American Warlords – Book Review
Jonathan Jordan follows up his superb, best-selling 2011 book, Brothers, Rivals, Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and the Partnership That Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe with another triumph of meticulous scholarship and keen insight propelled by a marvelously written narrative. American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II is the best single-volume account yet written of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his senior military advisers dealt with—and overcame—the challenges of fighting a global war. Jordan’s new book is a “must have” for anyone interested in the United States’ prosecution of history’s greatest war.
While Brothers, Rivals, Victors examined the complex relationship of the U.S. Army’s senior operational commanders in the European Theater, American Warlords presents a global view by focusing on the President/Commander in Chief level—Franklin D. Roosevelt and his principal “high command” military advisers: Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King. Although FDR and Marshall always feature prominently in books and articles on the American high command in World War II, Stimson and King have too often received much less attention. Therefore, Jordan receives high marks for revealing the vital role and significant contributions of America’s less well-known “warlords” Stimson and King. Importantly, far from being merely another hagiographic, “all served nobly” account of the United States’ top leadership in World War II, American Warlords is a critical, “warts and all” examination that presents the leaders’ mistakes, miscues and frequent behind-the-scenes conflicts as well as their successes. In that regard, Jordan’s American Warlords accomplishes for FDR and World War II what Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals achieved for Lincoln and the Civil War.
Jordan convincingly presents Franklin Roosevelt as a “hands’ off” leader, master manipulator and consummate politician who constantly kept his finger on the pulse of American public opinion. FDR deftly adjusted his directives and policies to achieve what the cagy politician realized was politically possible regardless of what at the time might have seemed most militarily desirable. Moreover, Roosevelt’s penchant for tasking two or more government bureaus or agencies with accomplishing the exact same mission might have been maddening to those responsible for carrying it out, yet such seeming redundancy actually served FDR well as an informal “checks and balances” system that prevented any single self-serving bureaucracy from “deep sixing” what the president wanted accomplished. Another characteristic of Roosevelt’s leadership that could be maddening to his senior advisers was the president’s reluctance to make a final decision, preferring to delay deciding “yes or no” on an issue until, more often than not, the problem eventually “solved itself.”
Although George Marshall was frequently frustrated by FDR’s leadership style, the Army Chief of Staff loyally “soldiered on” and adjusted to the situation. The two men’s personalities were poles apart—FDR was gregarious, breezy and nonchalant, while Marshall was by nature “frosty and reserved” and seldom addressed even those closest to him by their first names. Yet, Roosevelt highly valued—and as the war progressed increasingly relied upon—Marshall’s absolute integrity, no-nonsense and frank presentation of the facts surrounding each and every issue, almost superhuman capacity for simultaneously managing multiple missions and, perhaps above all, Marshall’s complete disinterest in “partisan politics” (it seemed a matter of extreme pride to Marshall that he neither voted nor supported any political party).
Henry L. Stimson, from an old-line Republican family, was born in 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War. By the time he was appointed Secretary of War in 1940 Stimson had already served in top-level cabinet positions in two Republican administrations: President William Howard Taft’s Secretary of War on the eve of World War I (1911-14); and Secretary of State (1929-33) for President Herbert Hoover. Yet, Stimson remained proudest of serving as a U.S. Army field artillery Colonel on the battlefield in France during World War I—he preferred to be addressed as “Colonel” rather than “Mr. Secretary.” Despite being a product of the 19th century suddenly thrust into the worst war of the 20th, Stimson remained, perhaps, the most visionary of FDR’s “high command” advisers—while most viewed the development of the atom bomb in strictly military terms as simply a new “super weapon,” Stimson realized that nuclear weapons had profoundly and permanently changed not only future warfare but also the global political order.
Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) from March 1942, is supposed to have remarked “When they get in trouble, they send for the sons-of-bitches.” Although he later denied making the comment (he admitted, however, that he would have said it if he had thought of it) King’s elevation to CNO fit the remark perfectly—the U.S. was, indeed, in trouble then and King would rightly be placed at the top of any list of “SOBs.” Seemingly perpetually angry (FDR once quipped that Ernie King “shaves every morning with a blowtorch”), King loved the Navy above everything else and was not about to let the president’s official “Europe First” policy rob his beloved service of the means of winning the war against Japan in the Pacific. Working through his theater commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, King planned and promoted the strategy that beat Japan, while fighting tooth and nail against competing theaters of war to provide Nimitz the men, ships and planes to carry it out. King had to accept the fact that the Navy would have to share the vast Pacific Theater with the Army’s Douglas MacArthur, but he didn’t so much hate MacArthur as he hated the idea that the Army would be able to claim a share of the “Navy’s” Pacific war victory.
Jordan’s American Warlords masterfully recounts the fascinating story of how these very different leaders blended their skills and energies into a monumental effort that won World War II. It is a “must have” book and we rate it “5 Stars,” our very highest rating. The book’s well-placed maps are clear, easy to follow and in adequate number to allow readers to easily “follow the action” described in the text. Also included is a very useful list of the codenames of major Allied operations, an extensive Bibliography of primary and secondary sources, over 90 pages of Endnotes, and a comprehensive Index.
Armchairgeneral.com regulars will appreciate Jordan’s “shout out” to them when he writes in the book’s Acknowledgements: “I must also express my appreciation to the legion of history bloggers and forum participants from armchairgeneral.com and other sites who have sparred over, critiqued, or dealt death blows to many hypotheses that went into or were left out of this book.” Great job, ACG ‘forum warriors!’ Keep it up!
Longtime readers of Armchair General magazine will also recognize Jordan as the author of ACG’s May 2007 issue History in Depth department feature article “How the Red Army Really Won” and the March 2007 issue Spy Wars department article “Death in Tokyo” about Stalin’s super spy Richard Sorge.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, Colonel, U.S. Army ret. is the former Editor in Chief of Armchair General magazine. Currently, he is Editor at Large, World History Group (historynet.com). His latest book is “Generals of the Bulge: Leadership in the U.S. Army’s Greatest Battle” (Stackpole Books, March 2015).