Honor the Fallen President

On Memorial Day 2014 we remembered those who fell in the military service of our country.

Among them are the U.S. presidents who died in office, while serving as commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Almost all have been the targets of assassination -- a mortal threat that seems to go with the territory. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy were actually murdered in office. Killed while serving as our commander in chief, we honor them today.

Other commanders in chief have mercifully escaped assassination, but have not escaped the grim reaper in the White House. Presidents Harrison, Taylor and Harding all died of "natural causes," i.e. illness (pneumonia, cholera morbus, and heart attack) -- though in peacetime. Our only president who has died as U.S. commander in chief in war is Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- who died of a cerebral hemorrhage or massive stroke on April 12, 1945, only three weeks before the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces he had laid down as implacable Allied policy two years before.

Hitler, apparently, was ecstatic -- telling Albert Speer, his armaments czar, that the "war isn't lost," while Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich, saw Roosevelt's death as "the turning point": imagining he and Hitler could somehow negotiate a deal to avoid capitulation.

They couldn't -- and were both compelled to commit suicide in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery bunker, as Russian forces approached ever closer.

Roosevelt's death did not therefore save Hitler -- or Goebbels. But the president's death was unfortunate for his legacy. His generals all went on to write -- or appointed biographers to write -- their own accounts of how they won the war. And in Britain, the former prime minister, Winston Churchill, added to this postwar deluge -- Churchill's account (his war memoirs extending to six volumes) helping him win the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was so wonderfully, indeed magisterially, well-written.

Poor President Roosevelt (who had intended to write his war memoirs, in fact had begun doing so before the war began, but had become far too busy to continue his account) thus did not live to tell the story of World War II from his perspective as U.S. Commander in Chief in World War II.

From a historian's point of view -- and from the point of view of all those of us interested in World War II - this was and remains a tragedy. It is not that Roosevelt's generals and admirals, as well as his Secretary of War, were deceitful in their books, or that Winston Churchill deliberately bent the truth; but they did recount the war selectively, from their own vantage points. Wittingly or unwittingly -- since memory is by its very nature selective -- they tended to portray the U.S. commander in chief as a somewhat remote political figure, urbane and avuncular, but basically a hands-off chief executive who let them -- generals, admirals and allies -- conduct the military running of the war.

On Memorial Day 2014 let me then make clear: This was not the case! We should honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt today as the greatest commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the United States in our history, bar none -- including President Lincoln.

I will not here go into detail. The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, published last week, is only the first of two volumes -- but it will, I think, cause us to reconsider our understanding of President Roosevelt as the man who, above all others, won the war for civilization. Not only as a statesman -- for which he is rightly honored -- but as commander in chief, directing the military on a global scale -- for which he has not, sadly, been honored. Had the president, as U.S. Commander in Chief, not put down the near-mutiny of his War Department in 1942, for example, the United States would have launched a suicidal Second Front invasion of France that year: which Hitler was waiting for. Had he not put down the near-insurrection of his main ally, Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff in 1943, D-Day would not have taken place in 1944.

We owe, in other words, Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than we can ever say or repay: for commanding our military forces in World War II, and ensuring we won the war -- rather than losing it by military incompetence and strategic imprudence, as his generals and allies pressed him to do.

The story of FDR as U.S. Commander in Chief is a heroic war story of a president who had already overcome great adversity in facing polio, but who went on to take the reins of our armed forces in the greatest conflagration in human history -- on our behalf. He fell in service as our commander in chief, in global war -- the only president to have done so. On Memorial Day 2014 we surely should not fail to salute his memory.

Nigel Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the author of more than twenty works of biography and history, including American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush. His latest book, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is currently working on a second volume, Commander in Chief: FDR at War, 1943-1945. Since 2010 he has been an American citizen.