Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World, by Michael Fullilove, Penguin, RRP$29.95, 480 pages

Much has been written about the arch­itects of the United States’ postwar golden age – men like George C Marshall, Dean Acheson and George Kennan, in books such as The Wise Men (1986) by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. Less has been written about an earlier era of diplomats – envoys, to be precise – who served as President Franklin D Roosevelt’s eyes and ears on special missions in Europe, the Middle East and Russia between February 1940 and August 1941.

If the likes of Marshall and Acheson are seen as the architects of postwar America’s leading role, then Roosevelt’s personal emissaries – Sumner Welles, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, Harry Hopkins, Averell Harriman and Wendell Willkie – were the earlier surveyors who helped chart a course for a reluctant US to venture out into a dangerous world.

Michael Fullilove’s Rendezvous with Destiny begins with President Roosevelt roused from a fitful sleep by an early-hours call from William C Bullitt, his ambassador in Paris. Bullitt reported that Germany’s troops had breached Poland’s frontier and the Luftwaffe was bombarding her cities. The long-expected war had begun. America, however, remained reluctant to re-enter the European fray after the disillusionment of the killing fields of the first world war.

It was Roosevelt’s destiny to undertake a juggler’s array of daunting tasks. He had to prepare the American public for the strife ahead; to shift public discourse about the nature of America’s neutrality; to reassure beleaguered democracies abroad, particularly Britain, of US support for their plight; and, perhaps most importantly, to get a bird’s-eye view of what was going on in the capitals of countries now facing off against Hitler.

How to perform this last task from a wheelchair? Roosevelt despised the state department, and turned instead to a remarkable collection of American originals to be his representatives on high-stakes diplomatic missions. Some see incoherence in FDR’s manoeuvring but not here: Fullilove, who is executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, is unabashed in his regard for Roosevelt, particularly his orchestration of these strong-willed and diverse emissaries.

First up was Welles, the reserved undersecretary of state, who was despised by colleagues and had a closet-full of sexual peccadilloes that would ultimately be his undoing. He was dispatched by FDR early in 1940 to visit Europe, including Berlin, to see if American entry into the war could be averted. In the wake of France’s fall later that year, it was Donovan, future gallivanting soldier and spymaster, who visited an isolated yet proud Britain, and reported back to Roosevelt that Churchill was deserving of American support. It fell to Hopkins, the sickly presidential confidante, to explain the true implications of the Lend-Lease scheme to the sceptical British prime minister.

Harriman, an ambitious and dashing railway tycoon, was sent to London where he would implement Lend-Lease by day and romance Churchill’s daughter-in-law by night. The fifth man, Willkie, FDR’s vanquished opponent in the 1940 election, was beguiled by the president to help convince a wary American public of the righteousness of Britain’s struggle.

These diplomatic missions were filled with visits to military command posts and supply depots by day, then black-tie dinners with leaders, topped off with cigars, brandy and after-hours sexual trysts. It was all desperately romantic and impossibly consequential.

In Rendezvous with Destiny, Fullilove delivers a rare combination of diplomatic thriller and original history, well-paced and expertly told. And the sphinx-like FDR is always at its centre, casting his envoys into the European turmoil with a single purpose: to bring America into the world.

Kurt M Campbell is chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group and former assistant secretary of state for east Asia and the Pacific

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