14 Jul 21

Professor O’Brien is right. Most people – and indeed most historians – know very little about Admiral Leahy. The subject of this biography, Admiral William D Leahy acted as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff throughout the Second World War and served his successor, President Truman, into the early years of the Cold War. To most, Leahy was just a shadowy Mr Fix-it and ‘oiler of wheels’ in the entourage of his immediate boss, President Roosevelt, who was, clearly the most powerful man in the world. Roosevelt operated a very people- rather than institution- centred White House. It mattered far more who you were, how well regarded by the President, rather than whether you represented the State Department, the Treasury or the Navy. As someone who operated less the head of an administrative system and more like a king in his court (hence the ‘King Franklin’ school of analysis of Roosevelt’s time in office) the President needed someone close by he could trust absolutely. But for that role in this web of inter-personal relationships to work, Leahy needed to operate in the shadows. And that was exactly his style. He arranged things, he went on holiday with the President, he chaired lots of important meetings but rarely spoke. Even his dead-pan memoires were scarcely more than an expanded diary of events.

And yet, when Churchill wanted to consult a senior American on what he should say in his celebrated ‘Iron Curtain’ speech after the war, he chose Leahy. This, O’Brien argues, just shows that there was a lot more to the man than most people realise. O’Brien goes on to argue that, as an adviser, guide and counsellor, Leahy was extremely influential in many of the key decisions made by the Americans during the Second World War, in some cases decisively so. But this substantive rather than merely procedural impact on events was consciously and deliberately hidden, largely in order to preserve the reputation and the position of the President. It’s an interesting argument. The Second Most Powerful Man in the World is a fascinating blow by blow account of Leahy’s dealings with the great figures and the great issues of the era. Its is certainly readable even enthralling – as such ‘fly on the wall’ accounts so often are.

So does O’Brien make his case? Well, that’s for his readers to decide but I must say, I have my hesitations about that. In the first place, documentary evidence other than the largely anecdotal is thin on the ground. As chairman, Leahy repeatedly steered meetings to the desired conclusion, we are told, but not shown how. Strong opinions are attributed to people but not the reasons for them, O’Brien rarely attempts judgement or the validity of Leahy’s judgement. Typical of this approach is O’Brien’s treatment of the Casablanca Conference. From the American point of view, he has Leahy argue, this was a mess because the American team hadn’t got their act together, not because the idea of launching an attack on Normandy in 1943 was a crackpot one and would have been based largely on British forces which were not going to be made available. In order to build Leahy up, O’Brien feels it necessary to bring others down – belittling George Marshall in particular. Admiral Ernie King, Douglas MacArthur, Harry Hopkins are all reduced in stature.  The British also get a hammering, even Alanbrooke, accused of ‘blathering’ at meetings. The impression left is that Leahy was a giant amongst pygmies.

The biggest gap though is any very clear idea of what Leahy’s world view actually was. In some ways he seems to have been what’s sometimes called an ‘Asia-lationist’, someone extremely reluctant to see America’s getting involved in the world’s affairs, except to an extent in Asia. Leahy emerges as a ‘Yes, Europe first, but let’s get on with it’ kind of strategist, impatient of Churchill’s nuanced approach to Normandy. For reasons not really explained and still less justified, Leahy seems to have been a great admirer of Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists. Churchill and the British get a lot of stick for their very understandable hesitations about an early campaign to open up the Burma road campaign to help the Chinese: ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell’s contempt for Chiang Kai Shek after working with him, is treated almost as an irrelevance. Leahy argued for an immediate withdrawal from Europe when the war was won, admiring Stalin, rather than fearing him. Not for him the subtleties of ‘winning the peace’ after the enemy’s defeat. Perhaps most interestingly as a sailor, Leahy was convinced that air and sea power alone would defeat Japan; neither a bloody invasion or atom bombs were necessary for this, an argument he lost with Truman as the new President. But O’Brien doesn’t make the obvious point that in all of this he was in large measure echoing points made by Churchill and the British in their opposition to what they thought a premature and unimaginative assault on Normandy, for which O’Brien repeatedly criticises them.

So, overall verdict?  Recommended, yes, but with hesitation. It’s an enjoyable page-turner. Read it and see what you think about the two basic questions that emerge but are left hanging. Was Leahy really as influential as O’Brien makes out? And if he was, was this a good thing?