I have always loved to read about FDR, one of my favorite Presidents. Being a fan of presidential libraries and having done some research in a few in the past, I have vivid memories of the time I spent at his inspiring Presidential Library at Hyde Park. I was therefore very interested in Bret Baier’s latest book, not only because it covers a period of contemporary history – World War II – for which I have an unquenchable intellectual thirst, but also because he dove into the presidential archives, a real treasure trove for anyone eager to fully understand the magnitude of the accomplishments of those larger than life Commanders in chief who lead America at crucial times.
The title of Bret Baier’s book Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II refers to the Tehran Conference (1943), where the Big Three (FDR, Churchill and Stalin) agreed on the necessity to open a second front on the West – with Operation Overlord – to relieve some pressure on the Soviet troops, which occurred on June 6, 1944. But only a quarter of the book is devoted to the historic conference.
In other circumstances, I might have cried foul and denounced the use of a catchy subtitle as a marketing ploy. But not this time, as this book covers so much more than those fateful days in Tehran. The author is very generous in his description of a man who overcame the crucible of adversity and lead his nation in the most perilous times. Under his pen, Baier masterfully depicts FDR as one of the most inspirational figures, 75 years after his death.
At 39 years old, on a beautiful summer day, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fell victim to poliomyelitis. Independent of fortune, he would have earned the right to retire and spend the rest of his life in the bucolic and comfortable surroundings of Hyde Park. Most people would have. But he chose otherwise, embarking on the path that lead him to be elected Governor of New York and later President of the United States. His wife Eleanor and his closest advisor, Louis Howe, observed that “[…] the motivation to heal and even thrive had to come from FDR’s sense that he could follow his ambitions.”
This passage reminded me of another excellent book I recently devoured, Sailing True North by retired Admiral James Stavridis, in which he writes: “[…] in developing real resilience, it is important for all of us to have the inner conversation that says, “I refuse to be a victim. I will not blame others. I will prevail over the hardest of circumstances. And if I don’t succeed initially, I will try again and again and yet again.””
This attitude and mindset infused every actions or decisions FDR took, whether it was through personal tragedy, national financial crisis, responding to the most brutal attack launched against his country at Pearl Harbor or when dealing with capricious and difficult allies.
One of the things that struck me the most in this book was the superhuman qualities of the main protagonist, who often went above and beyond the limits of his physical capacities to meet his counterparts and the challenges they had to confront. Even Stalin, a man not prone to shed a tear in front of suffering, “[…] felt chastened when he saw the extent of his infirmity.” But FDR’s health wasn’t the only one overtaxed by the war effort. Winston Churchill, the legendary British warlord, once wandered in the room of General Eisenhower at night “[…] delirious with a 102-degree fever.” Much can be learned from their resilience and sense of duty while being in the grips of infirmity, disability or illness.
Finally, Bret Baier hits an important mark for any author writing about leadership. He puts “the reader in the room”, right along those phenomenal characters. You witness FDR personally placing a phone call to get diapers for his grandson, while babysitting the baby unexpectedly at the White House. I couldn’t help but laugh when I read about Winston Churchill dropping by a local restaurant close to Shangri-La (the presidential retreat who later became Camp David) in Maryland. He decided to order a beer and put coins in the jukebox, while President Roosevelt waited in the car. Imagine the scene. Also, I couldn’t help but shed a tear when the Fox News Chief Political Anchor described the scene of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s departure from Hyde Park in the summer of 1939, after having completed their visit to the United States. FDR was aware that the royal couple was heading back to the gathering storm and I found it very touching, notably because I’m a dye in the wool monarchist.
I cannot speak for others, but these are the type of details I love to find in a good history book.
There are many other aspects I would have liked to outline, but I will finish this review by recommending this thrilling book to anyone seeking a truly inspiring story to guide us in the troubled times we are living. As FDR would tell his niece, you become fearless if you act fearlessly. A valuable lesson to retain when life throws you a couple of curveballs.
I hope and pray that Bret Baier will write another book about an American President soon. Engaging writers like him are a rarity to be fully appreciated.
Bret Baier, Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II, New York, William Morrow, 2019, 448 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Peter Hubbard, Molly Gendell and Sharyn of Harper Collins Publishers for their generous assistance.