1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, by Jay Winik
This is a very well researched and well-written book. His writing style is easy to read, and not dry like some non-fiction. Really, my only complaint would be the title. This book is not about 1944. Or perhaps I should say, this book is not ONLY about 1944.
Winik goes into some detail about FDR’s upbringing, early life, marriage, early political career, and even touches on his long relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. The bulk of the book focuses on the years of World War II, although it doesn’t stick to 1944. Winik describes the advance of the Germans through various countries, the persecution and murder of the Jews, and FDR’s several summits with Churchill and sometimes Stalin, negotiating the terms of the peace at the end of the war.
He tells the story of a few men who managed to escape from the concentrations camps and bring the story of what was happening there out to the world. They risked their lives, and did their best to try to save others. Reports were circulating throughout Europe with information on what was happening at the camps, and aerial surveillance footage was filmed that showed Auschwitz, with its crematoria and its starving inmates walking around within the enclosure. Sadly, those who were trying to get someone to do something just didn’t seem to have enough influence. The murders continued.
Winik speaks frankly about FDR’s shortcomings; his refusal to forcefully intervene to stop the extermination of the Jews, despite having knowledge before 1944 of their plight. Several men requested intervention, and although he was eventually willing to issue a statement, Roosevelt was never willing to order airstrikes or other military measures be used on the camps to shut them down. There was always another excuse. That said, Winik also spends quite some time discussing FDR’s strengths – his talent as an orator, and his ability to find common ground with anyone in order to negotiate an acceptable solution.
FDR’s medical history is also discussed in detail in the book, including the attempts by his doctors and closest aides to conceal the severity of his condition from the public, and even from Roosevelt himself, in the last years of his life. The truth is that Roosevelt was a chain smoker throughout his life, and congestive heart failure and other medical issues had surfaced by 1940. Many of his aides documented in their writings how poorly Roosevelt looked in the last months of his life, and his doctors urged him to take time away from the stress of the Presidency. Of course, we know how the story ends, in April 1945.
The book is long (I listened to the audiobook version), but kept me interested until the end. It is well worth the read.