Roosevelt's Centurions

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Boys of a certain generation were raised on World War II. Almost everyone's father had served. In Logan there was a man who served in the ultimate branch---the Royal Air Force. At summer camp we played battleships. There were board games based on great battles like Anzio. We made model airplanes before airplane glue was illegal.

For boys of that generation---and everyone else---I recommend a great book,
Roosevelt's Centurions by Joseph Persico.

Persico focuses on the war strategy of FDR and the generals and admirals who carried it out. Persico gives an overview of the war. We are not buried in details. History is stripped to the essentials so the reader can understand the great themes and decisions.

Persico explains the politics behind the great battles. He discusses the choices to invade North Africa ("Torch") in 1942 and Italy in 1943, and waiting to invade Normandy ("D-Day") until June 1944. He argues that victory might have been sooner, and with less casualties had we invaded the lightly defended South of France instead of North Africa and Italy.

Persico explains how Churchill's aims were to preserve the British Empire and its lifeline through Suez to India. Therefore, he pressed for the pursuing the war in the Mediterranean rather than an invasion across the English Channel.

FDR had a different agenda. He wanted to teach the Germans a lesson never to be forgotten, end colonialism and create the United Nations. In the early months of the War, Churchill prevailed but by the final months, the balance of influence had shifted to Roosevelt.

We see Roosevelt as the strategic thinker. The great military leaders are fleshed out, their strengths and flaws revealed. Persico reveals the rise of Eisenhower. We get minibiographies of the great ones---Eisenhower, Marshall, Arnold, King, Bradley, Nimitz.
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Roosevelt and Eisenhower, Castrelvetrano Airport, Sicily, December 14, 1943


Most interesting are the reckless but brilliant Patton and the imperial MacArthur. Patton slapped a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and ordered a bloody mission to rescue his son-in-law from the POW camp at Hammelburg. We see the imperial MacArthur in his arrogance how he demands---and gets---command of the Pacific War and demands---and gets the decision to liberate the Philippines. Persico argues that his campaign was to vindicate MacArthur's honor, when the war might have been shortened by attacking Formosa and Japanese holdings closer to the home island. We also learn that MacArthur flirted with running against FDR for President in 1944.

Though high on Roosevelt, Persico is not afraid to address his shortcomings. In the closing months of the European war, the Cold War was in the making. Churchill pressed for landings in the Balkans to thwart Soviet expansion. Roosevelt failed to heed the advice of the great Democratic diplomat Averell Harriman to take a stand against Stalin's expansionist agenda. FDR didn't want to do anything to fracture the Grand Alliance and endanger the founding of the United Nations.

We learn of the impact of the policy of unconditional surrender---Roosevelt loved the idea---and how it could have lengthened the war, but gave Americans focus to fight.

Especially instructive is an overview of the Pacific War---the rivalry between Navy and Army; island hopping; the suicidal defenses by the Japanese. Persico brings new understanding to the sons of World War II, and succeeding generations.

Best of all, Persico tells a good story.

Roosevelt's Centurions is a must read. It will be released May 29 by Random House. Read it, even if you were not raised on World War II.
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MacArthur signs surrender documents ending World War II.