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This is not a particularly enlightening book, but with its moment by moment recital of the events in and around the White House at that wrenching moment in history, it does make clear how all the political skirmishing and hostility of the preceding months suddenly became inconsequential in the face of the Pearl Harbor debacle. FDR's ability to read the American will correctly at that moment and his decision to deliver a simple address informing the country of the seriousness of the attack and expressing the nation's resolve seems like the obvious choice now, but Gillon makes it clear that the President's advisers pressed for the kind of extended historical diatribe which would have diminished the clarity and power of the speech. We are left with an image of a president perfectly attuned to the task of leading a unified nation into the conflict.
There is little else of significance in Gillon's account. The biographical material about FDR's struggle with polio and the unraveling of his marriage does little to shed light on his initial response to the crisis in the Pacific, and notes about the scramble to establish a new security environment for the White House do not add much to our understanding of the crucial events of the day. As I listened I found myself waiting for more momentous revelations, but they never came.
John Pruden's narration is competent and unremarkable.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Some of my favorite reads are books that select one sliver of time, a single, crucial historical event, and delve into all its’ aspects. An extreme example is George Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge: a micro-history of the final attack at Gettysburg, a book that limits itself strictly to the afternoon of July 3, 1863. More expansive is David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, works that thoroughly set the political, cultural and military stage before describing the signal events in their titles. This second type is what Steven Gillon promises us in his introduction: a study of how FDR handled the crisis of December 7, 1941. In very large part, he delivers on that promise.
His basic premise is something I can agree with wholeheartedly: recent fashions in historiography have devalued the acts of great actors and focused on the “impersonal forces of history”. A Marxist hangover, this notion dehumanizes our bygone ancestors just as efficiently as Marxism has disposed of its living enemies. Gillon starts on the right track.
I admit to being new to World War II historiography, so can’t say whether the insights and opinions Gillon offers are standard issue or genuinely original. Beyond knowing that the Pacific was seen as “our war” while Europe was considered “Britain’s war”—a perspective passed on to me by parents who lived through it all—just about everything Gillon offers up is a revelation to me. These range from local weather conditions to the military realities and public illusions of the day. For example:
December 7th, 1941 was an unusually warm day across the nation so fewer people were by their radios.
Before Pearl Harbor, there was no such thing as a Press Pass to the White House.
Pearl itself was a well-fortified base that many Americans, FDR included, considered impregnable.
To attend the emergency cabinet meeting, the Vice President and two cabinet members took a commercial flight from New York to Washington.
FDR had recently moved the Pacific Fleet from the West Coast to Pearl as a countermove to Japanese aggression.
Most satisfying of all, Gillon refuses to link that last detail to the worn-out “FDR-let-Pearl-Harbor-happen” conspiracy theory. Pretty extensive reading in other eras of history has shown me how rare real, bona fide conspiracies are in human affairs.
Gillon’s style is ideal for consumption through ear buds: not so sophisticated that it can’t be followed but not so plain as to be unlistenable. And, though a work of history, no maps are necessary. Initially John Pruden’s performance struck me as a little flat, but I got used to it and now think he was a perfect pick to deliver this book.
On the downside, Gillon revels in detail. There are mountains of it here, much of it unfocused into any thematic channels. I’m thinking especially of the chapter on White House security, or rather the lack of it and the fevered effort to beef it up quickly. We are told how many men were assigned to the South Lawn, how many weapons they carried and of what caliber, what the air raid bunker under the East Wing was constructed of, even the nature of the “facilities” (port-a-johns). But this is never set into a larger context of a nation stepping, albeit unconsciously, into the role of superpower.
Admittedly, I would never have bought this book if it hadn’t been a Daily Deal last December 7th. I avoid 20th Century history for the simple reason that partisan colors come out far too easily and, given the political allegiances of most of academia and publishing, that partisanship is predictably Liberal. We are told that FDR’s war message prompted Republican lawmakers to cheer him “for the first time in years”. Is this really that surprising? Isn’t the essence of a two-party system that there are two essentially different visions of how things should be? Reference is also made to Roosevelt’s recast Supreme Court, by 1941 purged of old “conservatives” and restocked with younger men who “shared FDR’s faith in activist government”. Living in the aftermath of more than 70 years of activism, it’s a faith I find it very hard to share. Perhaps the lowest point for me was when Gillon credited FDR with a level of deception and news-management that would be unthinkable today. It makes one wonder if he reads today's papers.
Also, the idea that the Second World War saved Roosevelt’s failed New Deal policies is credited to Adolf Hitler—a clear warning to anyone who has entertained that notion on their own. But then Gillon goes on to enumerate the number of unemployed (17%) in 1941, a clear indication that those policies had been less than wholly successful.
Again, this is why I usually avoid “modern” history. Beyond being something of an oxymoron, “modern” history reviews the arguments of 50, 60 and 70 years ago—arguments that are the prelude to the arguments of 2014. The epilogue contains perhaps the best example of this: rightly (and obviously) saying that World War II set up America on the road to Cold War confrontation, Gillon opines that the liberation of Europe and defeat of Japan didn’t prepare us for the “moral ambiguities” of fighting Communism in Third World countries. But didn’t we confront the Axis powers in North Africa? And what could be morally ambiguous about resisting dictatorships that existed longer and inflicted more human suffering than Hitler could dream of? And World War II was not free from moral ambiguity, either; my parents certainly felt that Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, but that’s debatable. But this is why I usually shun “modern” history.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t shun this book. Overall it is very informative and enjoyable, especially for someone like me who has only touched the tip of the historical iceberg called World War II.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful