Leaders, Maps and Globes

In December 1941, just seventeen days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the National Geographic Society delivered a map cabinet to the White House.  Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed the gift, which was installed in the second floor study where the President usually worked.

Eight decades earlier, just down the hall in the White House, President Abraham Lincoln had directed war efforts from his office.  On the big table around which the Cabinet gathered for meetings, he kept a supply of large maps for ready reference about the different war fronts.  Roosevelt’s new set of maps was considerably more organized and extensive than those available to America’s 16th president.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, also a fan of maps, arrived in Washington on December 22, 1941.  When he and FDR met in the President’s study, Churchill had the opportunity to see and admire the map cabinet.  He himself had brought to Washington a portable version of the more elaborate map room he used in London.  The permanent version had been installed in the annex to 10 Downing Street where it was available to the Prime Minister and his military planning staff.  The caretakers were an elite group of officers with a strict code of conduct and secrecy.

The London map room became the hub of British war planning.  Churchill’s top military aide, General Hastings Ismay, wrote: “Whenever a big battle or critical movement was in progress, it was a temptation to find pretexts for going to the War Room at all hours of the day and night, in order to get the very latest information.  The sensation was not unlike visiting a friend in hospital.  One entered the room hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.  ‘How is the Malta convoy going?’ One would ask, trying not to appear unduly anxious.  The nature of the answer could generally be guessed from the expression of the officer on duty.”[1]

In Washington, the American President admired the British Prime Minister’s traveling map room which was installed next to his bedroom at the White House.  FDR soon ordered his own map room installed on the ground floor of the White House in what was essentially a large closet.  Though FDR visited the Washington version far less than Churchill visited his in London, the White House map was manned around the clock.  About 2 a.m. during a subsequent visit by the Prime Minister to the White House, Churchill ambled down to the map room where the watch officer had thought it convenient to take a nap.  Churchill turned on the lights and perused the maps when the officer suddenly awoke. “Taut watch you keep here, son,” commented the Prime Minister as he continued his examination.”[2]  So secret was the room that not even Vice President Harry Truman would be admitted to it until after he had become President in April 1945.

Like Churchill, FDR had an extensive and detailed understanding of geography –  vital in a war that literally spanned the world.  Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins recalled that FDR “had a first-rate knowledge of geography gained not only from studying his stamps, the usual explanation, but also from being an avid atlas reader.  He had an amazing amount of information about the height of mountains and the depth of oceans, the river and their sources and the plains they watered.”[3]

Before World War II, Roosevelt had seldom flown.  He preferred trains to planes.  Journalist Merriman Smith recalled that “Roosevelt delighted in a slow speed train. He knew the various roadbeds of the country better than some  railroad men. And he knew that reducing the rate of speed meant an easier ride. He also wanted the opportunity to sit by the window of his private car and study the passing countryside. He loved to astound his guests with amazingly detailed knowledge of the geography of the country through which he was “passing.’”[4]

In late 1942, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall decided that the two preeminent Allied leaders needed more than a map.  They needed globes – 50-inch globes that Marshall had made in Chicago and transported to Washington.  That September after a weekend with Churchill at the Prime Minister’s country home, General Dwight D. Eisenhower promoted the project when he wrote Marshall that the Prime Minister “has not been able to secure a larger one [than 30 inches] in England.  It occurred to me that you might like to have someone make inquiries in the United States and, if a larger one is obtainable, you might like to direct its procurement and send it to the Prime Minister as a gesture of the friendship and esteem of the United States War Department.”[5]

That Marshall was able to produce such a globe was due to work already begun by the Office of Strategic Services under Colonel William Donovan.  The American espionage chief saw a chance to do a favor for top Army brass with whom he had a rocky relationship.

Roosevelt received his globe as a Christmas present.  Churchill’s globe was delivered by private plane over a circuitous route by way of South America and Africa.  “We have marched resolutely through this past difficult year,” Churchill wrote gratefully to Marshall, with whom he had frequent conflicts over war strategy, “and it will be of deep interest to me to follow on the Globe the great operations all over the world which will bring us final victory.”[6]  (Even Russian dictator Joseph Stalin needed a globe.  Michael Dobbs wrote: “As the Soviet Union hurled back the Nazi invaders, Stalin had developed an avid interest in political geography.  He had a huge globe installed in the annex to visitors ranging from Molotov to Churchill to Khrushchev.”[7])

Lincoln’s war took place on just half a continent.  Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s war took place around an entire globe.  “Prior to this Fireside Chat of February 23, 1942,” wrote historian Conrad Black, “the White House announced that the President would be referring to many foreign places and asked the public to have maps to hand.  A tremendous demand for maps and atlases inundated the bookstores of the nation.  Well over 60 million Americans, over 80 percent of the eligible adult radio audience, were listening as the President spoke.”[8]


Maps and globes were tools to chart the course of victory and defeat.  Lincoln, the erstwhile surveyor, knew that.   So did Churchill, the erstwhile cavalry officer and war reporter.

[1]  Hastings Ismay, Memoirs, pp. 171-172.

[2]  William Rigdon, White House Sailor, p. 12.

[3]  Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, p. 33.

[4]  Merriman Smith, Thank You, Mr. President: A White House Notebook, p. 37.

[5]  Alfred Chandler, Jr., Editor, The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower: The War Years, p. 567 (Eisenhower to Marshall, September 19, 1942).

[6]  Simon Garfield, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, p. 335.

[7]  Michael Dobbs, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman – From World War to Cold War, p. 248.

[8]  Conrad Black: Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, p. 725.

Posted in Essays