Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the World, Michael Fullilove.
Penguin Press, 2013
After reading Rendezvous with Destiny, no one should question Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to Nazism and Japanese militarism. Michael Fullilove, a Rhodes scholar and the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, shows how FDR gradually (and very carefully) prepared the American people for what would be a new and permanent responsibility as a superpower. We are told how the mysterious, elusive, and “sphinxlike” president led the nation through its toughest chapter while maintaining authority thanks to cautious diplomacy. FDR was a most enthusiastic practitioner of envoy diplomacy, crafting a policy that steadily untied the isolationist strings from American foreign policy while dispatching five adept emissaries to Europe to make way for US involvement in the war.
According to Fullilove, FDR is the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. Given the many obstacles he faced — physical ailments (some even unknown by the public at the time), a skeptical public and Congress, a hyper-inquisitive press, stresses and tensions coming from overseas — perhaps he is a severely underrated president. But FDR should be lauded for keeping the country on the right path against the most ominous threat to the republic: Nazi-Facist-Japanese totalitarianism run rampant.
FDR was ably supported by several key envoys: the “icy” and sombre Sumner Welles; the World War I hero and future CIA operative William Donovan; the always loyal, shrewd, and severely underestimated Harry Hopkins; the evenly balanced internationalist and one-time electoral opponent to Roosevelt Wendell Wilkie; and the assiduous and well-connected Averell Harriman. Thanks to these leading diplomats, FDR was able to build a strong case against isolationism and neutrality all while assuring Great Britain that the US was ready to take a stand against the encroaching Nazi-led Axis powers.
Fullilove focuses solely on the two years between the outbreak of the war in 1939 and the American entry into the conflict in 1941 while showcasing how the five envoys surveyed the threatening landscape and strengthened the bonds with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was a period of tremendous strain, as FDR and his representatives watched the Third Reich quickly topple every government standing against it, save the British, by the summer of 1940. The primary question is whether Roosevelt sent the men to Europe with an actual plan in mind. Was he acting on instinct? Or was he responding in impromptu fashion fully intending to delay an American response while judiciously moving matters along so Washington would not be caught off-guard if Germans and Japanese threatened US shores? The fact is, FDR sent the five men on fact-finding missions mainly to see whether the British could survive a potentially fatal invasion at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But he also sought to assure the British that the Americans were ready to provide blood and treasure.
From the outset, FDR recognised that the US could not afford to remain a neutral bystander. The primary impediment to intervention, however, was a feverish isolationist spirit in America. By 1940–41, his goal was to assure the Allies he cared while mentally preparing the American public to defend their freedoms. The specifics detailing FDR’s thought process and his plans are masterfully demonstrated in this book, but it is only through Fullilove’s depiction of Welles, Donovan, Hopkins, Willkie, and Harriman that we come to better understand FDR himself and the challenges he faced at home and abroad. Rendezvous provides the context and background necessary to understand why FDR gained momentum and confidence going into the war.
It is both amusing and enlightening to observe the Italians, the Germans, and the British react to Sumner Welles’s uneasiness (he was the first envoy and was not all that well regarded by the Europeans); William Donovan’s careful and reassuring diplomatic traits; Harry Hopkins’s vital ability to connect FDR and Winston Churchill from afar; the “Wendell Wilkie effect” of tenacity, courage and sincerity; and Averill Harriman’s “dull” yet “dashing” nature. All of this ultimately calmed and encouraged Britain.
While the Welles mission reflects an “uneasy approach” to the conflict by Roosevelt, it helped US policy evolve and mature. Welles penned a thorough report that allowed FDR to gauge accurately the situation in Europe, showing that, if the US remained uninvolved, it would suffer certain consequences.
Bill Donovan’s undertaking in July–August 1940 was much more successful. “Wild Bill” was anything but wild, as the Medal of Honor winner conducted a secret, disciplined mission that cemented the US–UK alliance. Because of Donovan and his influence on FDR, a conscription law in America soon passed Congress, eventually drafting 10 million men and registering 45 million — not an uncontroversial achievement by any means. As Fullilove observes, conscription was a huge victory for FDR because it signed the “birth certificate of the military that would help win” the war. By this time, Americans had become slightly more in favour of aiding London, overturning the defeatism and fear rampant in the country at the time.
Aside from FDR, Hopkins is the unsung star of Rendezvous with Destiny. Of the five diplomats covered in the book, Hopkins is the least polished, most sickly (seemingly on his deathbed at times), and ridiculously undervalued. But his impact was unparalleled, described by many as a “godsend” and ultimately indispensable to the Roosevelt–Churchill dynamic that ultimately won the war. Hopkins was, by far, the most trusted man of the five and clearly serving as the president’s eyes and ears. His role was unparalleled and his impact felt in Washington, London, and as far away as Moscow; even Stalin was a fan.
Wendell Willkie’s role is intriguing. After all, he had been FDR’s opponent in the 1940 presidential election just two months before his visit to London and Dublin in 1941. But he is also a significant figure in that he was able to win over the British, especially Prime Minister Churchill. A visit that initially caused great doubt could not have gone any better. When he departed, Willkie was a rock star, feted by many and praised for his stamina and loyalty both to the British and to the president, his former political rival.
Averell Harriman’s voyage to London, Africa, and the Middle East immediately following Willkie’s in the spring and summer of 1941 was probably the least memorable of the five, but certainly not unimportant. His job, after Hopkins’s role in explaining, Willkie’s role in selling, was in delivering the Lend-Lease program to the British. Harriman’s task was to help Britain win the war by “expediting aid” while establishing himself as FDR’s longer-term emissary, serving, in reality, under Hopkins, while meeting often with Churchill. He was instrumental in determining Britain’s “most urgent needs, identifying obstructions impeding the flow of supplies … and, conveying his recommendations to Washington — along with an appropriate sense of urgency.” He eventually became the “most visible symbol” of US assistance to Britain. He was also the emissary who experienced one of the more dangerous periods of the German bombing of London.
The upshot is that America, virtually overnight, grew from a tentative and unsure rising power into a genuine global superpower. FDR mastered the presidency, creating expectations of the office that no one has been able to match since. Throughout, he managed to convince the American public to support a cause worth fighting for. As Fullilove argues, thanks to a smart and personable president, “Americans were united and ready for the fight. The president had carried the country with him.”