclave in Yalta with FDR and Churchill.
It was Truman who pushed through the farsighted Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe. He crafted the tough-minded Truman Doctrine that kept Greece and Turkey out of Stalin's grasp. He initiated the Berlin Airlift when Stalin cut off Allied ground access to the German capital. It was Truman who put American muscle behind the so-called United Nations police action in Korea, which informed the Communist world that it could not move in whenever and wherever it pleased. And let's not forget that it was Truman who removed General McArthur from his Pacific command when the legendary warrior overstepped the bounds between civilian and military control.
Now considered one of America's great presidents, this Truman saga is well worth the read, especially if you are a history maven and want a first-hand version of the times.
ARCHITECTS OF THE MODERN WESTERN WORLD
In a sense, we now return to FDR with Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945. The four giants are Roosevelt, Churchill, U.S. Secretary of War George C. Marshall and the latter's British counterpart, the irascible but brilliant Sir Alan Brooke.
Published in 2009 and written by noted British historian Andrew Roberts, this masterful volume commands your undivided attention with its insightful glimpses into the minds and political manners of these powerful figures. Despite huge egos, they managed a collaborative effort that resulted in victory in World War II.
Through post-War memoirs, personal journals and interviews with those who survived and who had interacted with these men, Roberts pulls together a stunning tableau of what went on behind the scenes. It goes down as smoothly and as easily as a well-written novel. Even if you're not a history buff and aren't captivated by the inside stories of the military strategies, this is one tome you won't want to miss.
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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2013 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.