Thirty five years ago I came to Washington ostensibly to work on a graduate degree. This was at the height of the Cold War. With a degree in political science and an interest in national security issues, I was steeped in the writings of the theorists and leaders who had shaped the age: Kennan, Brodie, Kahn, Schelling, Wohlstetter, Kaufmann, Marshall, Fulbright, Acheson, McNamara, Schlesinger, and Kissinger. What really motivated me coming to Washington was the desire to see how power was wielded and decisions made in the most prominent city of the leading country in the world. I wanted to be part of the process and to work with the great minds that were devising those strategies and executing the policies that were winning the Cold War.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to support, advise, brief or exchange views with cabinet secretaries, national security advisors, agency heads, chiefs of the military services, ambassadors and senior Members of Congress. I have worked both in and for government. For the last 17 years I have had the good fortune to be able to participate in the policy making process from a position in the “fifth estate,” the think tank world.
I arrived in town with a good background in political and strategic theory, military history, international relations, economics, quantitative methods, defense planning and government operations. It only improved as I earned my Master’s and Ph.D. But nothing in my background, educational or personal readings prepared me for what it was like to work for national leaders and senior government officials. These individuals were extremely bright, if not brilliant, conscientious, hard working and dynamic. For the most part they were also extraordinarily egocentric, competitive, driven and, on occasion, supercilious. As I discovered early in my Washington sojourn, the most brilliant policy formulation or exquisitely crafted implementation strategy was worth precisely nothing if you could not get the blessing of one of these important personages.
You may ask what this has to do with the best book I read in 2011. Quite a lot, actually. To put it bluntly, when I came to town there was no course on the care and management of enormous personalities. I have lectured at the National War College as well as many of the military’s senior service schools. Nowhere is there such a course. They maintain the pretence that policy making and its implementation can be conducted free of any recognition of the personal psychology, quirks, idiosyncrasies and belief systems of senior national leaders.
Were I to organize such a course, the core reading would be Andrew Roberts’ Masters and Commanders. The central focus of this book is the most successful military partnership in history: that between Great Britain and the United States during World War Two. But it is much more than that. It is equally a story of people. There are the two war leaders, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the Masters and their staffs, notably U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall and Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Chief of the U.K. Imperial General Staff, the Commanders. There are also the other senior civilian and military leaders that constituted the core critical national decision making cadre and included such shy and retiring figures as Bernard Montgomery, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Anthony Eden, Cordell Hull, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, Ernest King and Henry “Hap” Arnold.
In particular, it is a study of the interactions between principals and their staffs. Masters and Commanders makes a strong case that the first rule of leadership is to dominate one’s staff and the most important aspect of staff work is control of their principals. Given what we have learned in recent decades regarding Churchill’s approach to decision making and his overall mental state it may not strike the reader as too surprising how much of Alan Brooks’ time and energy, as well as that of the senior staff, was spent trying to manage the great man and even contain the damage he could do. What is less well-recognized is the extent to which Marshall and the other senior U.S. military and civilian leaders did the same. For his part, Roosevelt was not about to cede to the military control over America’s grand strategy for the war.
Much of the book deals with the fascinating interplay within and among the American and British staffs. There were rancorous and protracted debates over almost every major decision from the precedence accorded to the war in Europe, the sequencing of military operations, the timing of the invasion of continental Europe, the alliance with the Soviet Union, the treatment of defeated Axis countries and the goals of the strategic bombing campaigns. Often the most intense rivalries did not stem from different national interests but from the desire to protect or advance the interests of a particular military service. Resolving them depended less on facts and arguments and more on an understanding of the egos involved.
Roberts goes to some pains in his conclusions to point out that an important reason why the process between the masters and the commanders in both Great Britain and the United States worked so successfully was because they were set in the context of democratic political systems and bounded by democratic institutions. These constrained the behavior of the masters and provided safe and legitimate avenues for discussion and even dissent for the commanders. In the end that is why Churchill and Roosevelt got it right and why Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin’s successors did not. This also helps to explain the failures of the regimes in Iraq, Libya and Egypt and why the fate of those in North Korea, Iran and Cuba are all but sealed. When staffs cannot tell truth to power the end is inevitable.
Find Archived Articles: