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FRANKLIN DELANO Roosevelt wrote no memoir, kept no diary, confided in no one. Though celebrated as one of the greatest American presidents, FDR remains an elusive figure. Which is why I so valued the opportunity some years ago to interview George Elsey.

Elsey was 24 in April 1942 when, as a recently commissioned navy ensign, he was assigned by the Office of Naval Intelligence to the White House Map Room, which Roosevelt had built after seeing Winston Churchill’s elaborate cartographic displays. In the top-secret chamber, just off the Oval Office, duty officers like Elsey worked at all hours analyzing data, writing reports, encoding and decoding messages. Three years of interaction with FDR gave the young ensign a unique perspective on his commander in chief— one that Elsey shared with me when we met near his retirement residence in Newport Beach, California.

Elsey said he was struck from the first by Roosevelt’s absolute belief in his own abilities. In particular, the president boasted about his “people skills.” In a cable sent to Winston Churchill on April 18, 1942, Elsey found this expression of Rooseveltian self-confidence:“I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your foreign office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.”

“Handle” was a favorite word of FDR’s, Elsey told me. “‘I can handle people. I can handle something,’” he said, echoing the president. “And I thought this was a pretty astonishing thing for Roosevelt to be saying to the prime minister. But it stuck. That phrase stuck in my mind and I kept thinking of it as the war went on. Roosevelt was always thinking he could ‘handle’ people, no matter who or what it was. He had that self-confidence that he would be in control no matter who or where…, that he would pull through as the top dog.”

FDR knew that knowledge is power, and tried hard to make sure that no one else knew all that he did. “Franklin Roosevelt had some strange habits,” Elsey said. “He would send messages through one department and have the replies come back through another department because he didn’t want anyone to have a complete file on his communications with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example…. It was a trait of his that he didn’t want anyone else to know the whole story on anything.”

Another important Roosevelt technique was his use of go-betweens—in particular, the shadowy figure of Harry Hopkins. Before the war, Hopkins was a key New Deal manager; during it he was FDR’s unofficial emissary to Churchill. Hopkins literally lived at the White House. In his diary, British General Sir Alan Brooke described Hopkins inviting him to his second-floor bedroom for a chat. “We went to his room,” Brooke wrote, “where we sat on the edge of his bed looking at his shaving brush and tooth brush, whilst he let me into some of the President’s inner thoughts!”

Roosevelt understood how employing intermediaries like Hopkins allowed him to float ideas, gain intelligence, and manipulate others without committing to anything. Hopkins could claim to know the president’s “inner thoughts,” but FDR could deny these were truly his views. FDR was careful never to let Hopkins in on all his secrets—just as he handled his other wartime go-betweens, such as Joseph Davies, his confidential emissary to Stalin in May 1943.

“Because Roosevelt didn’t ever take people fully into his confidence, it left his subordinates always uncertain of where they stood,” Elsey said. “They had to be loyal to him, but they didn’t really know how loyal he was to them. This was part of his behavioral pattern, which is hard to understand and hard to excuse except it was the nature of the man.”

George Elsey’s portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt differs dramatically from the popular image of a president beaming with openness, honesty, and natural charm. The Roosevelt that Elsey knew was a typical Machiavellian. But maybe, I thought, it took such a man to guide a nation to global victory.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.