Rendezvous With Destiny

Michael Fullilove / Penguin Viking

Michael Fullilove / Penguin Viking This is a cracking book, much more enthralling than its subject might suggest. Mr Fullilove is a seriously qualified Sydney journalist (executive director of the Lowy Institute and a fellow of Washington’s Brookings Institute) and he is here addressing a very significant subject. I had no doubt it would be interesting but not that it would be as difficult to put down as a thriller, not least because, although it concerns the Second World War, it is confined to the period when the United States was neutral. For two years Franklin Roosevelt grappled with a near insoluble problem: how could he follow his natural sympathies and help sustain the democracies against Nazi dominated Germany when Americans and their Congress were overwhelmingly opposed to going to war? At first it was a matter of helping France and Britain; then after the fall of France Britain alone (apparently militarily vulnerable but in fact superbly defended by the RAF’s Fighter Command); then Soviet Russia and Britain after Hitler turned east. (Helping Russia was very unpopular with sections of Congress because helping democracies was one thing but helping Stalin was quite another.) Roosevelt needed clear, accurate intelligence about the situation and the intentions of potential recipients of American arms not simply to help him sell his policies at home, but also to help him choose and shape those policies. Roosevelt’s response to this need, the subject of this book, was utterly characteristic. The president by-passed American ambassadors and service attaches in favour of personal envoys who would both listen and speak for him. These men, the protagonists of Rendezvous with Destiny, were Sumner Welles, an eccentric but very able State Department figure; Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate for president in 1940; Averell Harriman, a brilliant organiser and diplomat who was sent to expedite Lendlease aid; and Colonel (later General) William Donovan, the future founder of the O.S.S. Most important of all, was Harry Hopkins whose diplomacy abroad and sage advice at home was always important and sometimes decisive. Fullilove’s accounts of their journeys and analysis of their significance is so well written you feel you have shared their experiences. They walked with history and the reader walks with them. Of course, at the time Roosevelt was much criticised for bypassing official channels. However, when he sent Colonel Donovan to London to find out if Britain could survive, his ambassador was Joe Kennedy, breathing defeatism from every pore. Again in 1941 in Moscow the ambassador was convinced Russia was finished. Harry Hopkins turned that around. He is the hero of the book, an always ailing figure who was the eyes and ears of the president. Churchill regarded him as a friend. Stalin told him he was the only foreign emissary he had ever trusted. This book restores to life Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor and shows his historical significance. It is worth reading for that alone.  

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