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

Article excerpt

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. …