This was a magnificent little book. It focuses on Roosevelt’s tenure as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1919, ending with his nomination to the vice presidency in 1920. It notes that from his earliest days in college he wanted to emulate the career path of his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt, from Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to Governor of New York, to the White House, and follows his development as a young man and a young politician in Albany to Washington, where he saw firsthand the work necessary to prepare and lead a nation at war.
I have read numerous biographies of FDR, but none that expressly focused on the education he was receiving in playing a significant role in Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s administration. FDR’s office was next to his chief, Sec. of the Navy Josephus Daniels and only a short walk across the street from the West Wing of the White House, where cousin Theodore had moved the president’s administrative offices only a few years earlier.
In fact the exterior of the West Wing shown in this picture I had taken on what is still called the Navy Steps is (despite extensive renovations during FDR’s tenure) is still that that was there when FDR worked in Room 278 of what was called the State, War & Navy building (ignore the parapet FDR added – he was hoping Congress would) under Daniels.
The book is a very insightful analysis of FDR’s decisionmaking process – good and bad – as a young politician, but its strength is pointing out the experiences he had that helped foreshadow what he would do as president when faced with similar challenges to those he saw Wilson face in 1914-1919. Of course at the time FDR was looking backwards towards his Uncle Ted’s tenure in the office and how he could use the office to similarly promote his subsequent political career. But what he took from the experience of watching Wilson would in the end play a much larger role in FDR’s management of World War II and the creation of a postwar international organization.
One point I’d never seen mentioned before was when Roosevelt was confronted with the absolute need to arm merchant vessels in face of Germany’s decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare. His problem was that the ships could not purchase the necessary ordnance, and the Navy could not provide it to them. FDR’s solution was to have the Navy “lend” the necessary ordnance to the civilian vessels. Although Daniels and Wilson eventually decided against even this halfway measure (I think – on rereading I am not certain what happened to the proposal) it may have been in Roosevelt’s mind over 20 years later when he came up with Lend-Lease.
Any treatment of FDR in 1916-1918 must include a treatment of his relationship with Lucy Mercer, but the book’s is remarkably slender. It spends less than four pages on the issue, but only because there is so little to draw conclusions from. And because it bears little relationship to the larger issues the book is concerned with. In the end, Roosevelt – confronted by his wife and his mother – reluctantly made the decision that stopped the relationship before it hampered his political career. That he restarted it 25 years later is a subject for another book.