At the End of the War


Victor Jorgensen

On August 15, 1945, the army of Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending the largest global war in history. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, we will be featuring excerpts and exclusive posts from our history titles and authors for the next three weeks. Phillips Payson O'Brien, the author of How the War Was Won, looks at the strategic decisions and key players that helped the United States put an end to war.


One of the most important things that I tried to do in How the War Was Won was to combine a statistical study of what equipment was made and how it was engaged/destroyed, with a study of the grand strategic decisions that determined the process. In doing this I became more and more intrigued by the role played by Admiral William D. Leahy. Leahy actually sat at the center of American decision making, serving both as Franklin Roosevelt’s chief of staff and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1942 to 1945 (and he would continue in these roles under President Truman from 1945 until 1949). However, his role has, shortsightedly in my opinion, been overlooked or minimized in the process.

What this excerpt discusses is how grand strategy was made in the USA (and partly in the UK) and how Leahy actually fit in the process. It starts with a discussion of the two most important characters in the process, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Leahy’s influence was based on one fundamental truth—Roosevelt trusted him, both as a person and an executor of policy. Roosevelt, who often feigned a jocular outlook, was very suspicious when it came to relying on others, and concentrated decision making power in his own hands—for instance marginalizing his Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who had almost no real authority once the USA joined the war. However, he treated Leahy in the opposite fashion. Understanding that Leahy had no personal ambition other than working with him, and through observing his behavior realizing that Leahy would protect the prerogatives of the President, Roosevelt ceded more and more power to him from 1942 onwards. By 1944, Leahy was the most important professional figure in Roosevelt’s life, and more than any other person was running the American war effort.

My interest in Leahy has moved on and I am now working on a full scale study of his interactions not just with Roosevelt but also with Harry Truman. I just received a Public Scholar award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and this will allow me to complete a major book on the subject by the end of the AY 2016-17. Again, Leahy’s role in Truman’s eyes needs much more study. Interesting, after working with the Admiral for just a few months, Truman made the decision to keep him by his side as long as possible (Leahy only left the White House in 1949, when his health was seriously deteriorating). In these years he exercised a great deal of influence over the origins of Cold War, both in terms of policy and personnel. In the end it would be safe to say that between 1942 and 1949 he was the second most powerful man in the world.

Continue reading for an excerpt from How the War Was Won.

Grand Strategists and the Air and Sea War

When Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, his closest wartime collaborator during the previous three years was devastated. He wrote in his private diary, beginning with a sentiment of general grief that could have been written in a mainstream newspaper. “This world tragedy deprives the Nation of its leader at a time when the war to preserve civilization is approaching its end with accelerated speed, and when a vital need for competent leadership in the making and preservation of world peace is at least seriously prejudiced by the passing of President Roosevelt who was a world figure of heroic proportions.”

Then Admiral William Leahy, Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, went in an entirely different direction, one that makes him stand out within the functioning of the American government, and the creation of American grand strategy, during the war. “His death is also a personal bereavement to me in the loss of a devoted friend whom I have known and admired for thirty-six years, since we first worked together in World War I.” Three days later, after Leahy had accompanied Roosevelt’s body to its interment in Hyde Park, New York, the President’s family estate, the admiral was once again overcome with grief. At the end of the burial he wrote about “a long day that was for me full of sad memories, and that also for me probably was my last visit to the home of my friend who will live in history as one of our greatest Presidents. He was a great gentleman and a true friend.”

Neither George Marshall, Henry Arnold, Ernest King, Henry Stimson, Cordell Hull nor any other figure that influenced American grand strategy, with the possible exception of Harry Hopkins, could have honestly called Franklin Roosevelt a “true friend.” Even Hopkins, who lived in the White House to be close to Roosevelt for two years, was more of a paladin than companion. This position gave Leahy enormous power, power he exercised but was careful never to call his own. However, his role in the American war effort has, mistakenly, been downplayed when compared with the others, especially Marshall. After his appointment as Roosevelt’s military Chief of Staff in July 1942, Leahy met with the President practically every day that he was in Washington, DC, dined regularly with the Roosevelt family, and spent holidays with the President either in Hyde Park or fishing. During much of 1944, when Roosevelt was either too tired to work (he spent much of the spring in Bernard Baruch’s estate in South Carolina) or busy with the presidential campaign, Leahy ran a great deal of the American war effort. Much of what is known as the Churchill–Roosevelt correspondence in 1944 was actually the Churchill–Leahy correspondence.

What makes Leahy so important is that, thanks to his close knowledge of Roosevelt’s intentions, it is through him that we can best see how the President’s own views on the air and sea war evolved during the war. Unlike the other military chiefs of staff, Marshall, King and Arnold, who operated more as advocates for a certain policy, Leahy acted as Roosevelt’s interpreter of policy. It was he who discussed the options privately with the President in the White House and, more often than not, he who transmitted the President’s decisions to the rest of government. They were also two of only a handful of men who made the real decisions about the grand strategic questions for British and American air and sea weaponry. From 1941 onwards, these decisions were really in the hands of eleven men. British strategic planning was dominated by only one civilian, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the different service chiefs, Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), Air Marshal Charles Portal (affectionately called Peter and later ennobled as the 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford), Admiral Sir A. Dudley Pound and his successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham (known by his nickname ABC and later ennobled as 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope). They all attempted to steer the Prime Minister in different directions and worked out the details with their American counterparts and British subordinates, which determined where the different air, sea and land efforts would be made. It is interesting to see how little influence other members of the Cabinet had over grand strategy. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, was at the heart of World War II diplomacy but was not a major player in determining strategic war campaigns. Labour members of the Cabinet, in particular the Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin, had huge impact on British domestic policy, in many ways far greater than Churchill’s, but were not part of the strategic discussion in any meaningful way.

Download the full excerpt here.

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About the Author: Phillips Payson O'Brien

Phillips Payson O'Brien is the author of How the War Was Won (2015). He gained a PhD in History after two years working on Wall Street. Since then, he has publishe...

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