In the world-changing year of 1945, one of the biggest shocks came on April 12, the day the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, unexpectedly died. He was only 63 years old. Few could imagine a future without him.
It’s hard to appreciate today, but FDR’s sudden death was to the World War II generation what JFK’s assassination was to Baby Boomers. It was a moment of not only national mourning, but intense anxiety.
Franklin Roosevelt was the only President young people could even remember. FDR has been the man at the helm for twelve years guiding the nation through Depression and War.
And there was still more work to be done. The war in Europe was winding down, but the war in the Pacific was bigger than ever, and nobody could see when that was going to end.
One of those anxious young people was a 22-year-old Coast Guard sailor named George Herwig.
George Herwig, Coast Guard WWII (George Herwig)
George is now 100 years old and has come to many of our Veterans Breakfast Club events over the years.
He’s talked about his three years at sea in the Atlantic on a Murmansk Run and also in the Pacific where he experienced Kamikaze attacks and near-miss torpedos.
Although he witnessed a lot death, George told our VBC group that the only time he could remember breaking down in tears was the day he heard that Franklin Roosevelt had died.
We were at the tail end of a convoy in the Pacific somewhere. I had been learning signaling, and I was learning the light system with dots and dashes on the lights, and I was getting a message from the ship in front of us. The message said President Roosevelt had died, and I had [asked for a repeat message] I don’t know how many times, and I guess he’d been getting pretty well fed up with me, and so I got ahold of our Signalman.
I said, “You have to take this message. I can’t take it.” He took the message and said, “President Roosevelt died .”
I had gotten the message right, but I didn’t really want to hear that.
It was just like our Father had died. That’s sort of the way we felt about President Roosevelt. It was a very very sad time in our lives.
On the day Franklin Roosevelt died he was probably not only the most powerful man in the world, but the most powerful man in the history of the world.
And his death shouldn’t have been unexpected. Those close to the President knew that something was terribly wrong with him.
Physicians who had examined FDR in 1944 during his campaign for his fourth term as President recommended that he drop out of the running. They bluntly told the President he shouldn’t accept a fourth term because he would “be unable to complete it.”
The President’s hypertension was off the charts. He had hardening of the arteries. He had advanced heart disease. And yet he ran a grueling re-election campaign anyhow.
Anyone paying attention could see the President was a sick man.
Look at him in those pictures at Yalta. He’s gaunt, glassy-eyed, 30 pounds underweight. He’s the shadow of the robust President that most Americans remembered from the 1930s.
My dear Polish mother always blamed Franklin Roosevelt’s poor health for the loss of Poland to the Soviet Union after the war. “He gave away Poland to Stalin at Yalta,” she would say. “He didn’t know what he was doing.”
As a budding smarty-pants historian, I would retort you can’t give away what you don’t have. Poland was in Russia’s hands no matter what the US did.
But I think my mom had a point. FDR was far too sick to be effective at high-stakes negotiations with Stalin, a master of deceit and betrayal.
About ten years ago, a physician and a journalist put out a book called FDR’s Deadly Secretthat argued that FDR’s health problems actually stemmed from advanced melanoma. The cancer had turned metastatic, afflicting the President’s abdomen and brain.
Notice in early pictures of FDR from the 1930s and early 1940s, the President has a lesion over his left eyebrow. The lesion grows over the years and then disappears by 1944.
FDR, 1940 (l) and 1944 (r). Notice the lesion missing over the left eyebrow in 1944.
There’s no record of it, but that lesion was probably melanoma, and FDR had it removed.
That would explain an odd problem the Master Communicator had reading his scripts for the Fireside Chats in 1945.
FDR has been doing those chats—radio addresses expertly crafted as informal one-sided conversations with the American people—since assuming office in 1933. The talks bonded him with voters through the perilous 1930s and 1940s. FDR was, among other things, a great actor who never missed his mark, nor flubbed his scripts.
Fireside chat on the State of the Union, January 11, 1944 (National Archives and Records Administration, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)
But, suddenly, in early 1945, he began skipping words in some of these Fireside Chats and speeches.
The authors of FDR’s Deadly Secret noticed that the words he missed were on the left-hand side of the page. It was as if a vision problem in his left eye caused him to skip crucial words every now and them. The authors speculate that FDR suffered from blurry vision caused by a brain tumor.
A tumor would also explain the serious weight loss that he suffered in 1945.
All this points to the conclusion that he probably shouldn’t have run for that fourth term.
And he definitely should have given more thought to the choice of a running mate.
Harry S Truman was put on the Democratic Party ticket in 1944 almost as an afterthought. Truman was largely unknown and wholly untested. Few thought much of the man, and no one could imagine him as President.
On April 12, 1945, Truman was enjoying his afternoon bourbon with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn when he got word to rush to the White House.
Truman stammered in stunned disbelief. He finally asked her if there was anything he could do.
”Is there anything we can do for you?” she replied. ”For you are the one in trouble now.”
We Americans are fortunate that Harry Truman turned out to be much smarter, much tougher, and a much faster learner than anyone suspected. Roosevelt hadn’t briefed Truman on the war, international relations, or much of anything else. The new President did all his training on the job, absorbing as much as possible each day.
Presidential leadership in times of crisis is important, and at such times leaders often emerge from unexpected places.