Philip Padgett is the author of the new book Advocating Overlord: The D-Day Strategy and the Atomic Bomb. He worked in the field of national security and preparedness analysis for 40 years.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on this particular period during World War II in your new book?
A: Having canoed the same waters years later as a teenager, I went through my career in national security analysis with an enduring curiosity about a fishing trip that Franklin D. Roosevelt made in August 1943 to a remote area of Ontario, 760 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
How could the president leave the capital – in secret as became clear – at a critical time in directing a global war? Why did he go? What happened if indeed anything did? Setting the temporal context for that 10-day fishing trip expanded in stages. What transpired over the year 1943, from January to December, captures well the revealed drama of related decisions whose effects are with us today.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill during this period?
A: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were gentlemen and cordial to each other, qualities not in evidence in all of today’s leaders. Having had no relationship before World War II, by 1943, FDR and Churchill had come to see themselves as personal allies, not just the leaders of allied nations.
I say allies rather than friends because, as the book describes, the closeness of their relationship did not preclude either from manipulating, breaking oral commitments, or deceiving the other. At heart, each was a national leader diligent in pursuit of his country’s national interests.
Before the fishing trip, Roosevelt always took the position that in the Anglo-American alliance “there is no senior partner.” After the fishing trip, FDR asserted himself as senior partner. But, before making final a key decision on what would be the posture of the United States in the postwar world, FDR nevertheless consulted Churchill.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Answering the last part of your question first, the link between the outwardly separate Anglo-American war strategy negotiation and negotiation of resumed atomic research cooperation was a surprise. The evidence is mostly – not entirely – circumstantial, but extensive and, to me, persuasive.
Starting from a president’s simple 10-day fishing trip, I quickly became amazed by the proliferating paths my research took. Over the course of eight years, many people, sometimes in unexpected places, helped me.
I made extensive use of national libraries and archives in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. I benefited from material from all of the U.S. military service historical organizations, but also from universities, local historical societies, and corporate historians. The FDR Presidential Library is a wonderful resource. Site visits in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and France yielded insight obtainable nowhere else.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: In 1943, beyond the details of their differing military perceptions, the military chiefs of Britain and the United States confronted a difficult barrier not at first defined by them, but which had to be overcome before they could agree on how to go on to win the war in Europe from the west.
As they finally said to each other, “Our problem is that we are not trusting each other.” The reasons for that, built up between the end of World War I and 1940, should be familiar to us today: misplaced sense of being taken advantage of by the other; suspicion of the motive and capability of the other; real and perceived impact of the protective tariffs of the other.
The enormous Allied power building in North America could not be directed onto agreed course to liberation in Europe without the chiefs first trusting each other. That trust, so easily dissipated after cooperation in the First World War, could not be reestablished by throwing a switch, even in the presence of a shared existential threat. That is a lesson for our time.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m looking for something that winks at me. Possibly that could be a book on the British general who acted against orders, thus risking his career, to send to Washington at a critical moment the first Overlord plan.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One good way to prevail over the 24-hour churn of “breaking news” is to step back, take a breath, and read something…like a book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb