American history, biographies, book reviews, FDR, James MacGregor Burns, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize
“Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1940-1945)” is the second of two volumes in James MacGregor Burns’s series on FDR. Published in 1970 (fourteen years after the first volume) this biography won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for History. Burns was a historian, biographer and professor at Williams College for nearly 40 years. He died in 2014 at the age of 95.
This final volume of Burns’s series begins on election night 1940 when FDR secured his third presidential term. Clearly the product of extensive research, this book dives deeply into the four-and-a-half remaining years of Roosevelt’s presidency. The author’s central propositions: that Roosevelt was a deeply divided man (between principle and prudence) and that he was complex and nearly incomprehensible – even to his friends.
Unfortunately, Roosevelt is destined to remain enigmatic to readers as Burns studiously avoids any meaningful study of FDR’s personal life or inner-self. As a self-described “political biography” the focus of this book’s 612 pages is consistently on the politician rather than the person. Fortunately, this volume does place some emphasis on understanding the personas of FDR’s contemporaries: Churchill, Dewey, Truman and others.
But as much as the book promises a laser-like focus on Roosevelt (his war leadership and political vision, in particular) this is often far less a biography of any kind than a political discourse on World War II. In its earliest chapter it offers a thorough examination of the tactical situation of the global conflict and only periodically refocuses on FDR for more than a modest stretch of time.
This is no sweeping story of the war, however. Readers unfamiliar with the timeline of World War II or its famous battles will develop an appreciation for its large-scale movements but will not develop a particular intimacy with its most vibrant (and often disturbing) details. Burns generally avoids placing the reader in the heat of the battle, preferring to focus on decisions being made behind the scenes by military and political leaders.
Though jam-packed with details – some of them vital, the majority of them inconsequential – there are few overarching themes or grand conclusions developed. Periodic insights are offered but while the book moves steadily (and sometimes tediously) through the last years of Roosevelt’s life, it lacks an engaging narrative and, for the most part, penetrating insight. FDR is closely observed but never dissected or understood; there is no comprehensive examination of his legacy.
Fortunately, there are many moments when this sequel shines. Discussions of Hitler’s unrestricted submarine warfare and the surprisingly vast effort to develop an atomic weapon are fascinating. Burns provides one of the more rousing descriptions of the D-Day invasion I’ve read (in an FDR biography) and his review of the Tehran Conference is excellent. But for the most part the book lacks an engaging narrative and is never fully intellectually satisfying.
Overall, like its predecessor volume, James MacGregor Burns’s “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom” is relatively disappointing. While it does not promise to fill the role of a traditional biography, neither is it a satisfactory study of his political philosophy or a detailed review of the final years of his presidency. Readers seeking a comprehensive understanding of Roosevelt – or even merely of his presidency – will do better elsewhere.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Alec Rogers said:
Interesting given these works’s reputation. Thanks, Makes me feel better about choosing Smith as my FDR 101 bio.
Perhaps you should subtitle the blog “Slogging through mediocre works so you don’t have to”!
🙂 For some reason I haven’t had much luck with the Pulitzer Prize winners. And no, I don’t think you went wrong with JES’s bio!