A Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time
Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-Winning American biographer and historian. She is the author of biographies on FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, LBJ, the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree. She earned a Ph.D. in government at Harvard University.
BY SCOTT FORTIER
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the father of our beloved nation who brought it from chaos to order within his twelve years at presidency. This biography on FDR told his story just before he entered the White House until his death. This book discussed the important people who influenced his life during this time and the hardships Roosevelt endured. One of the main hardships Roosevelt went through was his horrific condition of polio he received while swimming one day. “The morning after his swim, his temperature was 102 degrees and he had trouble moving his left leg. By afternoon, the power to move his right leg was also gone, and soon he was paralyzed from the waist down.”1 This was only one of the struggles Roosevelt suffered through his years of presidency. It ended is whole aura of being athletic and changed his life dramatically. FDR also went through times of war, family issues and personal drama which will be explained in great detail.
The book began with a typical start to one of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt’s days, but took a massive turn of events when Franklin received a daunting phone call. On May 9, 1940, Hitler and his armies attacked Britain, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Bombs fell on Brussels, Amsterdam, Chilham, Rotterdam and the French cities of Dunkirk, Calais and Metz on the same day. For three hours, Roosevelt pondered the situation and set up a meeting with his advisors and other foreign leaders. The next morning, he met with generals, chiefs, admirals, secretaries and undersecretaries to discuss how poorly prepared the United States was for war with Germany. Hours after the meeting, the United States was ambushed on the western front by Germany. “The offensive Germany had launched the morning of May 10 along the Western front was supported by 136 divisions; the United States could, if necessary, muster merely five fully equipped divisions.”2 It was going to be a highly uneven battle because Germany was completely prepared, while the United States had nothing to offer as an Army. Although the U.S. Army stood 18th in the world, they possessed almost no munitions industries at all. Their mass production of automobiles, washing machines, and other household appliances stood number 1, but their techniques of producing weapons of war were underdeveloped. Later when Holland surrendered and Belgium and France were defeated by Germany, Roosevelt decided to help the Allied Nations. The United States joined the fight despite several problems at home such as the Great Depression. As miracles are proven to happen, Roosevelt’s struggle with helping the British was answered when Hitler decided to take a three day vacation. This little break gave the Allies enough time to build up supplies in Britain to prevent Germany from taking over. To help him with all of these difficult decisions he had to make, FDR received some much needed help from his wife, Eleanor. She was the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt’s brother and they were a well-known family. By age eight her elder sister Anna died. When she was 10, her father was drunk and killed himself by jumping out of the window. Filled with depression, this condition would be carried on all throughout her marriage. It could have been a possibility, among other reasons, why the two weren’t very close to each other personally.
The first President to do so, Roosevelt planned on running for a third term in a row. Nobody knew he was making this decision and everybody, including his own key political system, had not known or wanted him to run again. He did so because he felt that it would discourage talent from within the party by closing the door to new appointments for a new administration. Along with several advantages in running for another term, there were also many downfalls and difficult decisions to be made. In the summer of 1940, Winston Churchill caused great turmoil for Roosevelt. The British were nagging for help and requesting destroyers. These destroyers were needed to protect merchant ships from German submarines. “‘Destroyers were also needed,’ Churchill told Roosevelt, ‘to repel the expected German invasion.’”3 Churchill acted like a chicken with its head cut off because he was trying so desperately to attain destroyers after losing several in Dunkirk. The United States ended up giving 50 destroyers to Britain in exchange for nine strategic bases, which was a great deal on paper and in reality. Even though the newspapers and public were in favor of this deal, it made America look vulnerable as it went to war with Germany. This proved that the United States was not neutral when it came to relations with Germany. Another difficult decision made by Roosevelt was passing an unpopular law that reinstated another military draft for the possible war coming up. When Roosevelt wasn’t there to make this decisions. Eleanor filled in for him on many occasions. Eleanor was involved in the center of racial controversy by speaking at the Convention of Sleeping Porters, a mostly negro group. She familiarized herself with the needs of blacks in the 1930s and was very instrumental in getting Roosevelt to sign an Anti-Discrimination provision on Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. Eleanor spoke publicly to let everybody know about racial equality and Roosevelt was moved by her efforts as black voters moved into big cities like New York and Chicago. By laying low on his wife’s efforts, Roosevelt maintained viability in a Southern-dominated Congress. At the request of Negro leaders, FDR solved the issue of discrimination in the Armed Forces. Once the Negro problems were dealt with, the British were found to be in more trouble than ever. Britain told the United States that they could no longer pay for shipping and supplies and not many were in favor of loaning money to the British. Letting Britain borrow our supplies during their time of need was summarized by Roosevelt with his quote, “I don‘t want $15 -- I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. If it goes through the fire intact, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it.”4 This proposal was known as “lend-lease” and it was presented during a speech which became known as “The Arsenal of Democracy.” After hearing this proposal, Americans were in favor of it. His decision was a smart one and a kind one.
Broken hearts and love affairs are a normal part of some people’s lives. Even our most popular President was corrupted by these actions. Throughout years involved in the government, Roosevelt had a secretary and long-time friend named Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. She was 41 years old and in love with Roosevelt; she regarded herself as his other wife. Once he contracted polio, Missy’s duties expanded greatly to doing all of the chores that a housewife would do. When Roosevelt was elected governor in 1928, Missy moved in with the family as well. She acted as his wife, understanding his nature perfectly and having several things in common with him. Later known as the “super secretary,” Missy was always there for Roosevelt and even went on trips with him. Eventually, at the age of 46, she died due to nervous breakdowns due to a cerebral embolism and a rheumatic heart disease. Another woman in Roosevelt’s life was Lucy Page Mercer, who he had an affair with beginning in 1918. Eleanor found out about her after she discovered a packet of love letters from Lucy in Roosevelt’s suitcase. Although Eleanor would grant him a divorce, Roosevelt said no because his mother, Sara, threatened him with disinheritance if he left his marriage. After that ordeal, they started to sleep in separate rooms and ended all marital relations. This was a huge turning point in Roosevelt’s life turning his relationship with Eleanor from personal to professional.
In the third part of the book, the reader learns that death is never a good thing, and the Roosevelt family experienced much of it within their families and during times of war. He went into a state of grief after his mother died and it bothered Eleanor to know that she wasn’t troubled by it. In Eleanor’s family, Hall, her younger brother and her remaining family member, died from liver failure due to alcoholism. All of these deaths in their lives troubled each of them enough to make them become a little bit closer to each other. It was a period of grief in the Roosevelt family, and soon enough, a wonderful man named Winston Churchill came to brighten up their lives. On December 22, 1941, Churchill came to visit the White House and Roosevelt got along very well with him. “The Arcadia Conference” had been set up when the two stayed up late until two or three in the morning smoking cigars and drinking. Although most Americans wanted to get back at Japan for Pearl Harbor, the two reaffirmed their former plan to deal with Germany first. As Japan was busy conquering Malaya and the Philippines, the Russians were losing more territory to the Germans. The upside was that winter was coming soon to slowly wither away at the enemy. Back in Britain, the first American troops arrived to discuss the best way to defeat Hitler. General Marshall and Eisenhower argued in favor of a big European front and disagreed with scattering the Allied Forces. Roosevelt, however, received a plan to have a cross-channel attack in March which he liked. Hopkins went to seek Churchill’s approval for the plan in London. Even though he leaned towards smaller operations, he went along with Roosevelt. Asking Eleanor to accompany him on a two-week tour of factories and army camps in September 1942, Roosevelt agreed to go along with his two female cousins as well. They went to various plants in Detroit, Minnesota, and the West Coast. Because over 5 million men were overseas fighting, the amount of women used in labor was significant. Eleanor recorded that it was a wonderful experience to see and record everything going on. In 1943, Roosevelt spent time in Casablanca with Winston Churchill discussing about top secret things in their meetings. During the winter, Russia lost several lives during battles such as the Battle of Stalingrad against Germany. Risking their lives, Russians trapped 300,000 German soldiers without food or supplies. “In this single battle, the Russians had lost more than one million men, more than the United States would lose in the entire war.”5 Josef Stalin reminded Roosevelt and Churchill that Russia was enduring more casualties than both Britain and the United States combined and that he wanted to open up a second front to divert the Germans away from the Russians. Roosevelt agreed with Stalin, but still believed that a cross-channel attack was the way to go. With all of these decisions being made without her involvement, Eleanor was living her own life making the same mistakes as FDR. She embarked on a long and dangerous trip to cheer up soldiers in the South Pacific, but in actuality she went to see her young friend Joseph Lash. Eleanor had feelings for him and even said that she wanted to be with him when the war was over. It is a sign of Eleanor and FDR drifting apart even more.
With Roosevelt’s health taking a turn for the worst, Anna, his daughter, came to stay with her father permanently in the White House. She took care of Roosevelt and did things that a wife may even do. Eleanor was troubled and even a little bit jealous of another woman coming in and taking her role away from her. Eventually, Anna grew so concerned that she arranged a check-up at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Dr. Howard Bruenn, a young cartiologist, was shocked to find that Franklin’s heart was enlarged with a very dangerous buildup of fluid. The Doctor prescribed digitalis and diagnosed congestive heart failure. While Roosevelt was ill, Eisenhower took over and lost over 6,600 lives on the first invasion of D-Day, which was less than expected. This whole experience was one of the worst in American history. “The wreckage was vast and startling. Men were floating in the water, lying on the beach; nearly nine thousand were dead.”6 It was utterly gruesome to see dead bodies and destruction all over the beach. When D-Day was finally over, the election in which Roosevelt was running for a fourth term took place. In January 20, 1945, Roosevelt managed to give his Inaugural Speech and he attended the festivities having almost collapsed from exhaustion. After the parties, the “big three” including Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in the Black Sea where he brought Anna. Roosevelt wanted the United Nations to have equal votes for all and he also wanted Russia to help Japan. Churchill wanted to keep the British Empire and France as allies so that Europe would not be dominated by the Soviet Union, while Stalin was interested in the borders of nations. Besides his plans with the “big three,” Roosevelt had several other plans in mind to accomplish. He planned trips to London, the Middle East and Asia with Eleanor. Unfortunately, none of this would happen because Roosevelt died after a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. He spent a few hours in the hospital before passing away. The father of our nation’s life was cut short and he left us all in a great setting of peace.
The wonderful life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended in a very saddening way, but his years alive were some of the greatest this nation had ever seen. “For the millions who adored him and for those who despised him, an America without Roosevelt seemed almost inconceivable.”7 All of the time and work he invested into being President proved that he was one of the best. He fixed almost everything that was wrong and changed our nation’s bad habits into good ones by adopting new deals and reform acts. He also made great military decisions when the time came for war between the Allies and the Great Nations. Roosevelt was a great man in our history and was definitely praised enough for all of his good doings by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Doris Kearns Goodwin adores Roosevelt and showcases his accomplishments, all while acknowledging his failures and disappointments as well. All of her years studying and finding evidence for this book throughout history has made this biography extraordinary. This book gives all of the great information and each background story that occurred during his years just before the White House all the way to his death in 1945. It also gives insight into Roosevelt’s personal life with Eleanor, his children, his partners in politics, and with his affair. One weakness of this book is that the chronology of events can seem jumbled at times and it goes on tangents, but besides that, it was an excellent read.
In one of two book reviews, Goodwin is praised for giving a lifetime’s worth of effort into this book. Even though this book is a long read and it may take you a week to finish, it is worth reading. “Doris Kearns Goodwin, in this massive book, has made it central to her account of the WWII years.”8 The way she writes this book seems to flow together as if it were a novel written to describe something amazing. The other review tells how Goodwin keeps the reader informed about the whole war, but still focuses on the American front. One thing this book does is analyze the depth between Roosevelt and Eleanor’s relationship. It also talks about two major events in his life which were his conquest of polio and his affair with Lucy Mercer.
The 1930s may have been the most influential time period in our nation’s history. There were many events such as the Great Depression, which caused great turmoil, along with the war. There was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who turned that chaos into a more peaceful way of life with the New Deal and other reform acts. For the next several years, the United States was put in a good place, but as of right now the economy is in a horrible situation. The impact this era had on today included the lessons learned and the experience. With all of the war decisions and all of the decisions made in politics, we have to use those that worked and apply them to methods today.
1. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time. New York, New York, 1994. 16-17.
Scott Andres Fortier is a junior at Irvine High School and his main passion is to play professional soccer in Europe when he grows up. He has been a successful student in the past being on honor roll and wishes to go to a high-level UC for soccer and studies.
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