Monday, April 12, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Death of FDR

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To those who led it - as much as to those who fought it - World War II was an unimaginable strain; at the head of the American effort was an extraordinary man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. First elected President in November 1932 as the Great Depression was beginning to deepen, things had just started to lift during his second term (thanks as much to the machinations of the military-industrial complex as to the New Deal) but as his third election loomed Hitler's thugs marched into Poland in September 1939. A much more worldly figure than many of his recent predecessors in the Presidency, FDR foresaw the threat to world democracy should the powers of Europe crumble under tyranny. That threat was finally brought home following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 at which point the United States finally entered the war; even then the President adamantly insisted on a policy of Europe First to aid British and French allies.

For guiding the United States towards war against Fascism the President nobly suffered the very worst name-calling available to his foes, many of whom already felt him a traitor to his class for deigning to assist the working class in the first place. In that reductive way which is second nature to the Republican Party they likewise turned the Second World War into being all about Jews - and why would anybody, even the man they vilified as 'President Rosenveld', want to help them? For all their subsequent posturing about how unpatriotic it is to criticize a Republican President during wartime, they attacked FDR now as savagely as Hitler attacked Holland, Belgium, Denmark, the United Kingdom...

Yet Roosevelt remained stalwart, infuriating his domestic foes by ignoring them as surely as he made his foreign foes irate with rhetoric. Following the Yalta Conference in February 1945, FDR traveled the Arabic world and Northern Africa, holding meetings with Egypt's King Farouk I, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia; he then had what would be his final meeting with Winston Churchill, and thereafter met with US ambassadors in Algiers.

When he addressed Congress in March (on the subject of the Yalta Conference) those assembled were shocked by his gaunt appearance. Formerly a sportsman who - despite his crippled legs - had a robust upper body, he was now a frail old man with a haggard face and the complexion of a ghost. He spent the month of March at his desk in the Oval Office - mostly chiding Stalin - but by the end of the month (having already won his record-setting fourth election) he was persuaded to take a break, and so went to his favourite spa, Georgia's Warm Springs, in advance of a proposed address to the founding conference of the United Nations.

On this day in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to his bed, complaining of a headache; he never returned from it. He'd had, in fact, a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and died there at 3:55 PM, his former mistress Lucy Mercer by his side; his daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger had arranged for her to take care of him in her absence (her son was sick as well). When FDR was first taken ill First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had wanted to come, but was urged to keep her afternoon speaking engagement with the Sulgrave Club so as to not arouse suspicion. During a performance by pianist Evelyn Tyner she was called away and told by telephone to return to the White House as soon as possible. She watched the rest of the performance and left to thunderous applause; as soon as the new President was sworn in at 7 PM she left for Georgia.

The President's body was borne back to Washington by train, and all along the track Americans of every age and colour stood silently to watch it pass, many with tears streaming down their faces. Following a state funeral he was thence removed to his home at Hyde Park, New York, where he is interred at Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. Less than a month after FDR's death Adolf Hitler took a pistol and scurried, rat-like, beneath the rubble of Berlin, where he did the only right thing he ever did and ended the war. Roosevelt's Vice-President - now President Harry Truman - dedicated the V-E Day festivities to a man who, as much as any enlisted soldier, gave his life to keep his country free.
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1 comment:

Seumas Gagne said...

The FDR memorial in DC is super cool. Extremely moving.