Craig Shirley on ‘April 1945: The Hinge of History’

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta. (National Archives)

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta. (National Archives)

(CNSNews.com) – Author Craig Shirley, who has written four best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, has now written a history that focuses on American culture and politics in April 1945, which was the month that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, Adolph Hitler committed suicide, and Stalin’s Soviet Union captured Berlin.

The book follows up on his previous work, “December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World.”

“For all intents and purposes, FDR was president of the world in April of 1945,” Shirley said in an interview about the book with CNSNews.com.

“We were supplying the British. We were supplying the Soviet Union. We were fighting the Germans,” he said. Actually, we were fighting the Romanians, too. And we were fighting the Japanese.

“We were truly involved in a global war,” said Shirley.

In his interview with CNSNews.com, Shirley talked about that global war and how it changed history:

Terry Jeffrey: “Hi and welcome to this edition of ‘Online with Terry Jeffrey.’ Our guest today is historian and author Craig Shirley, who has published numerous best-selling books including, ‘Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,’ ‘Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother,’ and ‘December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.’ Today, we are going to talk to him about his new book, ‘April 1945: The Hinge of History.’ Craig, in recent days, the Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula have been in the news a great deal. But back in February 1945, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union met in the Crimea. What happened there?”

Craig Shirley: “Well, that was of course, Yalta, which, you know, I always thought, Terry, why FDR agreed to travel ten thousand miles and live with–he and his staff–lousy accommodations, lousy housing. Of course, it was a dilapidated old villa left over from the czars. And it hadn’t been taken care of and it hadn’t been kept up. And why they went there to be berated by Stalin is–I have no idea why.

“I mean, look, for all intents and purposes, FDR was president of the world in April of 1945. We were supplying the British. We were supplying the Soviet Union. We were fighting the Germans. Actually, we were fighting the Romanians, too. And we were fighting the Japanese. We were truly involved in a global war. We were supplying everybody with arms and foodstuffs. And why FDR agreed to it? I know he had staff around him that was soft on Stalin. Stalin was an SOB, as we all know. He killed millions of people. But he had a saying one time: He said, ‘If you stick the bayonet in and you hit mush, keep pushing farther. And if you hit metal, then pull back.’ That was his philosophy: Always on offense, always advancing, especially after the German advance on the Soviet Union.”

Jeffrey: “So, diplomatically, was Yalta a victory for Stalin?”

Shirley: “Yes it was. Sure it was. We gave up whole chunks of Eastern Europe. We had no right to give them up to Stalin. He had no claim on them and we let people live in agony and horrors for fifty-some-odd years until Reagan freed the Eastern European countries and the Warsaw Pact countries. But they lived from 1945 up until 1987-88 in stark terror and death and destruction. It was a terrible thing. As brilliant as FDR was as a wartime commander, on this one he gets, in my book, he gets a grade F.”

Jeffrey: “Only two months after that meeting in Yalta, FDR went down to his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. What happened then?”

Shirley: “Well, he was posing for pictures. He went to Warm Springs often because, of course, there was a sanitarium there with natural, bubbling, warm spring waters and he thought it might relieve him of the polio he had. It was a sanitarium for polio survivors and he went down there every chance he went. And, of course, there was the Roosevelt family homestead there, too. It had been there from the 1800s and he was posing for pictures–I mean, posing for drawings and was reviewing his mail. He looked very healthy. He saw his doctor that morning and his doctor said he looked healthy and chipper and well and then later that morning, he had a terrible stroke. The last words he ever uttered were, ‘I think I have a headache.’ Then he collapsed and was taken into his bedroom where he succumbed about two or three hours later.”

Jeffrey: “And Eleanor, his wife, was not with him.”

Shirley: “No, she was not. She actually flew down to Warm Springs so she could ride the funeral train back in the Ferdinand Magellan. That was his favorite club car and he used it many, many times. In fact, he went to Hyde Park, something like 1,000 times during his presidency, always in the Ferdinand Magellan.”

Jeffrey: “When he was down there in Warm Springs, when he died, was there a woman with him?”

Shirley: “Yes, yes, his old mistress. She was down there visiting him, unbeknownst to Eleanor, of course. But her secret trip was actually arranged by Roosevelt’s daughter. So, she went down surreptitiously to visit FDR and she was with him. He practically died in her arms.”

Jeffrey: “Was there any scandal at the time about that, the fact that–”

Shirley: “No, nothing, nothing, nothing. No discussion whatsoever.”

Jeffrey: “Did the press know about it or did they cover it up?”

Shirley: “Yes, oh sure, the press knew about it. The press knew. Of course, you know, he was handicapped from the waist down, so you don’t know what he could do emotionally, as far as his physicality. But it was certainly an emotional–yeah, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was her name. She was Eleanor’s secretary one time until she found out–Eleanor found out–she was having an affair with Franklin Roosevelt and fired her in 1917, something like that.”

Jeffrey: “But she continued to be his mistress?”

Shirley: “Yes, she continued to be. But whether or not it was physical or emotional, we’ll never know. But she was with him surreptitiously when Roosevelt died. And Eleanor found out about it and not only that, found out that her own daughter had arranged for this woman to go visit her husband.”

Jeffrey: “How’d she react to that?”

Shirley: “You know, there’s no record of Eleanor engaging in any outburst or anything else like that. Not in her diaries, not in newspaper accounts, nothing. She loyally stood by Franklin his whole life, through the presidency, recreated the office of the first lady, was an important first lady, one of the most important first ladies in the history of the United States. But there’s no record–as a matter of fact, Eleanor’s daughter and her mother went to the funeral proceedings at the White House and Hyde Park together. The two of them went together, even though she had betrayed her own mother.”

Jeffrey: “So, you mentioned that Roosevelt had polio; he spent much of his time as an adult in a wheelchair.”

Shirley: “Yes.”Jeffrey: “They could stand him up occasionally and he would do that for show on occasion?”

Shirley: “Yes, with his braces.”

Jeffrey: “But did he smoke cigarettes?”

Shirley: “Oh, God, that was probably what killed him. You know, he was only 63 when he died. He was only 63 and up until recently, he’d been very physically active, but in the last couple of months, he had kind of taken a turn for the worst. Maybe it was towards the end of the war or whatever it was. It was a heavy burden to bear, the war and the Great Depression and the Washington bureaucracy and a cantankerous White House staff and four sons in the military in combat, and a cantankerous wife, and all those other things. But he smoked two to three packs of filterless Luckies a day, if you can imagine.”

Jeffrey: “Craig, in the book, you talk a lot about the popular culture and what was going on in America in 1945, as the war is starting to come to an end. Frank Sinatra obviously was a huge singing star at that point. What was his involvement in the war?”

Shirley: “Nothing. He pulled some shenanigans and worked with his local draft board there in New Jersey and there was actually a rumor at the time, that he had punctured his own eardrum with a sewing needle, so that he could escape military service and he could continue making a million dollars a year with his music or with his movies. Here he was in ‘From Here to Eternity’ as a military hero, even though he didn’t see combat. But, in fact, he was not a military hero and never saw combat in World War II.”

Jeffrey: “But there were some other pop culture figures that were involved in the war.”

Shirley: “Oh, sure, sure, many of them. Bob Feller, he enlisted almost the day after Pearl Harbor. He went to the Pacific, saw action. There were many, many: Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams gave up four years of baseball to fly for the Marine Corps. There were a lot of celebrities, actors, and baseball players and such who joined the military gleefully, happily to defend their country. It wasn’t really–it was really more of–it wasn’t about the food, it wasn’t about the pay, it was a little about comradery, but it was a lot about patriotism.”

Jeffrey: “And while things like that were going on, what was Gen. Patton doing?”

Shirley: “Gen. Patton was one of our greatest generals. Gen. Patton was leading the 3rd Army, storming into Germany, picking up the pieces of the Normandy invasion where he was reinstated as they were in France and the Germans always thought that Patton was our greatest military leader and there’s a lot of evidence that he was. He took five, ten, fifteen, twenty miles of ground a day and didn’t go back ever and recapture all the ground and, of course, his army discovered several Nazi death camps and Patton, of course, he’d throw up and wept at some of the horrific carnage that the Germans did to these Jewish and Polish and Gyspies and other–anybody else who stood in the way of the Third Reich was monstrously murdered.”

Jeffrey: “So, after that Yalta meeting, you had Patton’s army moving into Germany from the West and you had Stalin’s army moving into Germany through Poland–”

Shirley: “From the East.”

Jeffrey: “–from the East.”

Shirley: “Right.”

Jeffrey: “And both–”

Shirley: “Also, the Canadians and French were moving from the West, but the bulk of the army, was the 3rd Army, was Patton’s army.”

Jeffrey: “But then on the other side of the world, you had Douglas MacArthur.”

Shirley: “Douglas MacArthur, in my opinion, again, is–you have to go back to the days of Mark Antony, Agrippa, Julius Caesar, to find such fine military commanders. FDR was very, very fortunate to be surrounded by the finest military commanders ever assembled. Nimitz and King, and so many others—Eisenhower–and so many others. And of course, what MacArthur was doing was brilliant. He was bypassing Japanese strongholds up the Asian Peninsula and attacking their soft spots and cutting off their chow lines as he was heading toward–as he retook the Philippians and then headed toward Japan and was engaged in the final fight of Okinawa, at this time. And Okinawa was going to be the final staging island for the final invasion of the mainland of Japan.”

Jeffrey: “Did that island-hopping strategy that MacArthur pursued save American lives from dying in combat?”

Shirley: “Yes, yes, most certainly. It most certainly did, most certainly did. You know, I’ve always thought MacArthur’s administration of Japan after World War II was absolutely brilliant. To take a feudal culture out of the past and bring it into the present without an uprising or revolution, but with peace and cooperation was absolutely brilliant and the rebuilding of Japan in just a few short years–and why he never got the Nobel Peace Prize. I mean, we know why he didn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize, but he deserved it. He deserved it for what he did in Japan. What he did in Japan put what Eisenhower did in Europe to shame.« 

Jeffrey: “And the Japanese are still seeing the benefits of it today.”

Shirley: “Yes, and they loved Douglas MacArthur and they honor him in every way possible–”

Jeffrey: “In South Korea too, by the way.”

Shirley: “Yes, that’s right, that’s right.”

Jeffrey: “So history should look back at MacArthur as one of the great generals in the history of the human race.”

Shirley: “I think so, I think so. He was not only–MacArthur was unusual. He was not only a very good, a brilliant military commander, he was a brilliant peacetime commander. It was very unusual. Eisenhower was not a good peacetime commander. You know, separate spheres of influence over Germany just didn’t work.”

Jeffrey: “Right. And we saw the ramifications of that for a long time.”

Shirley: “Yes, we did.”

Jeffrey: “The way the war ended in the Pacific was quite dramatically different from MacArthur’s island-hopping strategy. We dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki–”

Shirley: “Yes.”

Jeffrey: “And, fortunately, those were the last times that atomic weapons have been exploded in battle.”

Shirley: “Right, yes, fortunately, yes.”

Jeffrey: “What do you think is the lesson we learned from that?”

Shirley: “Well, they always said, Truman and others always said: We had to kill thousands in order to save millions. I don’t know if that’s right; I’d like to hope it’s right. It was a terrible, terrible, terrible thing that we did. I wish Truman had first demonstrated the power of the bomb in an open field, where Hirohito–in Tokyo Bay—where Hirohito could watch it, watch the power of it, and have the chance to think about what it would do to his countrymen and to his country. Just one demonstration, just one demonstration, and maybe avoid the horrors of Nagasaki or Hiroshima.”

Jeffrey: “Right. It’s quite a contrast to the great man you’ve written so much about, President Reagan, who was able to get the Berlin Wall to come down and free Eastern Europe without firing a shot.”

Shirley: “Yeah, without firing a shot, but he was a master negotiator. He’d learned how to negotiate from his days as president of a Screen Actors Guild, he knew how to make the other guy blink. Historians have not studied Reagan’s morale speeches enough to the American people. These are very, very, important, very, very significant, because Reagan knew something very important: He knew that a happy people are a productive people and a productive people will create the armaments and the material he needed to stand up to the Soviet Union. So, all of his morale speeches were very, very important to–you know, I mean, we felt good about ourselves with all of Reagan’s speeches. We felt lousy about ourselves when Carter was president. We felt lousy about ourselves when Barack Obama was president.”

Jeffrey: “Yes, we did. You point out in the book about 1945 that Ronald Reagan was a supporter of FDR back then.”

Shirley: “Yes, he sure was. He voted for him four times. His very first vote for president was in 1932 and he adopted–At the 36th convention, FDR talked about the rendezvous with destiny, and Reagan adopted that, became moved by it, and adopted it for all of his important speeches–had the phrase ‘rendezvous with destiny.’”

Jeffrey: “But by the time he became president, his philosophy of government was quite different from FDR’s.”

Shirley: “Yes, but not his philosophy about morale of the American people. I mean, you got to give Eisenhower one thing that he did do during the Great Depression, was that he did give people hope or at least he tried to give people hope. He was inspirational. He was the first modern president and he understood the bully pulpit and the bully pulpit is for many things, but most importantly, it’s for the morale of the American people.”

Jeffrey: “So, would you say that FDR does in fact rank as one of the great presidents in American history?”

Shirley: “That’s my own personal opinion. I think, you know, I abide by–There’s a book out some years ago called ‘Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History’ by John Patrick Diggins, who ironically was a lefty professor at Berkeley back in the 60s and he was part of the Free Speech Movement. He moved to the right through the 70s and 80s. And he wrote that the true measure of a president is to save or free many, many people, and by that criteria, he listed George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Regan as our four greatest presidents.”

Jeffrey: “Sounds pretty reasonable.”

Shirley: “Yeah.”

Jeffrey: “Craig Shirley, author of ‘April 1945: The Hinge Of History, thank you very much.”

Shirley: “Thank you, thank you, Terry, very, very much.”

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