Sunday, April 12, 2015

April 12, 1945- The Day America's Father Died

by Nomad

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the death one of America's greatest presidents. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's passing left the nation not only struck dumb with grief but also a world poised on a new and dangerous age.


Shock and Disbelief


On this day seventy years ago, one of America's most beloved president died suddenly at the "Little White House," his Warm Springs, Georgia retreat since the 1920s.

Shortly after lunch, the care-ridden president had sat in the living room of his cottage, signing letters and reviewing documents. He was sitting for his portrait, reportedly engaged in a lively conservation.
Then, without warning, he was seized by a sharp pain in his head and collapsed. He slumped backward in his chair in an apparent coma. His staff carried him to his bedroom. Doctors were summoned but there was very little that could be done.
In a few hours- at about 3:30 p.m- the 63-year-old president would be dead from a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

Grace Tully, the president's private secretary for seventeen years,  described her own feelings:
My reaction of the moment was one of complete lack of emotion. It was as if my whole mind and sense of feeling had been swept away. The shock was unexpected and the actuality of the event was outside belief. Without a word or a glance toward the others present, I walked into the bedroom, leaned over and kissed the President lightly on the forehead.
Then I walked out on the porch and stood word­less and tearless. In my heart were prayers and, finally, in my mind came thoughts, a flood of them drawn from seventeen years of acquaintance, close association and reverent admiration. Through them, one recurred constantly - that the Boss had always shunned emotionalism and that I must, for the immediate present at least, behave in his pattern. I did, for a matter of hours.
The News of the Death of the President
The journalist I.F Stone captured the feeling of shock and angst of the moment.
There was a commotion in the newsroom. A copyboy ran out of the wire-room with a piece of United Press copy in his hand. That first flash, "The President died this afternoon," seemed incredible; like something in a nightmare, far down under the horror was the comfortable feeling that would wake to find it was all a dream...
The president's death was publicly announced at 5:48 o'clock. The shock waves radiated outwards. When Winston Churchill heard the news, he said later, he compared it to having "been struck a physical blow."
As the New York Times reported, in less than two hours following the official announcement, Vice President Harry S. Truman of Missouri took the oath as the thirty-second President.
Reporter Stone describes the mood of the New York liberals on that night.
Later when work was done I went to a meeting of liberals in an apartment on Washington Square. It was a gloomy gathering, much too gloomy to honor so buoyant a spirit as Mr. Roosevelt's. Some felt that with his passing the Big Three [the US, USSR and Great Britain] would split up, that hope of a new world organization was dim. One of those present reported, apropos, that an automobile company official in Detriot told a delegation of visiting newspapermen, "Next we fight the Soviet Union.".... Everybody seemed to feel that trouble, serious trouble, lay ahead.
It was a moment of profound prognostication for the reporter. Whether he realized it or not, a new Age of both confrontation and cooperation had indeed begun.


Modern Speculation

All kinds of conspiracies have been suggested about Roosevelt's death, from murder to the more preposterous theory of suicide. 
This discussion about the president's passing has in fact gone on for years. 

Authors of the book, FDR’s Deadly Secret, have suggested that the official story of Roosevelt's death was intended to cover up the fact that the president had actually died of cancer. They contend that this cancer- a melanoma, a malignant skin cancer had spread from his forehead to his brain. They also argue that the cancer "had deleterious effects on his mental as well as physical health."

In January 1944 FDR began complaining of headaches in the evening. "He seemed strangely tired, even in the morning hours; he occasionally nodded off during a conversation; once, he blacked out half-way through signing his name to a letter, leaving a long scrawl"
As another cites an example:
On March 1, 1945, Roosevelt had given a speech to Congress, reporting on his recent trip to Yalta to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. During the speech, Roosevelt appeared confused: He skipped words in his prepared remarks, ad-libbed, and repeated several points. Critics later seized on this speech as evidence that the president was deteriorating mentally.
FDR reportedly told his son he felt compelled to run in order "to maintain a continuity of command in a time of continuing crisis." The war might have been entering its final phases but Roosevelt must also have recognized the challenge of building a just and sustainable peace. It would require a practical and firm hand. 

Had the truth been known in 1944, the writers claim, it might well have cost him the election for his unprecedented fourth term in office. Following this alternate history, Vice-President Truman would not have become Roosevelt's successor and the Cold War era might have looked very different. 

The Truman Doctrine of containment offered both military and economic support for any nation whose aid stability was threatened by communism or the Soviet Union. This largely reactionary policy would form the basis of the East-West divide that very nearly destroyed the planet during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When it comes to the death of Roosevelt, we will probably never know the full story. Most- but not all- of the president's medical records were destroyed not long after his death. 

The allegation - whether true or not- also raises questions about the medical privacy of the president. With so much power invested in a single individual, it is more than simply a moral question. It is a national security issue too. 

Should candidates for office, for instance, be obliged to release all health-related information, including rigorous, mandatory and independent psychological testing? (Any candidate that claims to hear the voice of God in his head should certainly be suspected of some kind of mental disturbance.)


The Loss of America's Father

Whatever the truth about Roosevelt's alleged cancer, it is clear from the photos that the war years had taken its toll on his health.

It was clear to many that the president's health was in rapid decline. His trip to Yalta had exhausted him utterly and his ashen gray complexion and physical weakness worried his family, friends, and his advisers. 

In the wider perspective, with the war in its final stages and a new post-war world in the making, the president's poor health couldn't have come at a worse time. 
He had traveled to Yalta in the Crimea to hold meetings with both Stalin and Churchill in first weeks of February. Most (but not all) of the photos from the Yalta Conference show an exhausted looking president seated among the other leaders.

The agenda for the meetings were both extensive and complex. The basic aim was to set up the foundations for the post-war age. Despite their differences, Roosevelt had reportedly gone into the conference with high hopes. After all, despite their differences, the British and American government had found common ground with the Soviet Union and defeated the Nazis. The task of building a free Europe from the ashes would need the same kind of cooperation. 

Yet Roosevelt returned, weary and much less optimistic. By March, he understood that he had been naive when it came to Stalin's opportunism and that the peace was going to be every bit as hard won as the war against fascism had been. 
It was a struggle that would carry on for the next four decades.

Despite the signs of his failing health, his passing seemed to catch so many Americans by surprise. 
Perhaps they had expected him to be around forever. For young citizens, President Roosevelt was the only president they ever knew. 
Back in 1932, Roosevelt had warned them against relying too heavily on one person. He himself said
"... the fate of America cannot depend on any one man. The greatness of American is grounded in principle and not on any single personality."
One writer for LIFE magazine captures the mood.
The most striking thing about Roosevelt's death was that millions and millions of people felt a personal sense of loss and found tears for it. "I'd been depending on him in such a personal way," they said; or "I feel as though I'd lost my father."
Roosevelt as the father of the nation was a theme of the mourning. LIFE magazine also quotes a young senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson remarked,
He was just like a daddy to me always; he always talked to me just that way. He was the one person I ever knew-- anywhere-- who was never afraid.. God, how he take it for us all!"
If many Americans thought of him in a paternal way, it was perhaps only natural. His self-confidence and his confidence in the American spirit resonated with the people who were, when he took office, in desperate need of hope.

The Battle to Save the Nation

When he had taken office in 1933, around 25 percent of the national workforce was unemployed. (In 1929, employment was only around 3.14%.) 

Nearly half of the country’s banks had failed, wiping away the life savings of millions. Hoover's adherence to austerity and balancing the budget had only made the situation worse. There were no social programs upon which the desperate could rely. Fear and distrust could easily have turned to widespread violence. 

Two years before FDR took office, there had been foodt riots in various cities. For example, in Minneapolis, a few hundred angry citizens broke into a grocery market in order to loot whatever food they could grab. When shop owners attempted to hold them back by armed force, the mob nearly tore them apart. 

The country was facing its greatest existential challenge. In his first inaugural address, FDR didn't hesitate to point the finger at those responsible for the crisis.
Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
It was time, he said, to "apply social values nobler than mere monetary profit." Fixing the problem meant changing our ideas about the accumulation of material wealth for its own sake.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.
Although Congress seemed cooperative during his first 100 days, Roosevelt faced growing opposition to his reforms.
Congress routinely voted against FDR’s proposals and for proposals with which he disagreed. FDR made extensive use of the executive order, for example, recognizing the USSR, providing aid to the Allies and leading the strongly isolationist nation toward active involvement in World War II. He used his veto 30 percent more in his first two terms than all the preceding presidents combined.
By 1935 his populist reputation has earned him the epitaph  "traitor to his class" and many in Congress called his forceful use of executive power to be close to a Socialist dictatorship.

Dealing with Opposition

Roosevelt had more than his share of critics. The love-hate relationship between the president and journalists has been examined in detail in the Graham J. White 's book, F. D. R. and the Press. He objected to journalists acting as "interpreters of information"  rather than reporters of the facts.
Roosevelt saw a danger that "straight" news reporting could become sullied by "interpretation" and it was against this tendency and the loss of public confidence in the press which it could cause, that he repeatedly warned.
At a press conference, he sympathized with the reporters who, he claimed, were being forced to by their employers to write slanted pieces. 

When he ran for re-election in 1936, FDR was characteristically defiant and unafraid to speak plainly. His opposition in the GOP was banking on the short memories of the American people. They were, he said, hoping nobody would remember that the economic problems facing every American today were a result of their reckless and self-serving policies. 
Make no mistake about this: The Republican leadership today is not against the way we have done the job. The Republican leadership is against the job’s being done.
At the same time, Roosevelt was forced into a showdown with the Supreme Court when the justices ruled that the National Recovery Act (NRA) and other recovery programs were unconstitutional. (The story of that battle is covered in great detail here.)

By the end of the 1930s, a new danger arose, the threat of fascism in Europe and Asia. The isolationist tendency in the American psyche had always been strong and the economic problems of the nation had created an attitude of "let's fix our own problems first."
The isolationists were a diverse group, including progressives and conservatives, business owners and peace activists, but because they faced no consistent, organized opposition from internationalists, their ideology triumphed time and again. Roosevelt appeared to accept the strength of the isolationist elements in Congress until 1937.
By 1937, it was clear to Roosevelt that nothing could be done to avoid being dragged into war.  When the long anticipated war began, it was clear that absolute neutrality was not possible nor prudent. 
Even the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 did not suddenly diffuse popular desire to avoid international entanglements. Instead, public opinion shifted from favoring complete neutrality to supporting limited U.S. aid to the Allies short of actual intervention in the war.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt refused to engage in direct intervention for as long as possible, despite the criticism from those who demanded a more aggressive stand against the bellicose behavior  and expansionism of Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The Bold Initiative

In 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt revealed a completely different side to his leadership. 

Even before the Japanese attack, Roosevelt and Congress had been turning to defense preparations. The Fall of France and air raids over Great Britain had made neutrality impossible. In the spring of 1940, the American government had agreed to supply "all aid short of war" to Great Britain. Roosevelt even gave Great Britain 50 overage destroyers in exchange for eight Western Hemisphere bases.
The process of retooling the entire American economy had already begun even before war was declared. 

Roosevelt soon became a war president. Although he relished the role of Commander in Chief, he left most tactical matters to his able military advisers. His participation was primarily directed at the larger questions of strategy. In order to help defeat the Nazis, he was willing to reach across the ideological chasm separating Western Capitalism and Soviet Communism to form an alliance with the USSR.

In her book, Mary E. Glantz, a foreign service officer in the State Department, reveals that from the moment that Roosevelt took office he was in favor of improving relations with the Soviet Union. He believed a limited alliance with USSR was critical to America's national security. Not everybody in the War and State Departments agreed and there was much opposition to any overturn or recognition of the Soviet Union. 

Glantz praises Roosevelt's determination to cultivate good relations with the Soviets. It was not based on "naiveté or ignorance but from a clear-eyed understanding of the benefits of cooperation for both countries."
He was under no illusion as to the nature of the Soviet regime and the characters of the people who led it. 

After Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in late 1939, Roosevelt to representatives of the American Youth Congress in a speech in following February said
"The Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the facts knows, is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world. It has allied itself with another dictatorship [i.e., with Hitler's Germany], and it has invaded a neighbor. . .infinitesimally small"
Members of Congress -including Senator Truman- were convinced that the Soviet Union was every bit as untrustworthy and dangerous as the Nazi Reich. However, the situation had changed radically by on June 22, 1941, when Hitler sent some 3 million Nazi soldiers pouring into the Soviet Union. Stalin had been humiliated and, Roosevelt understood that this was a golden opportunity for a  renewed commitment to establishing strong ties with the Soviets. 

Yet,  Roosevelt's effort was very much a personal one and he was prepared to bank his reputation on finding a workable alliance with the Soviets. 
(M)ost of his diplomatic and military personnel not only allowed hostility to the Soviet Union to cloud their professional judgments but also to distort the intelligence that they provided the White House.

The most serious example of faulty intelligence was the nearly unanimous prediction from U.S. diplomatic and military officials that the Soviets could not hold out against the German invasion in 1941 and that therefore U.S. military aid to them would be a waste of resources.
In the end, however, it was a strategic and pragmatic alliance based only on the external threat of the Nazi, rather than any long-term shared interest. Nevertheless, the alliance between Great Britain, the US and the Soviet Union allowed their respective militaries to coordinate operations designed to bring about the total defeat of the Third Reich. 
Ultimately the strategy had proved successful only as long as the war in Europe continued.

The Roosevelt Legacy

President Roosevelt now looked to the post-war world. How would the soon to be defeated Germany be managed? What about Poland? How would the reconstruction of the utterly destroyed nations be conducted or paid for? How could peace be maintained beyond the use of threats? 
These were questions that would be left to his successor.

One of his goals at the Yalta Conference was to enlist Soviet support for the creation of a new organization to peacefully resolve conflicts between nations. It was to be called the "United Nations." 

Learning from the failures of the earlier League of Nations, this new organization overriding goal was "to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation." Without the Soviet Union, the idea of a framework for peace would be impossible.  
Critics stridently opposed any negotiations with Stalin, arguing that he could not be trusted to keep his promises, regarding the liberation and the proposed free elections would be held in PolandCzechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Later, the Soviet would prove Roosevelt's critics correct. Stalin's duplicity would lead directly to the division of Europe and the dangerous battle of ideologies known as the Cold War. 

Still in 1945, the alternatives to a treaty were far worse than no treaty at all. As one American delegation member and soon to be secretary of state (1945–47) James F. Byrnes explained.
“It was not a question of what we would let the Russians do, but what we could get the Russians to do.”
Just two months later, Roosevelt was dead. The question now was whether his dream of nations united in peace would really be taken seriously. On April 25, 1945, less than two weeks after the president's death, the United Nations Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco. 

In January 1946, the United Nations General Assembly held its first meeting in Westminster Central Hall, London, on 10 January 1946. The Security Council met for the first time a week later in Church House, Westminster


Roosevelt's mission was carried on by his widow, a human rights champion in her own right and the United States delegate to the UN. Two years after the establishment of the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt, chairperson of United Nations’ new Human Rights Commission, led in the drafting of the International Declaration of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms.
The thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees protection of the person, of procedural law (claim of effective legal remedy), classical freedom rights such as freedom of expression, as well as economical, social and cultural rights. These rights should apply to all people irrespectively of their race, gender and nationality, as all people are born free and equal.
It set out basic human rights -- rights that all people have solely because they are human. These rights were not based on the whims of tyrants or the Kafka-esque complications of bureaucracy.

The document reviewed and ratified by the UN Assembly on  December 10, 1948, by a vote of 48 in favor, none against. There were, however, eight abstentions: member nations of the Soviet bloc, South Africa and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Despite its weaknesses, the UDHR at the very least sets a standard for all nations to measure themselves against. In all of human history, there has never been anything like it.
“All human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms. The United Nations is committed to upholding, promoting and protecting the human rights of every individual. This commitment stems from the United Nations Charter, which reaffirms the faith of the peoples of the world in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has stated in clear and simple terms the rights which belong equally to every person. These rights belong to you. They are your rights.
No American president has ever left so valuable an inheritance. And he left it not just for the American people but for the whole world.

A Strong and Active Faith

At the time of his death, the president had been working on a speech to be delivered by radio to a Democratic Party fundraising dinner scheduled for the following Friday, April 13. 
In the margins of the draft speech he had scribbled the words- the last written words of the Roosevelt,
Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
Don't give up hope no matter how the odds are stacked against you. Fear can merely paralyze us at times when only bold determination will do. Those who promote fear are no better than saboteurs of opportunity. 

As I.F. Stone remarked at the time of the president's death, the Roosevelt era was, for some, a series of scares. at times, a revolution seemed around the corner. 
Somehow we pulled through before and somehow we'll pull through again. In part it was luck, In part it was Mr.Roosevelt's leadership. In part it was the quality of the country and its people. I don't know about the rest of the four freedoms, but one thing Mr. Roosevelt gave the United States in one crisis after another, and that was freedom from fear.

Perhaps his most important contribution was the example, the superlative example, of his personal courage. Perhaps some of us will feel less gloomy if we remember it. Perhaps some of us will be more effective politically if we also learn from Mr. Roosevelt's robust realism, his ability to keep his eye on the main issues and not worry too much about the minor details.


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