Jay Winik is a master of the annus magnus school of history, in which the past can best be fathomed and told by ferreting out individual seminal years. During certain annual spurts, historic decisions come thick and fast, leaving the world altered for decades (hence the common phrase “the year that changed history”). Winik’s April 1865 was a masterly account of how a few unforeseen events in the final month of the Civil War, none of them preordained (from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to Robert E. Lee’s decision to surrender, disband his forces, and eschew guerrilla war), changed the trajectory of American history.
Winik believes a similar hinge of fate was the year 1944 — especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wartime decision-making over those twelve critical months. The big-year genre of history, however, is a difficult one, precisely because all years have their moments and see critical change. It is hard to establish scholarly criteria that qualify some as landmark and others as more ordinary periods. Indeed, dozens of books with years in their titles — 1914, 1919, 1939, 1943, 1968 — seem to share the same premise.
Still, Winik is not suggesting that 1944 was the most important year of the war militarily or politically. A good case could be made instead (see Richard Overy’s 1939) that the catalysts for the eventual deaths of 60 million were all in place by the summer of 1939. Or it could be argued that a European war became global only in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Singapore, and Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Certainly, the fighting at Stalingrad, El Alamein, and Guadalcanal in late 1942 changed the trajectory of the entire conflict. Before 1942, the Germans and Japanese rarely lost; after that year, they even more rarely won. For Ian Buruma, 1945 was Year Zero, when the end of the war fostered a new order from the ashes of the old.
Yet Winik believes that the moral and ethical decisions, or rather the absence of them, in 1944 more fundamentally changed history. The payback D-Day landings doomed the Third Reich in a way the Italian campaign had not, and put the Allies in reach of German borders within months. Roosevelt was reelected in November, and Winik might have speculated in greater detail about what might have happened had Roosevelt not dropped Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket — or had a Truman presidency begun, say, in December 1944 rather than in April 1945.
Had General Dwight Eisenhower not signed on to the ill-designed Operation Market Garden in September 1944, to leapfrog over the Rhine from Holland into the Ruhr, and had he instead supplied the mobile thrusts of George S. Patton rather than the slow plodding of Generals Montgomery and Hodges, the Allies might well have plowed into Germany during autumn 1944 — especially given the propensity of Germans to fight more resolutely the Soviets on the weakening Eastern Front. The stakes were high: A German collapse in the West in 1944 would have altered post-war geopolitics and saved over half a million Jews from the Holocaust.
Three themes dominate Winik’s narrative of 1944. One, Franklin Roosevelt was far more ill than anyone could have imagined. By mid 1944, Roosevelt suffered from end-stage congestive heart failure, heart-valve damage, hypertension (with blood pressure regularly nearing or exceeding 200/100), atherosclerosis, and sinus, bronchial, intestinal, gall-bladder, and urinary infections. Doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital by late March 1944 correctly diagnosed the president’s maladies and balefully predicted that he had no more than a year to live. That prescient prognosis was covered up both by Navy doctors and by Roosevelt’s own medical team and aides — and the full story was perhaps kept from Roosevelt himself. The president often slept twelve hours a night.
Winik is judicious and fair to Roosevelt, but his detailed descriptions of the man’s diminished physical capacity suggest one of the greatest presidential cover-ups of the 20th century, one that perhaps more than matched the disinformation surrounding Woodrow Wilson’s or John F. Kennedy’s serious maladies.
Roosevelt’s ailments were all made worse by the stress of the wartime presidency. By 1944, he had been president for nearly eleven years, longer than any commander-in-chief before or after, and was a living argument for a two-term limit on such a stressful job. FDR somehow managed to maintain a clandestine affair with old flame Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and not unexpectedly found Eleanor Roosevelt’s phone calls more intrusive and haranguing than soothing. His daily cigarettes and martinis, and what we would now call a terrible, high-fat diet, spiked his blood pressure even higher. The general muscle erosion and weakening that is often found in paralysis patients as they reach their sixties made Roosevelt all but immobile.
Roosevelt, despite his courageous public appearances, went to bed for not just days but weeks at a time. Winik hints that FDR’s eroding physical condition in 1944 may explain a power vacuum and the inability of the president to juggle, as he had in the past, several critical issues at once without tipping his hand on any — with unhappy consequences for the American war effort.
Second, Roosevelt remained mostly oblivious to the savage nature of Joseph Stalin and the criminal character of the Soviet Union. Perhaps that blindness was somewhat understandable, given the nearly 30 million civilian and military Russian dead on the Eastern Front, where 70 to 80 percent of the Wehrmacht’s soldiers were killed. Still, whereas Churchill sought pragmatic give-and-take with Stalin, Roosevelt — owing either to the physical incapacities and discomfort of his illnesses or to his innate narcissism and resulting naïveté — believed that his once formidable but fading repartee and eloquence could charm Stalin into joining his envisioned team of sober and judicious world-policeman states under the aegis of the United Nations. The conferences in Tehran in November 1943 and at Yalta in February 1945 (neither, we note, in 1944) saw Roosevelt chide the pro-American Churchill in a pathetic attempt to triangulate with the Soviets. The near–moral equivalence Roosevelt drew between British colonialism and Stalinism had negative consequences for American foreign policy, and indeed on global stability, for the ensuing decade.
Roosevelt’s physical deterioration also highlights the third and most important of Winik’s theses: that, by 1944, there was more than enough evidence of Hitler’s Final Solution for the Allies, especially the Americans, to act boldly. Brave Jews, independent intelligence officers of refugee organizations, and even a few sympathetic Germans all confirmed to Washington the same horrific story that slowly made its way into the public domain. Indeed, firsthand and smuggled-out testimonials and diplomatic communiqués about the grand scale of the Final Solution came thick and fast in 1944 — the Vrba-Wetzler report, the disclosures of German industrialist Eduard Schulte, and the cables and telegrams of Geneva-based Jewish-rights lawyer Gerhart Riegner.
Yet some of FDR’s wartime subordinates — the villains in varying degrees were mostly Breckinridge Long, Ray Atherton, and grandee Sumner Welles at the State Department, and, even more notably, “wise man” John J. McCloy at the War Department — hijacked U.S. policy concerning the Holocaust. FDR was either too ill or too unwilling to do much about what would become a regrettable ongoing American neglect of millions in extremis.
As Winik put it, there was to be no Lincolnesque “emancipation-proclamation moment” that might have made a Roosevelt administration commensurate with the Great Emancipator’s. There would be no massive bombing campaign to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz and other death camps. Nor would there be a massive boatlift of targeted Jews to the United States. (By 1944, the neutral Spanish, to take one example, wanted to return to the good graces of the ascendant Allies — and to make some money — by offering some of their merchant marine for this purpose.)
Most of the eastern ovens and crematoria were within reach of fighter-escorted Allied four-engine bombers by late 1944. Nearly a million of the Jews who were to die before the end of the war were still alive at the beginning of 1944. In presenting these facts, Winik draws heavily on the exacting work of the late Martin Gilbert, as well as that of Walter Laqueur and Richard Breitman, who have all demonstrated that the Allies possessed both the knowledge and the means to curtail the penultimate tolls of the death camps. What the Americans lacked, alas, was the will.
Anti-Semitic bureaucrats — ironically, just the sorts that Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and Goering had always counted on to do little to stop the mass killings — challenged the intelligence reports, complained of Jewish whining, and dismissed the industry of death as little more than camps for coerced laborers.
Winik is an effective storyteller. He expertly weaves together several strands of his narrative — the few brave informants of the Holocaust, the tragic physical collapse of Roosevelt, and Allied unresponsiveness to clear knowledge of the liquidation of European Jewry. Winik is an admirer of Roosevelt, especially of the president’s social conscience and his early efforts to rearm the United States and to provide military aid to the beleaguered Russians and British. Consequently, his riveting story of the abject moral indifference to what we now know was good enough evidence of what was going on at such places as Auschwitz and Treblinka makes his indictment all the more powerful.
– Mr. Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.