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His Final Battle

Format: Trade Paperback, 416 pages
Publisher: Vintage
On Sale: 10/31/2017
Price: $18.00
ISBN: 978-0-345-80659-8
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open close ABOUT THE BOOK
New York Times Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: Foreign AffairsBloomberg

In March 1944, as World War II raged and America’s next presidential election loomed, Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Driven by a belief that he had a duty to see the war through to the end, Roosevelt concealed his failing health and sought a fourth term—a term that he knew he might not live to complete. With unparalleled insight and deep compassion, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Joseph Lelyveld delves into Roosevelt’s thoughts, preoccupations, and motives during his last sixteen months, which saw the highly secretive Manhattan Project, the roar of D-Day, the landmark Yalta Conference and FDR’s hopes for a new world order—all as the war, his presidency, and his life raced in tandem to their climax. His Final Battle delivers an extraordinary portrait of this famously inscrutable man, who was full of contradictions but a consummate leader to the very last.

“A gripping, deeply human account. . . . Moving, elegiac.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Gripping . . . will substantially deepen readers’ understanding of a critical time in U.S. history.” —Foreign Affairs

“Splendid and richly detailed.” —The New York Review of Books
“Masterfully told. . . . A heroic and poignant picture.” —The Boston Globe

“A compellingly nuanced, almost day-by-day account of the great man’s final year of life.” —Time

“A careful, somber and sometimes harrowing account of FDR’s last sixteen months. . . . [Lelyveld’s] full and disciplined investigation of an important theme makes a significant contribution to FDR scholarship.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A pitch-perfect blend of meticulous reporting, careful analysis, and deep humanity. For all that has been written about Roosevelt, this deeply-moving book adds significantly to our understanding of that remarkable man.” —Gay Talese 

“Required reading for anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century’s most consequential—and most mysterious—president.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, author of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

“Powerful . . . Lelyveld’s account of the last months of a 20th century colossus is great history. . . . If you think you knew FDR, think again—Joe Lelyveld brings him to fresh life, in all his human dimensions.” —Timothy Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time 

“A spellbinding example of the biographer’s craft. . . . An unparalleled historical narrative of the last year of the war and the dramatic story of a singular man.” —David Nasaw, author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

“Important. . . . Impressive. . . . Full of illuminating revelations.” —The Washington Times 

“Lelyveld’s storytelling skill, his investigative thoroughness and his total dedication to historical fact remain evident throughout. . . . Intense and substantive.” —The Buffalo News

“A masterpiece, in dramatic prose, combining deep research, subtle imagination, and ingenious speculation. . . . Hard to put down and impossible to forget.” —Fritz Stern, author of Five Germanys I Have Known 

“A beautifully-realized, impossible to put down chronicle making fresh connections that deepen understanding of FDR’s closing confrontations with crises of health and global leadership.” —Ira I. Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

“Rarely has Franklin Delano Roosevelt been portrayed with such steely-eyed insight. . . . A deeply revealing look at a famously enigmatic president. . . . A masterful study of a masterful politician, a fresh look at one of the most beloved and complex of presidents.” —BookPage

“An elegant, affecting work that offers fresh insights on a much-mythologized president.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred) 

“Gripping. . . . Shows that there is much left to say about F.D.R. . . . a solid work of narrative history.” —Publishers Weekly 
Joseph Lelyveld spent nearly four decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times, and served as executive editor from 1994 to 2001. This is his third book since then, following Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India and Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop. An earlier book on apartheid, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, won the Pulitzer Prize.
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Chapter 1

Uncle Joe in Tehran

Joseph Stalin may have been the first person with whom Franklin Roo­se­velt openly discussed the likelihood that he might have to seek a fourth term. For ten days ­toward the end of 1943, first in Cairo, then Tehran, the president had deflected every entreaty from Winston Churchill for a private meeting in order to avoid giving any impression to the Russians that the Americans and the British were secretly cooking up negotiating tactics between themselves for the first ­three-­power summit of the war. Once in Tehran, he seized every opportunity for private meetings with the Soviet dictator; in four days, they had three.

At the last of these, on December 1, 1943, Roo­se­velt said he needed to speak frankly about American politics. The coming year would be an election year, and if the war were still raging, he said, he might have to stand again, although that was not his wish. There were millions of voters of Polish ­background—­six or seven million, he ­said—­and if he ran, he would need their votes. There were also blocs of voters with roots in the three Baltic states, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which Moscow had absorbed into the Soviet Union. Their votes counted too. The United States would never go to war over the Baltics, the president said, and he personally understood the Soviet wish to shift the Polish border to the west for reasons of security. But until the election, then a little less than a year off, he could not, would not, enter into any negotiations on these matters.

Roo­se­velt was flying solo here. There were seventy persons in his delegation at Tehran, including six Filipino cooks and stewards normally assigned to the USS Potomac, the presidential yacht, and the new weekend retreat called ­Shangri-­La (later, Camp David). But there ­wasn’t a single official from the State Department in Washington and only one diplomat from the ranks of the foreign service. This was Charles Bohlen, known as Chip, a young Russia specialist who’d been summoned from the embassy in Moscow on short notice to serve as an interpreter for a president he’d never met. That president would not once turn to him for advice at the summit. The Allied foreign ministers had just gathered in Moscow, but Roo­se­velt’s secretary of state, Cordell Hull, who was used, if not resigned, to being bypassed by his president, ­hadn’t been invited to join him in Tehran. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, was there. So was Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary. This left Harry Hopkins, a social worker in his earliest days, then an administrator of key New Deal programs, as the top American fixer on the scene. When the foreign ministers gathered for lunch, it was Hopkins who sat in for the United States. Everyone understood that ­Hopkins—­who habitually bypassed the State Department chain of command, just like his ­chief—­wielded more power and influence than Hull. The president’s ­right-­hand man dismissed State Department specialists as “old maids” and ­“cookie-­pushers” and “pansies,” echoing the president’s sentiments if not his language. But even Hopkins was not included in Roo­se­velt’s private meetings with Stalin. What the president had to say had been brewing in his own mind since the early months of the war.

He’d long since signaled to Churchill that he saw the taming and courtship of Stalin as his personal project, a crucial step on the road to the international order that would have to be built on the ruins of war. It was a project he’d pursue all the way to Yalta, which was followed within two months by his death. In his ­mind’s eye, Stalin was the key to victory and the postwar world. At times, it would seem, the dictator became something more than the president’s project, an indispensable ­reason—­in his own mind, the leading ­rationale—­for his carrying on.

“I know that you will not mind my being brutally frank,” he said in a handwritten letter to Churchill on March 18, 1942, “when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.” Three weeks later, he was writing to Stalin to suggest a summertime meeting “near our common border off Alaska.”

“The whole question of whether we win or lose the war depends on the Russians,” he remarked to his Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., at about the same time. “If the Russians can hold out this summer and keep three and a half million Germans engaged in war, we can definitely win.” The Russians held out, but Stalin stayed in the Kremlin. In December, the president pressed the dictator again, this time to join him and Churchill in a secret meeting “in some secure place in Africa that is convenient to the three of us.”

To each appeal, the dictator replied tersely that he ­couldn’t leave Moscow, given huge battles looming or under way. If satisfied with American arms deliveries and invasion plans, he expressed regrets; if impatient, he left them off. Roo­se­velt pressed on. By May 1943, he was again proposing Alaska “either on your side or my side of [the] Bering Straits.” This time he sent Joseph E. Davies, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, to hand deliver a letter to Stalin in the Kremlin. In it, the president raised and then ruled out Iceland as a possible rendezvous point, in part because that “would make it, quite frankly, difficult not to invite Prime Minister Churchill at the same time.” Stretching the truth in a manner that can hardly be called uncharacteristic, he then wrote to Churchill denying he’d suggested a meeting that would exclude the prime minister. In June, he dispatched Averell Harriman, another of his special representatives operating outside State Department channels, to Churchill to win his approval of a ­Roo­se­velt-­Stalin meeting that would do just that. Churchill had already met Stalin, Harriman pointed out, and the president should have the same opportunity to establish a personal relationship.

The prime minister ­wasn’t persuaded. “A meeting between the heads of Soviet Russia and the United States at this juncture with the British Commonwealth and Empire excluded,” he wrote to Roo­se­velt, would be a boon to Nazi propaganda and a “serious and vexatious” blow to Britain. In plain language, which the master stylist refrained from deploying on this occasion, it would signify the downgrading of Britain from the status of an equal partner in the alliance to a supporting role. (Roo­se­velt had learned the hard way that it was useless to talk to the prime minister about the end of empire, having once, in early 1942, raised the subject of India in a ­late-­night conversation at the White House. Churchill threw a tantrum and threatened to resign if ever pressed to offer early ­self-­determination to India as part of the war effort.) Such a slippage in Britain’s imperial sway, Roo­se­velt clearly felt, would be not only inevitable but desirable in the postwar world he could sometimes glimpse in his ­mind’s eye. Moreover, in his readiness to see Western colonialism rolled back, he imagined he was staking out potential common ground between himself and Stalin and thus the United States and Russia.

His fixation on Stalin from the early days, before American entry into the ­war—­on what he personally might make of their ­relationship—­reveals his remarkable ­self-­confidence, crossing over now and then into realms of fantasy. It also shows his confounding, sometimes dazzling, ability to operate simultaneously on several planes as visionary, opportunist, and political schemer, as well as his readiness to test a hypothesis in politics like a scientist in a lab, or an entrepreneur with a risky business plan daring to make a deal. The hypothesis, as he put it to Hopkins in this instance, was that the dictator was ­“get-­at-­able,” a potential partner in peace as well as war. His method of getting at Stalin would be to lure him into a pattern of cooperation by going to extreme lengths to prove the United States a dependable, compliant partner. “The big question which rightly dominated Roo­se­velt’s mind,” Anthony Eden wrote, describing a long evening’s conversation with the president in March 1943, “was whether it was possible to work with Russia now and after the war.” Even if the answer proved negative, Eden replied, “We should make the position no worse . . . by assuming that Stalin meant what he said.” That, essentially, was Roo­se­velt’s game plan.

Tehran would give him his first opportunity to see and be seen by Stalin, to discover whether a personal encounter with the dictator might yield results. His eagerness to talk about American politics and the votes of millions of ­Polish-­Americans in his final private session with Stalin there has to be viewed in that context. On one level, Roo­se­velt the politician was going out on a limb to protect his domestic flanks, preserve his options. On another, the opportunist, by making a show of his own frankness, his willingness to trust, was inviting a modicum of candor, or at least flexibility, on Stalin’s part, implicitly asking him to be helpful by appearing, at least, to recognize Polish aspirations. At the same time, he was withholding his formal agreement on the frontier ­question—­finding a plausible excuse to continue ­stalling—­knowing that Soviet forces would inevitably occupy Poland whatever he said, hoping that when that happened, he might retain some bargaining power. It had been his position for the better part of two years that territorial issues should not be settled in private by the big powers, that such negotiations should await the war’s end. “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at,” had been the first of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Wilson ­didn’t live up to his own standard, though he tried. Roo­se­velt, more of a realist and more coldhearted in such matters, already knew, as he was signaling to Stalin, that he might have to bend his principles. For him, it was a question of how much, when, and what he could hope to extract in return.

In all these ways, the visionary was trying to circumvent the apparent contradictions in his rosy vision of postwar collaboration: Finessing and postponing the Polish question at a time when American forces had earned little more than a foothold on the European continent in the five months following the invasion of Sicily, he seemed to be calculating that this was no time to press territorial issues on the Russians, who had been waiting a year and a half for the invasion across the ­En­glish Channel that would open the “second front.” Roo­se­velt had first promised a landing in northwest Europe by the end of 1942 to draw away German reinforcements from the east; by the end of 1943, the promised invasion was still half a year away, at best. Until it happened, the imbalance between the Russian effort and sacrifices and those of its allies would remain huge. It was no time to expect a figure as ­hard-­bitten as Joseph Stalin to embrace the ­high-­sounding promises in the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration of the United ­Nations—­documents that had set out noble goals like freedom, independence, and ­self-­determination for the Allies without attempting to say how these would be secured.

Roo­se­velt himself had enumerated the Four Freedoms (of speech and religion, from fear and want) as an inspirational standard for the wartime alliance for which he’d found the name, United Nations; his hope was that it could evolve into a new world order. But he’d left the drafting of blueprints for an international organization to replace the discredited League of Nations to State Department study groups, which he then held at a distance. Determined to prove himself a realist, to avoid Wilson’s ­self-­defeating fidelity to paper accords, he focused on power, on how a ­hard-­won peace could be maintained, by force when necessary.

So in his private musings, he dwelled more on what he called “the Four Policemen” than the Four Freedoms. These would be the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. Together they’d find a way to intervene swiftly if the peace were threatened; a threat, when they imagined it, that would most likely come from a revanchist Germany or Japan. (Neither Churchill nor Stalin saw the point of including an enfeebled, ­half-­occupied, riven China, but, with some foresight as we can now appreciate, Roo­se­velt insisted. China would serve as a symbolic marker for the future; the world he imagined would not forever be dominated by whites.) The old league had proved toothless throughout the 1930s in the face of Japanese, German, and Italian aggression and flaunting of accords. In his view, before there could be agreement on a ­brand-­new, more flexible international organization to supplant it, there needed to be agreement on how the policemen would swoop down to thwart aggression and secure the peace. It was the right question but begged the obvious next one: What would keep the powers from falling into conflict among themselves? The president’s answer, no less dreamy in its way than Wilson’s, seemed to amount to this: the trust he’d establish between himself and Stalin, in the context of the urgent problems a victorious but suffering and exhausted Soviet Union would be sure to face when the fighting stopped. In the midst of a hot war, he was dimly anticipating the future, trying to head off a cold war, a conflict no one had yet named and few had foreseen.

His policy making was so personal and intuitive, so seemingly off the cuff, that it’s seldom reflected in documents. Its purest bureaucratic expression can be found in the files of the President’s Soviet Protocol Committee, a wartime creation that Harry Hopkins, among all his other roles, chaired, which suggests that its guidelines came directly from the president. Roo­se­velt’s alter ego had been living since 1940 in what was then called the Lincoln ­Study—­later renamed, after redecorating, the Lincoln ­Bedroom—­two doors down from the president’s upstairs study. Most evenings found the two men together, talking politics and policies. When Hopkins married his third wife in 1942 in a White House ceremony, with Roo­se­velt as best man, the new Mrs. Hopkins, a former Paris editor of Harper’s Bazaar named Louise Macy, simply moved in upstairs into a suite that had been created for the newlyweds on Roo­se­velt’s orders.

The Soviet Protocol Committee, an offshoot of ­Lend-­Lease, which Hopkins also oversaw, was administered by a major general, J. H. Burns. “Russia is so necessary to victory and peace,” Burns wrote in a memo to Hopkins three months before the president left for Tehran, “that we must give her maximum assistance and make every effort to develop and maintain the most friendly relations with her.” This was a “national policy” set by the president, he argued, yet a number of officials in regular contact with the Russians resisted it. They “do not trust Russia.” (In a supplementary memo, written in longhand on the same day, Burns gave a detailed account of “vicious” infighting among Americans in Moscow. Accusations of homosexuality were being cast against the officer most in line with the supposed policy, Philip Faymonville, a brigadier general; it was assumed he was being blackmailed. The time had come, Burns advised, to “clean house of all who are not loyally carrying out the President’s policies.”)

“Policy making” is probably the wrong term for what Roo­se­velt was ­really about. “Policy improvisation” might be better; he was feeling his way, setting the stage. The drift of his maneuvers and hopes can be traced in an article in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post in April 1943, half a year before his journey to Tehran. The article, titled “Roo­se­velt’s World Blueprint,” offered an oracular, which is to say less than clear, vision based on a couple of exclusive conversations a staff writer named Forrest Davis had with a personage who could be identified as “the highest authority” but neither quoted nor named. The president, it was subsequently revealed, had read the article and approved it before publication. Its gist was that Roo­se­velt, “no Utopian,” had the future of the world well in hand. “The President holds that a genuine association of interest on the part of the great powers must precede the transformation of the united nations military alliance into a political society of nations.” Even then, such an organization would be “less ambitious and constraining” than the old league. His own approach, the oracle was apparently pleased to read, “follows more closely the path of his distant cousin, Theodore, than of Woodrow Wilson” (or, so the article also hinted, his guileless vice president, Henry Wallace, who’d recently been dreaming out loud about a global New Deal in the coming “Century of the Common Man”).