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Historian sheds light on FDR for VE Day documentary

  • Date

    Mon 4 May 20

Franklin D Roosevelt in suit and tie, photographed in black and white

Essex historian Dr Andrew Priest has helped explain President Franklin D Roosevelt's complex role at the end of World War II in a new History Channel documentary commemorating the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

The six-part series, Race to Victory, which will be broadcast in the UK and USA, explores the critical moments and locations where World War II was won and lost.

At the heart of the programmes, created by CIC Media, is the relationship between the US President, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.

Dr Priest, who is Head of the Department of History, features in all six episodes, the first of which will be broadcast in the UK at 9pm on Friday 8 May, 75 years after the War ended in Europe.

Dr Priest, who was inspired to follow a career in US political history after taking a course in the country’s foreign policy when he was a university student, explained why Roosevelt is such a complex character: “He is, in many ways rightly, remembered as a brilliant politician and inspirational leader.

“In the 1930s and 1940s Roosevelt guided the United States through the twin national traumas of the Great Depression and then World War II, and he inspired many people with his eloquence and calm demeanour.

“But he was highly secretive, he kept no diary and did not live long enough to write a memoir,” explained Dr Priest.

“We need to try to have a balanced approach to understanding his place in history and acknowledge that some of the things he did – such as his failure to press for a post-war political order that offered a peaceful end to empire and democracy across the globe - were problematic.”

Dr Andrew Priest, Department of History
"Roosevelt was, in many ways rightly, remembered as a brilliant politician and inspirational leader, but some of the things he did were problematic."
Dr Andrew Priest department of history

In his interviews for the programme, Dr Priest explains Roosevelt’s approach to the war as it took hold in Europe, his attempts to keep the United States out of it, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the alliance with Churchill and Stalin, as well as some of the significant tensions that emerged as victory came nearer and the President’s plans for the post-war world, which he did not live to witness.

Dr Priest believes making history relevant to today’s world is part of the job for a leading academic: “Understanding history can be very powerful but it can also be politicised and used to advance a particular agenda.

“At a time when evidence and expertise are increasingly under threat I think it’s important for historians to cut through as much of this as possible. Having an informed historical debate is an important part of understanding how we got where we are today.”

He is driven too by something that first interested him as an undergraduate student, the worldwide impact of the actions of the leader of the free world: “Any decision an American president makes—or doesn’t make—has potentially huge ramifications and can ripple out across the globe. And it is still striking how many times politicians and officials—many of them highly intelligent—get it wrong.

“Knowing more about an area of the world and its history could help politicians make better decisions about it."

Essex alumnus delves into archives for show research

History graduate Olivia Smith has been working behind the scenes on the History Channel show. She said: "It has been so exciting and busy - the show was only commissioned in January, so we had just over three months to put together a series, including getting all the expert interviews recorded before the country went into lockdown. It's a fascinating public history project to work on and working within a team who wanted to uphold the historical integrity of the series made it oddly easy in such a short period of time."

Olivia started at the production company on a short-term contract working on another television series, but then had her contract extended to become a lead researcher for the whole of this series. Her favourite part of the job was "having a real active hand in the post production". She added: "As it is an archival based series, we would receive a rough cut of the episode through from our edit team but have to edit in different archival footage or images. Sifting through the archives and unearthing footage and photos, I hadn't even seen before and being able to instill them into the series, was certainly a highlight."

Olivia completed a BA and Masters in history at Essex and said this experience had been a huge help: "The research skills I developed from my research masters were vital for this project. It gave me the confidence that I could successfully carry out what was required in the job."