Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World Michael Fullilove

  • Michael Fullilove
  • The Penguin Press
  • 480 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jon Sallet
  • July 29, 2013

An insightful portrait of the five political advisors who helped FDR persuade the nation towards intervention in World War II.

Washington is a town filled with people who aren’t president.

Some of them have tried to be. Some arrived in the wake of one who succeeded. Some have legacies of their own, from Henry Clay to John McCain. And some are virtually unknown (a few even like it that way).

Rendezvous with Destiny is the story of five such characters. In alphabetical order: Bill Donovan, Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins, Sumner Welles and Wendell Wilkie. They are known to us today, respectively, as America’s World War II spymaster; Roosevelt’s closest political confidante; an ambassador to the Soviet Union and governor of New York; FDR’s most trusted advisor at the State Department; and a defeated Republican presidential candidate.

Michael Fullilove’s history focuses on the critical period from the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That was a time when Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered carefully. Fullilove tells us that Roosevelt was determined to oppose Hitler’s military ambitions, but the United States, only two decades removed from the horrific losses of World War I, wasn’t ready — 96 percent of Americans didn’t want to go to war with Germany.

So FDR faced a multi-faceted dilemma: he needed to understand what the leaders of Europe were like, what were the chances of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union successfully stopping Hitler’s military machine, how best to support those countries without plunging into an unpopular war, how to build alliances that would last, and how to move U.S. public opinion towards active resistance to Nazi ambitions.

Fullilove masterfully details Roosevelt’s decision to use personal emissaries to answer these questions and achieve these objectives. Welles’ 1940 trip to survey the European landscape, meeting Hitler, Mussolini, and the prime ministers of France and the UK. Bill Donovan in the same year, laying the groundwork for the U.S. transfer of naval destroyers to the UK, while advocating such support at home. Harriman diligently carrying out the work of executing the Lend-Lease program, which was Roosevelt’s method of supplying the UK and then the Soviet Union once he was elected to a third term.

That is, once Roosevelt defeated Wendell Wilkie in November 1940.

Wilkie was an internationalist in a party with strong isolationist tendencies that year. Having lost the presidential election, he entered 1941 looking toward his next campaign, while publicly espousing the need to stand with the UK (a stance that would hurt him politically down the road). Fullilove details the delicate dance between Wilkie and Roosevelt, which began shortly after the presidential election and led Wilkie to make a widely heralded, campaign-like trip to the UK in January 1941, sending a very public message to the British that they were not alone, and to the United States that it could not ignore the firestorm in Europe.

Overlapping with Wilkie’s very public trip was Harry Hopkins’ much more private one (Hopkins took three of the seven trips that Fullilove describes). In a city where then as now a lot of political power flows from proximity to power, and just as much from the perception of proximity, Hopkins was a unique figure in Washington, D.C. Living in the White House, chronically ill, serving as an informal aide after stepping down from the Cabinet, Hopkins was the man who got it done. He was, said one observer, the person who Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin all trusted more than they trusted each other.

At the center of these missions, FDR was cautious. No fan of organizational charts, he deployed his personal representatives in a manner that slighted both the State Department bureaucracy and his own ambassadors (Joseph Kennedy in the UK among them). As the phony war of the winter of 1939–40 turned into the Blitzkrieg of 1940, the North African engagements of 1941, and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that same year, Roosevelt seemed to let events carry the country along, even as he used every event to justify a more aggressive stance towards Hitler. He used his personal advisors to nudge opinion before FDR was forced to do so. Indeed, in August 1941, Roosevelt told Churchill that he would “wage war, but not declare it.”

The path to intervention was complex. Fullilove’s core achievement is to explain how a series of delicate dances — FDR with Churchill; FDR’s political advisors with each other; even Harry Hopkins with Stalin — resulted in personal judgments, both private and public, that helped to lead Americans to support FDR and prepare for war, even before Pearl Harbor made that war inevitable.

Fullilove calls the period between September 1, 1939, and December 7, 1941 “the turning point of the twentieth century.” It has been the subject of outstanding analyses of political decision-making, including Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston and John Lukacs’ Five Days in London. With this insightful portrait of five men who were neither president nor prime minister, Fullilove joins Meacham and Lukacs in that impressive scholarly club.

Jon Sallet is a partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, L.L.P. He served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and worked in the Clinton administration as director of policy and planning at the Department of Commerce.


comments powered by Disqus