A Review of “The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D Leahy”

The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt's Chief of StaffThe Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff by Phillips Payson O’Brien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting book on the life and impactful military and political career of Admiral William Lahey. Lahey had an extraordinary naval career, holding a multitude of operational and administrative jobs in the Navy, including all of the top Navy jobs. During his naval career he became friendly with then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt. This relationship with Roosevelt would be rekindled when FDR became President, with Lahey serving Roosevelt in many roles.

The author repeatedly points to Lahey’s many key roles as the world headed to war, and he is not wrong about Admiral Lahey’s many achievements. as well as his central role in all military matters in the Roosevelt Administration. Admiral Lahey served as Chief of Naval Operations, as FDR’s Governor of Puerto Rico, and as the U.S. Ambassador to Vichy France, where his efforts to keep the Vichy government on a diplomatic path that would limit Nazi Germany’s influence largely failed. Lahey was eventually recalled to Washington, where he served as military Chief of Staff to the President, a job described as the precursor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He essentially “directed the traffic”, so to speak, for FDR on all military matters. Lahey, in fact, was the first naval officer to achieve five-star status, and the most senior of all American five stars, regardless of branch. Lahey was also designated as the senior American to the joint British-American military chiefs after U.S. entry into the war against Germany. Lahey’s central role in WWII cannot be in doubt. After the death of FDR President Truman kept him on, and while his influence was never quite the same Lahey was at the center of all major military decisions, including the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, which he strongly opposed. In his central role Lahey was at most of the major allied conferences during WWII, and he was with Roosevelt at Yalta.

As a biography of Lahey I rate the book as excellent. I do question the author’s insistence on denigrating the contributions of other major American military figures in WWII and attempting to build Lahey up at others expense. The author is very hard on George Marshall, criticizing him throughout the book, and minimizing his influence on FDR. Marshall, without question, knew how to gather positive media, as did Douglas MacArthur, but the author was over the top in this effort. He attempted to make Harry Hopkins and Lahey rivals for influence with FDR, but this effort to minimize Hopkins just did not ring true to me. The author seems upset by the lack of historical footprint for Admiral Lahey, and he may have a point, but the constant ripping down of Marshall and others took something away from this effort for me. The description of Lahey’s position on China was, to me, especially convoluted and did not make sense. I saw another reviewer with the same thought who recommended “China 1945” by Richard Bernstein, and I concur. Lahey appears to be more isolationist post-war, and from my vantage point appears largely incorrect in his policy recommendations to Truman on how to deal with the challenge from Stalin.

This book covers some of the most momentous times in U.S. history, and brings a figure largely forgotten by history back to life. Admiral William Lahey led a very dedicated life of service, and I agree that his major contributions to the U.S. war effort have been overlooked. This time in our history had so many gigantic personalities, egos, and talents that it is not a mystery that a behind the scenes operator like Lahey might be lost in the shuffle, but he deserves better. I just wish the author had not made that rehabilitation a zero sum game.

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