AMERICAN WARLORDS: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II. By Jonathan W. Jordan. NAL Caliber. 607 pages. $28.95.
Atlanta resident and New York Times bestselling historian Jonathan W. Jordan has crafted an immensely readable history of World War II, framed around President Franklin Roosevelt and his top military lieutenants.
Jordan employed a similar narrative structure in his excellent 2012 book, “Brothers, Rivals, Victors,” in which he used Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, General George Patton and General Omar Bradley as a spring board to tell the story of the Allied victory in Europe.
In his latest book, “American Warlords,” he has pulled the lens back farther, giving us the full view of World War II in Europe and the Pacific. To tell that story, Jordan focuses on the diverse personalities of the four men who won it: President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King.
Jordan delves into the backgrounds of each of these men, giving us not just their career highlights but going far beyond, fleshing out those intimate and personal details that make these leaders real.
George Marshall, for example, was not only the architect of America’s war strategy, but he was also an avid gardener who loved tending to his rose bushes and gardenias. In a particularly humorous anecdote, Jordan relates how Marshall, armed with a pruning saw, simply wanted to cut off a dead limb in his Virginia orchard only to be continuously interrupted by calls from Washington, forcing him up and down the ladder so many times that he finally surrendered and returned to D.C.
At the center of the story, of course, is Roosevelt, the commander in chief who ran the war out of his second-floor study, in part because it was more accessible for the wheel-chair bound leader than his formal office.
Roosevelt’s jocular personality shines throughout the narrative. When Admiral King reached mandatory retirement age of 64, the senior naval officer felt obliged to inform the president, afraid, of course, that Roosevelt would follow regulations and replace him, even though the war was still not over.
“So what, old top?” the president wrote King, letting him know he didn’t care about such policies. “I may send you a birthday present!”
On the admiral’s big day, Roosevelt delivered — a signed photo of himself.
Of the four characters, King proves particularly fascinating and colorful, crusty, in fact, might be a better description of him. King was a hard drinker and notorious flirt with wandering hands, so much so that women were afraid to sit next to him at dinner parties. The admiral was also an avid crossword puzzle addict, grudge holder, and a scrappy and aggressive fighter, whose tenacity helped shape America’s naval policy that ultimately dominated the Pacific War.
Jordan has done a wonderful job of encapsulating, not just the personalities of these fascinating leaders, but the larger overall strategy of the war, dutifully covering all the major battles on the road to victory. He likewise delves into how the war affected all aspects of American life, many of which still resonate today. For example, he notes how the need to ration fabric led to the creation of the mini-skirt and the bikini for women and cuffless pants for men.
The author likewise explores the racial tensions in the services, the development of the atomic bomb and even the recruitment of Hollywood stars such as Frank Capra, who made the “Why We Fight” series of documentaries to rally the public. One of the films, “Prelude to War,” won an Academy Award.
Jordan is a gifted researcher and writer with an exceptionally keen eye for detail and anecdotes. He has managed to pack an incredible amount of history in just 473 pages and make it a page-turner.
For fans of World War II and even readers with a casual interest in history, “American Warlords” is a book not to be missed.
Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Target Tokyo,” “The War Below” and “The Attack on the Liberty.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.
Editor’s Note: Author Jonathan W. Jordan will discuss and sign copies of “American Warlords” at 6:45 p.m. Sept. 8 in Room 165 of Bond Hall, The Citadel, 171 Moultrie St.