Joseph E. Persico

Joseph E. Persico, B.A.'52

Merging History and Biography

By Paul Grondahl, M.A.'84

At age 78, Joseph E. Persico took on the most demanding assignment of his career: a sweeping history of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his interactions with the military commanders he appointed to lead American forces in World War II. “I told my wife this book was either going to keep me alive or kill me,” said the author, now 83. “Well, I’m still here.”

Roosevelt’s Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II was published May 28 by Random House. The magisterial work merges an expansive military history with an intimate political biography. The 650-page volume includes 70 pages of bibliography and source notes.

Persico’s research techniques are a curious hybrid of old school and new technology. “The material that can be found online now is miraculous,” he said. He read the Marshall Papers (housed in Lexington, Va.) and the Eisenhower Papers (Johns Hopkins University) online from his winter home in Mexico. Persico still takes research notes in longhand on 3x5 index cards and files them in a large box kept under his bed. When the box is full, he starts writing. “The under-the-bed box worked its magic again,” he said.

Roosevelt’s Centurions probes the machinations of FDR as commander-in-chief and adds profiles of the deep bench of talent the president recruited. “He made some brilliant choices,” said Persico. “[George C.] Marshall was FDR’s stout oak and a selfless man, universally respected. Hap Arnold became the founding father of the U.S. Air Forces. The team Roosevelt appointed was so good that they stayed in place throughout the war, while Churchill was firing generals left and right.”

Persico was critical of FDR for contradicting commanders and choosing North Africa for the initial campaign in the European theater: “Churchill saw the Mediterranean as the lifeline of the British Empire, and he was focused on preserving it. He was very persuasive and had so much military expertise that FDR went along with him. It turned out to be a bad decision because the American campaigns into North Africa, Sicily and Italy postponed D-Day and the invasion of Normandy by at least a year and extended the war.”

Still, FDR “was the right commander-in-chief for the time,” Persico said. “It’s hard to argue with victory.”