Tag Archive | Jay Winik

Book Review: 1944, by Jay Winik

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.

 

1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, by Jay Winik

 

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.

Book Review: April 1865 by Jay Winik

At long last, I was able to finish a book!  I’ve had a lot taking up all my time lately – work, helping out family, half marathon training, the deck and sometimes just vegging out in front of the TV.  But it feels like this one has been a long time coming.

The book is April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik.  And true to its title, it is a non-fiction exploration into the events of… April 1865!  The April 1865 when the Civil War ended (mostly) and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.  Prior to becoming an author, Winik had a distinguished government career in foreign policy (working in Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cambodia during their civil wars).  His experience on the ground during these conflicts gives him a unique perspective.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

The book examines in detail the events that occurred that month, beginning with the lead up to Lee’s surrender on April 9th, continuing with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th, Joe Johnston’s surrender on April 26th, and John Wilkes Booth capture and death, also on April 26th.  Winik discusses events candidly and without bias.  He describes the respectful way that Grant treated Lee and the Army of Virginia and the grace in which Lee returned to his civilian life and provided a role model to Southerners.  Lee’s way of encouraging soldiers and civilians alike to set aside the differences of the last four years in order to make a lasting peace must have made a huge difference in the days after the war.

Winik details an incident in a church, where a black man goes to receive communion in Richmond, VA, and does not wait until whites have finished.  The congregation is stunned, and while the minister to trying to decide what to do, Lee stands up and quietly kneels to accept communion with the man.  I never knew this before, but it fits with everything I have read about Lee.  Although he was a defeated General, his character was unequaled.

Lincoln’s assassination will be old news for most readers; there really isn’t anything new there.  But Winik doesn’t gloss over the rage that overwhelmed the public sentiment, and President Johnson’s shortcomings with the reconstruction process.  The reader certainly picks up on the impression that Winik conveys; the aftermath of the war and the reunification of the nation would have been dramatically different had Lincoln lived.  We will never know quite how, but the struggles that blacks faced during slavery and the black codes of reconstruction still have an impact to this day.

Joe Johnston’s surrender and Jefferson Davis’ retreat through confederate territory are also well documented in the book.  While Davis was on the run from Union officials, going deeper and deeper into the South, he had given orders to his Generals to prepare for a guerrilla war.  Thankfully, Johnston defied Davis’s orders and surrendered to Sherman.  After hearing of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a genius of guerilla warfare, also chose to surrender.  The outcome could have been very different if these two Confederate Generals had decided to continue to wage war from the woods and swamps of the South.

I have to admit, parts of the book are a bit slow – that probably has something to do with why it took me so long to finish it.  Winik’s style can be a bit disjointed – each time he introduced a new character, he would stop and introduce the character with several pages of biography.  While it is helpful to have the background, it really interrupts the flow of the book.  It would have been better to weave those details into the narrative.  But overall it is a well-written perspective on a small slice of American history.  It will be too focused for people who aren’t very interested in the Civil War, but Civil War enthusiasts should appreciate it.

Have you read it?  What did you think?