1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History
by Jay Winik.
Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Hardcover, 656 pages, $35.

Franklin Roosevelt is generally considered to be a great wartime leader, even by most conservatives. World War II, after all, is often called “the good war,” and FDR successfully led the nation to victory. The great merit in Jay Winik’s book 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History is that while it acknowledges the positive aspects FDR’s wartime leadership, it does so within a narrative that serves to diminish that greatness by presenting a more honest and complex portrayal of the man and his wartime decisions.

Although Winik’s book touches on most of the key events of the Second World War, its main focus is FDR’s response, or more accurately his lack of response, to wartime revelations of the Final Solution, the Nazis’ plan and efforts to murder all the Jews in Europe.

During the war, through the efforts of escapees from Auschwitz-Birkenau, German industrialist and Nazi opponent Eduard Schulte, Swiss journalist Benno Sagalowitz, Geneva lawyer Gerhart Riegner, Jan Karski of the Polish underground, and American Jewish leaders, FDR and his administration learned about the Nazi creation and use of what Winik calls “an entire industrial apparatus of destruction.”

The crucial infrastructure of the Final Solution, what Winik calls “the system of industrialized mass murder,” were camps devoted exclusively to death: Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, and, most notoriously, Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were situated near rail lines linked to towns where Jews could be readily transported to their deaths. They had gas chambers and crematoria to murder and dispose of Jews by the thousands on a daily basis. Although the lurid details of the ongoing genocide came piecemeal to Western leaders, Winik notes that “by November 1942, the essentials of the Final Solution were emerging with alarming clarity.”

FDR’s focus, of course, was to win the war, both in Europe and the Pacific, and he rightly prioritized efforts to achieve those military victories. But Winik points out that Roosevelt for far too long failed to use his stature as a world leader and his inspiring voice to highlight and condemn the Nazi program of genocide. Instead, there was only “Roosevelt’s silence, his seeming refusal to see, hear, or speak evil of the death camps.”

When American bombers attained the capacity to attack the Nazi infrastructure of death, both the State and War Departments opposed suggestions to do so, and FDR remained circumspect. Winik’s criticism here is unsparing: “And now, it was the president’s circumspection, rather than any unwavering moral indignation, that set the tone of administration policy … [a]nd every month, every week, tens of thousands of more innocent lives were lost in Hitler’s machinery of death.”

FDR’s circumspection contrasted sharply with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s reaction to the Final Solution. When bombing Auschwitz became practical, Churchill instructed his subordinates to “Get anything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary,” but even here Britain’s Air Ministry resisted.

Winik makes clear that, unlike Churchill,political courage was never FDR’s strong suit. He rightly calls Roosevelt a “dissembler, a schemer, a deceiver.” During the mid-to-late 1930s, FDR, like Churchill, sensed the geopolitical threat posed by Nazi Germany but, unlike Churchill, refused to get ahead of domestic public opinion by urging rearmament or issuing public statements about the gathering storm. Churchill throughout the 1930s spoke the unpopular truth and as a result suffered in the political wilderness. Roosevelt lacked the political and moral courage to do likewise.

Indeed, Winik compares FDR’s failure to substantively react to “mounting evidence” of Hitler’s genocidal program to Neville Chamberlain’s timid and ineffectual response to the rape of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, which Churchill memorably judged a moral and strategic disaster.

Toward the war’s end, at summit conferences in Tehran and Yalta, FDR’s moral compass again went askew as he repeatedly sided with Stalin against Churchill and conceded the political destinies of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to Stalin’s control. Winik is less critical of FDR here given his failing health, the exigencies of war, and the facts on the ground. Roosevelt’s failure here is much better dealt with in Robert Nisbet’s masterful little book Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship.

And, of course, any comprehensive estimate of FDR’s wartime leadership is incomplete without assessing his administration’s deplorable approach to internal security which resulted in the repeated failure to uncover and end communist infiltration at the highest level of our wartime government. James Burnham in 1947 wrote about the “fellow travelers and Soviet agents … who assembled in Washington under the careless scepter of Franklin Roosevelt.” More recently, Diana West in American Betrayal detailed the full nature and extent of that infiltration. Winik does not deal with this aspect of FDR’s wartime leadership.

Winik concludes that FDR’s stewardship of the war was a “monumental achievement,” and that his failure to muster the moral and political courage to take “sustained action” against the Final Solution should not dim his greatness. But in light of FDR’s other policy failures, such a shadow is precisely the effect of Winik’s book.  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.