A joint profile of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their armed forces commanders Alan Brooke and George C. Marshall evaluates the pivotal ways in which they determined the strategies of allied forces during World War II, in an account that reveals their divergent agendas and tense efforts to collaborate or outmaneuver each other.
I suppose, at one level, Roberts' book could be considered a jaundiced reading of United States-Great Britain relations during WW2; however, it avoids a cynical tone, maintaining a sense of sympathetic realism. One thing Roberts finely elucidated is the subtle but significant differences in the relations of political and military power in the US and Great Britain which, in many ways, accounted for the differences of each nations' final objectives and methods. My impression is that there was a decidedly greater separation of political and military power within the American system than within the British system, though that may simply be what we could call the "Churchill effect." If anything, Roberts does a terrific job of painting Churchill as the "madcap genius" he was--equal parts brilliant, annoying, suave, and, at the end of day, absolutely inimitable as a national and international figure.
For me, however, the best part of Roberts' telling is how he showcases the key sacrifices that George Marshall, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sir Alan Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, made for their countries. Every general dreams of leading an army into a field of battle and yet, both Marshall and Brooke were forced to surrender their dream of leading the D-Day invasion because they were more valuable in their administrative roles. The history that Roberts relates, though, convincingly demonstrates that, without them, final victory would never have come to the Allies.
Much of what makes Roberts' work so compelling is his access to the "unofficial" (and technically illegal on the British side) diaries of the military and political advisors who orbited around these four. He uses these sources to read "against" the official stories that have been published, most vigorously it seems against Churchill's own later accounting. Fortunately, he does this in a way that doesn't turn the work into a salacious and sensational kind of "World War 2: The Unauthorized Biography"; rather, he remains grounded in the established facts of actual events, which allows the unofficial sources to enrich and enliven the official history rather than simply to overturn it. Where the "official" story is wrong, Roberts' use of diaries and letters often led him to offer very plausible reasons why later retellings diverged from what we now know of the actual course of events. These, as often as not, were rooted in a touching and deeply human concern for the feelings and reputations of other significant leaders.
I suppose the only real disappointment I had was the fact that, though Roberts referred several times to a great "falling out" after the conclusion of the war between Churchill and Brooke, he never really took the time to tell that story. The reason is simple: once Roosevelt died, the "Big Four" that were the focus of his narrative were no longer, so the story had to end. I would like to hope that Roberts will one day write about that.
It never seems to fail that, no matter how "distant" a book may seem from my own expressed interests or current circumstances, I find within it something that seems to miraculously speak to my current "Sitz im Leben." The story of Marshall's and Brooke's sacrifices of personal glory for the greater good of the war effort was, for reasons that would be too convoluted to explain here, a very important story for me to hear at this particular life juncture. Perhaps it's a stretch to say that God "led" me to read this particular book, but it is no stretch at all for me to say that I'm grateful to God that I DID read it.
For those fascinated with the astounding history of World War II or those who find themselves in unexpected and, to be honest, sometimes unwanted positions of leadership and responsibility, this book has many important lessons to teach. Roberts is a fine storyteller and a master of the complex characterization, which serves him well in this story of four of the most significant leaders of the 20th century.