In Rendezvous with Destiny, Michael Fullilove, who is executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, has taken the familiar story of the gradual entry of the United States into World War II and fleshed it out through an emphasis on the key emissaries used by Franklin D. Roosevelt to build an alliance with the United Kingdom and, somewhat later, the Soviet Union.
It is easy to forget both the strength of isolationism in the United States at the outbreak of the war, and the weakness of the American military. Twenty years after the end of World War I – and the Senate’s refusal to ratify President Wilson’s desire to join the League of Nations – most Americans wanted little to do with another European conflict. Roosevelt was far ahead of most of the country in seeing Hitler’s Germany as a threat to the United States, but he was also aware of the difficulty of changing American opinion, particularly after the short-lived German–Soviet pact signed in August 1939. When Britain declared war the following month after Germany’s invasion of Poland, Americans were divided between those who thought Britain would probably lose, including some who actually hoped for this outcome, and those who argued for non-military support for Britain.
For domestic political reasons, Roosevelt had sent Joseph Kennedy, father of the future president, as his ambassador to London. Kennedy was both opposed to support for Britain and pessimistic about their chances of resisting invasion. Thus Roosevelt’s first need was to establish his own view of the British government. Much of Rendezvous with Destiny is an account of how he used special envoys to build a close relationship with Churchill, culminating in the first meeting between the two men in Newfoundland in August 1941, almost two years after the war had commenced.
Using the somewhat artificial device of concentrating on Roosevelt’s special envoys allows Fullilove to illustrate his central thesis, namely that the twenty-six months leading up to the US entry into World War II was the turning point of the twentieth century. During this period, he argues, the United States effectively prepared to become the world’s dominant military and political power. This thesis provides an overarching framework for his story, although it would be possible to tell a similar story with far greater emphasis on events in the Pacific, and it could be argued that Fullilove pays too little attention to the developments in Asia that would lead to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Telling this story via the ‘five extraordinary men’ whom Roosevelt used as special emissaries does, however, make for a book that is highly readable and original. Fullilove writes at length about Sumner Welles, the upper-class diplomat, who was sent to meet the British, German, and Italian governments at a time when a negotiated end to fighting still seemed imaginable; about William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, later to head the CIA, who was sent to test British resolve; and about the wealthy and ambitious Averell Harriman, who became close to the Churchill family and helped guide the United States into an effective alliance with the United Kingdom through the Lend-Lease program, which provided Britain with increasing quantities of weapons and supplies. The two most interesting envoys are Harry Hopkins, the frail New Dealer and Roosevelt confidant, who managed relations first with Churchill and then with Stalin, and Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential candidate in 1940, whom Roosevelt enlisted very deliberately as a way of countering the strong isolationist tendencies within his party. Wilkie would in time come to resent this, but he was an important ally at home as much as abroad.
All five of these men come alive in Fullilove’s book. Through accounts of their trans-Atlantic trips, one has a new insight into the political style of President Roosevelt and his ability to circumvent the normal channels of government to make use of a remarkable network of friends, acquaintances, and even political opponents to both inform and implement policy.
One of the most vivid parts of the book is the description of Hopkins’s visit to Russia in 1941, shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. Hopkins recommended the extension of Lend-Lease to the Soviets. This led to accusations, long after his death, that he was a Soviet spy. From Fullilove’s account, Hopkins had few illusions about the reality of Stalin’s brutality, but he shared Churchill’s view that Russia needed to be bolstered to help defeat the Germans.
To reach Russia, Hopkins, who was a frail man, had to fly for twenty-four hours in an uncomfortable seaplane from Scotland across the northern tip of Norway to Archangel, where he saw bathers on the northern beaches. He then travelled to Moscow, and, rather as had Welles in London, circumvented the resident US Ambassador to establish a close rapport with Stalin, which would in time lead to the famous Yalta meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill in February 1945, just weeks before the president’s death.
Travel in the 1940s during the war was extremely arduous. Fullilove is clearly fascinated by the details of trans-atlantic flying. At one point, because of the dual problem of German aggression and wind directions, Willkie flew from London to New York via the west coast of Africa and Port of Spain, Trinidad, using Lisbon, as did most of the envoys, as the entry point to and from Europe.
There are many rich descriptions in the book, which reads at times like a well-written novel, a welcome relief from the arid prose of much of international relations. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Russell Walter Mead dismissed the book as superficial, which is unfair; he misses the serious purpose that underlies Fullilove’s writing. If at times he lingers too much on the anecdotal, he is also making larger points about the importance of personal relationships in the conduct of foreign affairs. Rendezvous with Destiny humanises some of the key figures in mid-twentieth-century history without losing sight of the broader aim of the book.
Nor does Fullilove allow any Australian reference to escape him. Stanley Bruce, R.G. Casey, and Robert Menzies appear in minor roles at several points, a reminder that until the Pacific War commenced Australia still functioned as a minor reserve to the British Empire. Asked at the Melbourne Writers Festival about their influence, Fullilove cheerfully acknowledged that it was minimal.
I wish Fullilove had resisted the hubris that declares the United States to be ‘America’, when that is in fact the name of two continents. At times his admiration of Roosevelt and Churchill borders on the sycophantic. There are some odd omissions; not only could he have devoted more space to developments in the Pacific, but there is virtually no reference to the Holocaust and the role of American Jews in supporting Roosevelt’s policies.
Fullilove follows a tradition which is strongest in Australia amongst moderate Labor figures – think Bob Carr and Kim Beazley – of a continuing fascination with the United States; even the former left-winger Julia Gillard spoke in star-struck tones of her admiration for the United States. Rendezvous with Destiny is a superb book, but it is also a book that is less critical of the United States than a different account might be. It is, at the same time, a work of detailed scholarship and vigorous writing and, as such, a model of what the best academic research is capable of producing.