Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Admirals: What did Leahy Do?

I've finished my audioread of Walter Borneman's The Admirals, thus further filling in the many gaps in knowledge from my childhood in World War II, when I waited in fascinated apprehension, trusting they would get this damn thing over with before I turned 17, else I would have to go to war and would be killed.  Borneman's book is a satisfying read at least for someone as ignorant as I, though how it would hold up for the serious boffins is an interesting question to which I don't have the answer.  I am forced to revise a couple of  my untutored judgments.  I'd say that Ernest King, who commanded from Washington, is perhaps not quite as rotten a human being as he appears from a distance and probably on the whole an effective presence, though perhaps a bit more focused on winning glory for the Navy than winning victory for the allies.  On the other hand I'm revising downward my untutored  opinion of William Halsey--active and aggressive, always in the thick of the fray but culpable for a few whopper mistakes from all of which he seems to have walked away unscathed, at least in the eyes of an adoring public.  Halsey, that is, appears to be a natural master of showmanship--not the calculating megalomaniac that was Douglas MacArthur, but simply one whose instinctive effusiveness left him richly qualified for the role of hero.  Chester Nimitz comes across as just about on pitch with his reputation: steady, likeable, warm-hearted.

The puzzle for me is William D. Leahy, who spent the war at Roosevelt's ear, first as adviser on military matters and at the end--as Roosevelt was dying--the President's sole avenue of communication with the world.  It seems undisputed that if anyone stood had the full attention of the President, it was Leahy.

Yet what, exactly, did he do?  I haven't read Leahy's  own memoir of Leahy, nor any biography of him, but on Borneman's telling his record is oddly opaque.   Borneman does remark on their differences--Leahy was a "conservative" by the standards of  his time (which are not the standards of our time).  He also remarks on Leahy's unstinting fealty to the President whom he served, yet whose aspirations appear so different from his own.

Is that it?  Is Leahy then  merely (as MacArthur said of Eisenhower) a great clerk?   It seems unlikely.  Even if he left no dramatic mark, still it is true that one may exercise influence in ways that may not always be easy for a biographer to spot.   For example, Leahy  seems to have managed the President's agenda--some of it from the beginning, and all of it at the end when the other great agenda-setter, Harry Hopkins, and the President himself, were dying.   

There is at least one other possibility--one which Borneman, at least, does not explore.  That is: I wonder what are the chances that Roosevelt, the master manipulator, was simply using Leahy--defanging his deep-seated conservatism with flattering attention on the principle that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Of course there may be some mix of motives here, and the relationship may have evolved over time.  It could be that  Leahy began as a pawn in Roosevelt's larger chess game and grew genuinely  to respect and sympathize with his boss.  Beyond all that, it may be simply that Leahy was one of those people about whom it can be said: we don't know what he does around here, but we know that as long as he is here, a lot of things go right and not many go wrong.

Afterthought:  I turned 17 in 1953, long after World War II and a gnat's eyebrow too late for Korea.  By the time I did get to the military--as a reservist/trainee in 1958--nobody in the world was particularly mad at anybody, and I found the whole thing pretty much of a cakewalk.

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