Masters and Commanders:
How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945
By Andrew Roberts
HarperCollins, 720 pages, $35
A good prosopography—a work in which an author undertakes to examine the behavior of persons engaged in a common enterprise—is a wondrous thing. One thinks of Lewis Namier’s magisterial study of the House of Commons in the 18th century; of Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song, the account of the American experience in Vietnam through the eyes of five notable graduates of the Naval Academy; of The Wise Men, the narrative by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas about the making and implementation of American foreign policy at mid-century by Harriman, Acheson, Kennan, Bohlen, Lovett, McCloy.
The English historian and biographer Andrew Roberts has now presented us with a splendid prosopography of wartime haute politique, 1941-1945; its subjects, the “masters and commanders” of his title, are Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall, Winston Churchill and Alan Brooke. The last, Brooke, was Chief of the Imperial General Staff and, soon after the start of the American participation in the war, Chairman of the British Chiefs. Together these four men made grand strategy and saw to its implementation; they were principal architects of the Grand Alliance, constantly in one another’s company (or, when not, in one another’s minds and calculations).
Masters and Commanders looks searchingly at the immediate advisers, confidants, and subordinates of its principals—an astonishing number of whom, on the British side at least, kept careful diaries (against orders), of what they saw and heard their masters say. Brooke, for one, wrote his nightly entries as letters to his wife, mailing them off in ordinary post in a potential security breach that would today have seen him locked away for a decade. Brooke’s diaries—astringent, unsparing, waspish—caused a sensation upon their publication in Britain in the 1950s that destroyed Brooke’s reputation for a generation; Roberts’s book is an effort, in part, to restore it.
Brooke’s comments on colleagues, including many who considered him a dear friend, have provoked much commentary, some by apologists who excuse Brooke on the grounds that his nightly commentaries were simply a means by which an exhausted man clears his chest: that, despite the awful things he says about, for example, his master Winston Churchill or his American colleague George Marshall, he worked usefully, constructively, with each man; and that it was in the creative tension among the four that this Grand Council was able to superintend the labors of the most effective military coalition in history.
The making of coalition strategy was contentious; only a very few, it appears, had a hand in its major decisions. Interestingly, the grand strategists and the generals who carried out the strategy seem to have allied themselves against the military bureaucrats. Few citizens of 2009, in Britain or the United States, can identify a living general officer other than David Petraeus; but during the Second World War, galaxies of admirals and generals were known to the public as heroes, celebrities, personages of public character and accomplishment whose counsel was sought by President and Prime Minister. Neither of them was much interested in what their cabinet ministers or secretaries of war had to offer. On the American side, President Roosevelt listened most ardently to Naval Operations Chief Ernest King (a man of even temperament, his daughter said: he was always in a rage), to his intimate adviser Harry Hopkins, “a strange, gnome-like character,” admired deeply by Churchill and Marshall, and to Marshall himself, a wise soldier with an aura no biographer or historian has been able to capture or evoke in ways that later generations can realize. The President, however, talked to these men only when he felt like it. “I’m lucky if I go a day without seeing Winston,” Brooke wrote; Marshall had told him that, sometimes, six weeks elapsed between his meetings with Roosevelt.
They all came together at the great conferences, most of which were held in circumstances of astonishing luxury, at the edges of Cairo and Casablanca, or in the Livadia Palace at Yalta in the Crimea. Their conversations and discourse were often blunt, sometimes approaching, so it seemed, physical violence. In such circumstances the senior soldiers chased everyone out of the room (when the Prime Minister and President were not in attendance), “carried on the mother and father of rows,” and managed to reach compromises sufficiently flexible that they could be presented to their masters with conviction.
Though they saved the world, they blundered frequently, and never more so than in their common estimation of their supposed Russian ally. Brooke, interestingly, reserves his most fervent encomia for Douglas MacArthur and Josef Stalin, both first-class strategists in his view, men whose judgments were unerring. Like his colleagues Marshall and Churchill, Brooke likes Stalin. They treat him, when he joins them for conferences, as a kind of mensch: affably laconic, quietly spoken, always reliable as to following through on his promises.
Neither military nor diplomatic history commands any great interest in the American academy, tainted as each seems to be with the toxic coloration of “conservatism” and, in the case of military history, the thick wall of separation between university and military establishment. Roberts, like John Keegan, operates on his own, combining the temperament of a sedulous researcher with the fluency of a true writer of narrative and the cool eye of a close student of human behavior. He practices an almost self-conscious disinterestedness in judging British and American positions and in accounting for the influence of the strategic and cultural conditioners of the making of each nation’s strategy.
His subjects were born within ten years of each other, but their experiences in war, and the national histories of which each was an inheritor, were profoundly different. For Marshall and his closest colleagues, Henry Stimson and Dwight Eisenhower, what was most important was the assembly of an overwhelming army, American and British, and the early concentration of that army on the principal Axis powers’ main force. The Wehrmacht had to be overwhelmed; all else was but “periphery-pecking,” in Stimson’s phrase. Since no American infantry force sufficiently trained and sized could be prepared for such an operation in 1942, the President, obedient to an ancient American imperative—“citizens in a democracy must be entertained”—agreed with the Prime Minister that it made sense to engage the Germans in North Africa. Immediately.
He did so, Marshall and Eisenhower understood, in contravention of the certainty that such a commitment was likely to lead ever farther from northwest Europe, from which any serious invasion of Germany must be launched. It was not until American arms had grown sufficiently powerful, and more numerous than Britain’s, that Roosevelt and Marshall could have their way, and the D-Day invasion could be attempted in June 1944.
The nature of the relationship between Great Britain and the United States was fascinating and complex. At the opening conference of the war, in Washington at the end of 1941, the British Field Marshal Sir John Dill confided to Brooke (then in London) that America was ill-equipped, almost willfully ignorant of the demands the war would make on them. Its military organization, its means of reaching and implementing decisions, its civil-military relations were something “out of the days of George Washington.”
During his entire stay, Dill did not see a single military vehicle. Newspapers and menus were thick; crowds well clothed and complacent. Another commentator, watching Churchill’s limousine carrying him to the Capitol, noted the “G-Men,” pockets bulging with revolvers, hanging off the running boards.
While staying at Churchill’s country residence, Chequers, in 1942, Harry Hopkins wrote that the experience of a bitter spring day in Britain led him to understand “why they write such goddamn good poetry.” Churchill’s Chief of Staff, Hastings Ismay, noted the skewed quality of what, until much later in the war, the two sides were saying to each other: being careful, that is, not to offend, not to create wrong impressions. Churchill confessed that he once talked to “the Americans” in the spirit of a wooing lover: once they were on board, they were “in the harem.”
Masters and Commanders is definitive in its ambit: a close examination of the four men who, more than any others, were responsible for a victory in the Second World War that was by no means assured. It is singularly free of the sentimentality by which the legacy of the Greatest Generation has been corroded and compromised. Its focus, after all, is on a generation that led the Greatest Generation.