Presidents Day, 2014

Traditionally Presidents Day was Washington's birthday. It was celebrated as a public holiday on February 22 each year, in peace or in war.

Seventy years ago it was FDR's task to remember his great predecessor. In her "My Day" column, Eleanor put the matter very succinctly.

Living here in the White House makes you think a great deal about the kind of men who stand out in our history and whose birthdays we celebrate annually. Washington chose the site for the capital and discussed the plans for the city and the White House, although he never occupied it.

She continued:

To me, the days at Valley Forge best show the stuff of which Washington was made. He went through great discouragement, with an Army that was ragged, poorly fed and never warm, with insufficient ammunition, and with a divided government back of him which often provided no money with which to pay his soldiers.

His soldiers were deeply concerned about their homes and families. Because they knew that food would be lacking at home if the seeds were not planted and the harvest garnered, they frequently asked to go home in groups which made the strength of his army uncertain, even though they promised to return.

What vision Washington must have had of the future to make him fight the Revolution through to victory! No wonder he was tired at the end, no wonder he longed to join his wife and live in peace at Mount Vernon. How simple the little problems of farm management must have seemed as he labored at his desk at Valley Forge!

There is one good reason for paying homage to our leaders of the past -- it makes us remember our history and it gives us courage to face the present. If the people of those 13 states could surmount their difficulties, surely our more than 130,000,000 people in 48 states can meet theirs.

In his 938th press conference held that day, February 22, 1944, President Roosevelt found himself in somewhat similar circumstances to George Washington. His armies were scarcely ragged, but there was trouble in Congress over the tax bill. After barely two years of war, there were also calls across the nation for the war to be won that year, so the men could come home!

Poor President!

Franklin Roosevelt was, surely, the most visionary leader of our nation since Lincoln and Washington, a president engaged in a truly global struggle against the Nazis and the Japanese -- reports of whose atrocities were becoming more and more worrying. Yet he never surrendered or lost his moral compass: the same insistence that the U.S. pursued moral goals both for itself and for the wider world that he had laid down in the Atlantic Charter in the summer of 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war four days later.

Hitler had expected the U.S. would be too pre-occupied by the struggle in the Pacific to worry about Europe. But Hitler was wrong. The president insisted, through thick and thin, on a "Germany First" policy, after which the Japanese rampage across the Pacific could finally be reversed.

Overruling his own generals in Washington, FDR also insisted U.S. forces first learn the art of modern war in a region where they could successfully be landed and not easily evicted: French North West Africa. His Secretary of War -- who wanted, instead, a suicidal cross-Channel invasion in 1942 -- bet him that such a North African invasion, mounted from the U.S. and from England, would fail.

It didn't. As Rick Atkinson has shown in wonderful detail, the "Torch" invasion and campaign that began only 11 months after Pearl Harbor on November 8, 1942, permitted U.S. commanders and soldiers to learn not only how to beat Wehrmacht forces in battle, but how to fight as the leading element of a multi-national coalition force. The president then repeated his visionary military success by again overruling his generals the following year: insisting the Allies first plan and execute the largest amphibious invasion in history, against Axis forces in Sicily, in July 1943 -- instead of attempting a premature D-Day invasion of France, for which they were still not prepared, either in combat experience or logistics. And then, once again, he had to overrule his main ally, Winston Churchill -- who took ship to Washington in the spring of 1943 to tell the President a D-Day invasion even in 1944 would be impossible, and the British wouldn't do it. Telling his staff he would have to "read the Riot Act" to Churchill, President Roosevelt put down the Prime Minister's mutiny, just as he'd put down his own war department and generals' in the months before.

D-Day 1944 proved, as we all know and will honor again this seventieth year, the "deciding battle of the war," as Hitler had forecast, in trepidation, it would be.

Celebrating Washington's Birthday on February 22, 1944, FDR nevertheless warned newspaper and radio correspondents the war wouldn't be finished that year -- however much one might wish it. The outcome was not in doubt, he made clear -- only the timetable.

Like General Washington, President Roosevelt had to battle not only with an enemy but simultaneously with his own Congress -- vetoing its tax bill that day. As he commented in immortal words, the bill in its present form would be "providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy." Meanwhile, in a press conference with representatives of the Negro Publishers Association he had some, days before, decried continuing racial prejudice in the armed forces and in the South -- and taken issue with Churchill over decolonization, once the war would be over.

The moral basis of the conflict -- why Americans were being asked to fight -- never ceased to count with Roosevelt. It seemed quite wrong to him that American boys should be fighting and dying to restore a defunct style of British Empire -- a view that had hardened after his (literally, for the first time) flying visit to Gambia on his way to the famous Casablanca conference the year before.

I am taking [this] up with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the present time," he explained to black editors and journalists. "I think he will see the point -- the general thought that the United Nations ought to have an inspection committee of all these colonies that are way, way down the line, that are not ready to have anything to say yet because the owning country [Britain] has given them no facilities. And if we sent a committee from the United Nations, and I used the example of Gambia, to go down to Gambia, 'If you Britishers don't come up to scratch--toe the mark -- then we will let all the world know.'

Well, the Prime Minister doesn't like that idea. And his comeback was, 'All right, the United Nations will send an inspection committee to your own South in America.' (Laughter)

He thought he had me.

I said, 'Winston, that's all right with me. Go ahead and do it. Tell the world. We call it freedom of the press, and you also call it pitiless publicity -- you can right a lot of wrongs with pitiless publicity.

"It would be a grand thing. I wouldn't mind if we had a committee of the United Nations come here and make a report on us. Why not? We have got some things to be ashamed of, and other things that are not as bad as they are painted. It wouldn't hurt at all -- bring it all out.

So, if your Association could do something like that -- teach us a little bit more about the world ....

What a President! What an example - and in the midst of a world war!

And what a wonderful parallel with today: President's Day, 2014.

Nigel Hamilton is writing the first-ever two-volume biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as U.S. Commander in Chief in Word War II. The first volume, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, will be published on May 13, 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.