The three greatest U.S. presidents were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to popular historian Jay Winik, who has now produced books focusing on each of these three leaders.
This appraisal is hardly surprising in the rate-the-presidents game played by pundits, academics and history buffs. But in 1944, a sprawling account of Roosevelt and the last full year of World War II in Europe, Winik attaches a large negative to FDR’s otherwise stellar legacy.
The dark side of FDR’s record was his administration’s response — or lack of it — to the Holocaust. By 1944 — Winik shows conclusively — U.S. officials knew the dimensions and many of the details of the Nazis’ vast extermination machinery. Late that year, 24,000 Jews were gassed in Auschwitz each day. Aerial photos and escapees’ accounts describing the horror reached the highest levels of government.
Early in the war, the State Department blocked many European refugees from entering the country. When the extent of the Holocaust became known later, Roosevelt and some of his military advisers refused requests to bomb the rail lines to the death camps or bomb Auschwitz itself — an action favored by Winston Churchill.
Winik lauds FDR’s determined leadership to conclude the war and create an architecture for peace, embodied in the United Nations. And the leader of the Allies did it while he was slowly dying. But the author, in an interesting exercise in comparing presidential leadership, finds that Roosevelt, unlike Lincoln, “may have missed his own ‘Emancipation Proclamation moment.’ ”
Lincoln’s deft leadership, many historians agree, allowed him to transform the Civil War from a conflict to save the Union into a cause to free the slaves — even when many of his backers resisted it. Despite FDR’s lofty rhetoric about saving democracy, the author finds “there was no moment when he unequivocally made World War II about the vast human tragedy in Nazi-controlled Europe, about the calculated efforts to wipe an entire people from the earth.”
Winik’s assessment is based on careful research and the comprehensive works of others, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and William Shirer, whom he fully credits. The foot-dragging and reluctance to deal with the Holocaust by U.S. officials is undeniable. Winik concludes that in August 1944, bombing Auschwitz and the rail lines would have given 100,000 Hungarian Jews a reprieve from the gas chamber.
The strength of 1944 is that it covers the broad sweep of the war in one volume, with sprightly prose and a few literary touches. Winik contrasts the magnitude of the Allied victory with the Holocaust: “Sometimes in a hush, sometimes in a shout, to this day the millions of deaths have left a gaping, tormenting echo in history.”
But the ambitious scope of 1944 is also a weakness. This book is not an intensive focus on one decisive year, as Winik meanders through the early years of Roosevelt and Hitler and the origins of the global conflict. There is too much scene-setting while a few major developments warrant only a couple of pages, such as how Harry Truman was chosen as FDR’s vice president when party leaders knew the president was not likely to survive another four-year term.
But this is not a major shortcoming. 1944 has great relevance now as the United States faces another refugee crisis in Europe. In the 1940s, U.S. officials refused to take in many refugees, warning they could include Nazi spies. It’s clear anti-Semitism was a factor as well. Today, some presidential candidates oppose bringing in any Syrian refugees, labeling them as potential terrorists, and denigrate American Muslims as unfit to hold high office.
1944 also succeeds because Winik keeps the fascinating, poignant figure of Roosevelt in the spotlight. If FDR knew he was dying or ever brooded about it, he never let on to his aides. “With victory in sight, there was now a race between his own body, the enemy within, and the Axis powers, the enemy without,” the author writes.
Roosevelt didn’t quite win the race, dying three weeks before Nazi Germany surrendered. But he knew a great victory was secure, “and his overall stewardship of the war was nothing if not a monumental achievement,” as Winik reminds us. It was also a triumph tarnished by countless innocent lives lost that could have been saved.
Frank Davies is a writer and editor living in Northern Virginia.