In the years leading up to World War II, America was fortunate to have Franklin Roosevelt as president, a prescient leader who anticipated our inevitable entry into the global conflict most Americans wanted to avoid.
The subtitle is a bit misleading, implying that FDR either wanted war or stumbled into it. Neither fits Kaiser’s (The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, 2008, etc.) argument here. The author emerges as an unabashed fan of FDR in this detailed description and analysis of U.S. foreign policy from May 1940 to Pearl Harbor. Repeatedly, he pauses to praise the president. He also continually employs the concept of “Prophet generations” from the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe and places FDR (and some of his team) as an active member of the “Missionary generation” that valued order over chaos, the “scientific spirit” and “a more decent life for all.” The academic tone is also evident in the author’s fondness for categories and lists—and in its pervasive unsmiling prose. However, Kaiser’s research is both comprehensive and illuminating. With aplomb, he leaps from Japan to Germany to Washington, D.C.; he analyzes the speeches delivered by FDR and others; and he sketches the backgrounds of many of the principal players, including Frank Knox, Henry M. Stimson and Harry Hopkins. The author shows how FDR led the military-industrial buildup (ships, weapons, atomic power), how he dealt with race in the military, how he battled the isolationists (led by Charles Lindbergh) and how he dealt with the British, who were desperate for help. The author pauses to relate some of FDR’s personal life—his relationships with his wife and other women—but mostly keeps the focus on the preparation for war.
An admiring, richly textured portrait of a leader confronting the unthinkable.