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The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941–1942

 By Nigel Hamilton. 514 pp. Houghton Miffin Harcourt, 2014. $30.

 The final volume of Nigel Hamilton’s exhaustive triptych on British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery debuted in 1986. Now, Hamilton makes a welcome return to telling tales of war with The Mantle of Command. His thesis is that FDR—acknowledged today as a political genius and inspired leader of a nation at war—was also the greatest military strategist of his time.

If the argument isn’t as daring or original as Hamilton insists—a guy’s got to sell a book—it is true that historians have spilled far more ink on the strategic contributions of Churchill and American warriors from George C. Marshall to Chester W. Nimitz than on their commander in chief. The reason, Hamilton says, is simple: they survived the war to testify to their own greatness; Roosevelt didn’t. “The story of how America’s commander in chief conducted World War II,” Hamilton writes, “is almost the polar opposite of what we have been led, for the most part, to believe.”

Hamilton makes his case by recounting episodes from the war’s first 18 months, beginning with the Atlantic Charter and ending with the Allies’ successful invasion of North Africa in November 1942. He uses each to illuminate Roosevelt’s shrewdness, far-sightedness, and manipulative skills. Every detail tells. For example: Roosevelt arranged that the navy encipher his outgoing war messages and the army decipher his incoming messages— guaranteeing that only he had access to the full flow of information.

FDR cemented his status as a strategist when he launched the North African invasion, overriding advisors’ unanimous preference for one in Europe. Hamilton argues persuasively that a premature European invasion would have been calamitous, while Roosevelt’s approach let the Allies season troops, cement their alliance, and replenish their arsenal. The day after the landings FDR appeared at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia. “The forces of liberation,” he said, “are advancing.” That advance, with Roosevelt unquestionably in the lead, is the subject of another Hamilton volume already in the works. Readers will put down Mantle eager for the next.

—Andrew Ferguson is author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.