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Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–1945

By Andrew Roberts. 674 pp. Allen Lane, 2008 $35

The special relationship that developed between the United States and Great Britain during World War II was anything but natural. The New Deal government and the American military shared, albeit for very different reasons, a deep-rooted suspicion of British intentions and British goodwill. Winston Churchill once remarked that Americans always made the right decision—having tried everything else first. A near-universal formulation among Britain’s elite was that it was necessary to play Greeks to America, the new Rome requiring civilizing by a wiser, more sophisticated people.

Andrew Roberts, among the best of an emerging generation of British historians of the 20th century, believes that linguistic and cultural connections only go so far in explaining the long-standing, persistent relationship. He avoids emphasizing common interests—which, he accurately suggests, often seem more common in hindsight. Instead he focuses on what he considers the crucial factor of personal relationships.

Masters and Commanders focuses on the interactions that developed between four men: President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and their respective army chiefs of staff, George C. Marshall and Alan Brooke.

Roberts’s choice of the soldiers reflects not only the generals’ influence among their military colleagues but also a fact too easily overlooked by contemporary scholars: the Anglo-American effort in World War II may have been shaped by sea and air power, but it was decided on the ground. To finish the Axis, 18-year-olds protected by no more than a few millimeters of cloth had to stand up and go forward against a well-aged, determined enemy, whether in the hedgerows of Normandy or the jungles of Burma.

Churchill and Roosevelt understood that elementary truth. They and their generals were tough men, alpha personalities used to dominating their milieus. A major strength of Roberts’s comprehensively researched book is its sophisticated analysis of the constantly shifting dynamics of their relationship. Roosevelt claimed to be unable to sleep nights when Marshall was away from Washington. Brooke and Churchill consistently drove each other to distraction. Sometimes differences developed along national lines, Yanks versus Brits. Sometimes sides broke along professional lines, soldiers versus statesmen. Sometimes they were based on reason, reflecting particular responses to specific circumstances.

Two keys underlay their dialogue. All participants ultimately preferred compromise to isolation. And no one ever forgot the ultimate purpose of the alliance and the relationship sustaining it.

The four men met for the first time in June 1942. The British position in North Africa was shaky. The American victory at Midway was still a news item. The Axis were deep in Russia and held Western Europe in the grip of occupation. Those were hard days and their memory never faded as Churchill and Marshall, Roosevelt and Brooke cogitated, debated, argued, and decided.

Roberts is no less skilled at narrative than analysis. He takes readers through the primary decision-making processes by discussing their evolutions. Operation Torch, the 1942 invasion of North Africa, reflected Roosevelt’s eventual acceptance, at Marshall’s expense, of the Brooke-Churchill position that a direct invasion of northwest Europe at that early stage invited disaster. The resulting series of compromises painfully negotiated along what Roberts calls “the Mediterranean garden path” eventually produced successive demonstrations, in Sicily and Italy, that German effectiveness was waning. That evidence in turn helped Churchill and Brooke finally commit to a cross-Channel invasion. And here, according to Roberts, was the point where the Americans started to get their strategy right.

Once ashore in France, the major issue became the growing imbalance in resources. A Britain at the end of its endurance required careful consideration by an America just hitting its stride. Roberts again stresses the underlying goodwill among the Big Four, strong enough to overcome both the debates over theater strategy and the growing friction between Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery. Even Yalta did not overstrain the fabric—though Roberts’s acerbic comment that Roosevelt managed the unusual feat of being naive and cynical at the same time indicates his own sympathies on the subject.

In evaluating the relationship of the generals and the statesmen, Roberts distributes credit evenly. He describes their interactions as a minuet. Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall, Brooke—each was a virtuoso performer. Together they demonstrated the potential of a democratic, collegial approach to decision-making that proved more effective than the totalitarian models and established the framework for a relationship that still endures, despite periodic gaffes and tensions.


Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.