Monday, October 08, 2012

Pearl Harbor (by Steven M. Gillon)

I found an unexpected treat on the new nonfiction shelves at the library this weekend: Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War by Steven M. Gillon.

I've read several books on Pearl Harbor and on FDR over the years -- it's a topic I tend to go back to. I think it started long ago when I visited Pearl when I was eighteen (my sister was living in Hawaii then). Not only did I pick up my first book on Pearl Harbor in the gift shop at the visitor's center there, but seeing the monument and much of the surrounding area forever cemented the place in my mind, so that whenever I read books about it since, I can picture things so clearly.

I also spent a winter in the company of Roosevelt when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time. Maybe it's the sudden chill to the weather that made me drift over to the nonfiction shelves -- autumn and winter tend to be my time to hunker down with history and biography, especially big tomes.

But this is not a big tome, and I am speeding my way through its very accessible prose. Some of this is not new to me, but it's been a few years since I've visited Pearl Harbor in my reading so it feels fresh. I like Gillon's shaping of the narrative too -- he's essentially focused on the first 24 hours for FDR following the attack, though he does some necessary prologue work at the beginning and some side-stepping and rabbit trailing to provide other stories of interest.

Lots of interesting bits stand out, but one struck me especially this evening. At one point Gillon is detailing some of the condescending, sneering attitudes of the fascist nations toward the U.S. -- how many of the leaders assumed our nation was too "soft" to make a difference in the war or see it through, partly because of their beliefs about capitalism, partly because of their racism. At least in one case, however, that of Mussolini, there was sneering condescension about Roosevelt's ability to lead a country because he was crippled. Writes Dillon:

"Most of all, he (Mussolini) simply could not understand how a man incapable of walking could lead a nation during war. 'Never in history has a people been ruled by a paralytic,' he contemptuously said of FDR..." 

Contrast this with Dillon's profile of FDR's actual courageous fight to overcome polio and to help others who were battling it, and his long, arduous return to a political career despite his limitations.

"Once easily dismissed as superficial, ambitious, and shallow, FDR responded to polio in a way that added new depth to his character. It intensified his ability to set priorities and to focus. 'Polio,' Franklin Jr. said, 'taught Father to concentrate on the things he was physically able to do and not waste time thinking about things he could not.'...When asked how polio had changed him, Roosevelt replied, 'If you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!' 'Having handled that, he probably thought there wasn't anything he couldn't deal with,' said Henry Morgenthau. 'Once you've conquered that kind of illness, anything's possible.'"

Two things really stand out to me here:

~ the difference between looking only at what the surface shows you about a person versus really knowing and understanding their character, and

~the way that tribulation truly can encourage patience, build character, and lead to hope

The very thing that some thought had weakened Roosevelt had, in actuality, made him much stronger and tempered him into a man uniquely qualified to lead our nation in a time of crisis.

A lot to think about in our image conscious time.  A lot to think about as we ponder the qualities we consider essential in a leader.

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