Five Presidents Who Went to War & Killed Themselves For It: FDR (Part 4)


Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II

Franklin D. Roosevelt in the first and the last year of his one dozen as President.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in the first and the last year of his one dozen as President.

Even before he was permanently paralyzed by polio in 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been inscrutable. He was sly in manipulating those around him with an infectious charm and wily in foreseeing long-range goals and subtle in laying the track to attaining his intentions.

Above all else, FDR was emotionally remote to even his mother, wife, children and mistresses. He was never known to verbally concede his own personal vulnerabilities.

FDR with young polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia rehabilatative center. He would never appear in public in the wheelchair he used in private.

FDR with young polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia rehabilitative center. He would never appear in public in the wheelchair he used in private.

When first discovering his legs had become useless, Roosevelt assumed an iron refusal to acknowledge any physical disability. He determined that he would again walk and waged a silent battle against such predictions.

When he finally reached the point of realizing he had likely lost that battle, he still refused to acknowledge the truth, focusing instead on crafting a deceptive technique which gave the appearance of walking.

If anything, FDR’s polio only further removed him from being genuinely accessible as a person. Even when he was among others with polio, who sought treatment and relief at the Warm Springs, Georgia center he created, his physical condition was the only tacit admission that he was as disabled as they were.

There is no known record of him ever opening up about the condition or how it affected him emotionally. Putting up this impenetrable persona of perpetual optimism would have been easily compromised during World War II had he begun making attempts to do anything other than encourage the tens of thousands of enlisted Americans who filled the ranks of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

FDR makes his war declaration to Congress on the night of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941.

FDR makes his war declaration to Congress on the night of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941.

Following Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR made his declaration of war speech to Congress and it passed in a matter of hours. In a matter of just three days, Japan’s allies of Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S.

Although he ultimately affirmed himself as commander-in-chief with final approval on all war strategy, FDR relied on the advice and wisdom of his military leaders.

He resolutely focused on the big picture, seeing the war as a series of short and long-term tactical movements. He never suggested that references to large numbers of troops represented human beings to him as much as a force of power.

Unlike Lincoln, McKinley and Wilson, FDR showed little direct interest in the well-being of any individual servicemen he encountered or came to know, having minimal contact with enlisted men while they were in training camps. In fairness, his disability was certainly a factor which limited this.

Seen here in early 1944, FDR was relentlessly upbeat in public.

Seen here in early 1944, FDR was relentlessly upbeat in public.

Other than the public propaganda of his appearance at large rallies or through his speeches on the radio, encouraging citizens and civilians alike to be brace and make sacrifices, his primary military contact during the war was limited to the top brass.

Whether it was an individual he was close to or large numbers of anonymous servicemen killed in battle, FDR persisted in perceiving death only in the abstract.

Even though all four of his sons were on active military duty and in direct danger for various periods of time, there are no heartfelt letters to them seeking to empathize with whatever real anxieties they might have had.

His seeming indifference to the dangers faced by sailors and soldiers almost suggests that FDR feared exposing himself emotionally to reality, as if it was more a matter of him feeling too much rather than too little.

By his very nature, Roosevelt was an intuitive man, able to sense rapidly the disposition of those he might be meeting with.

FDR in a rare picture showing his leg braces.

FDR in a rare picture showing his leg braces.

While he wisely used this to great effect in negotiating, it also gave him a sense of great empathy – even though he was more comfortable displaying that to the anonymous hundreds of thousands of people listening to him on the radio or at rallies.

He was relentlessly upbeat in his public demeanor, whether on the radio or at appearances. His voice and words conveyed absolute strength, power and confidence.

In one of his Christmas Eve messages to the U.S. Armed Forces, rather than offer his wishes for their safety or acknowledging they might be homesick, Roosevelt proudly piped up that of the 10 million enlisted men there were1.7 million serving on active duty, but that within seven months that number would rise to 5 million, which he cracked “was pretty bad news for the Japs.”

American GIs during World War II.

American GIs during World War II.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed that her husband’s disability had changed him into a person who fully grasped “what suffering meant.”

While that may have been true, he certainly resisted viewing his wartime decisions as issues which affected human beings; rather, he perceived everything in the big picture of political advantage.

He refused to racially integrate the Armed Forces because he didn’t want to alienate the necessary support from southern members of the Senate and House.

He offered no support to many of those who’d helped create his New Deal domestic policies to fight the economic woes of the Great Depression when they worried about industrialist rapidly growing wealthy from the war machine.

He agreed without resistance to the War Department‘s paranoid proposal of dislocating Japanese-Americans from their homes into camps. His attitude towards reports of planned extermination of European Jews was that attempts to save even a comparable few as refugees must not distract from the priority of defeating the Axis.

An alert but remote FDR saved his energy for the big picture of winning the war.

An alert but remote FDR saved his energy for the big picture of winning the war.

Yet the closer the U.S. worked with its allies and American citizens pulled together in wartime efforts to help the cause, the President remained increasingly and more willfully detached. His daily routines in the White House and his lengthy stays away from it made him increasingly detached.

When the First Lady returned from her fact-finding missions to Europe and the South Pacific, where she met with a large percentage of the U.S. armed forces stationed there as well as military leaders, he was eager to have her report to him on the morale and living conditions of the servicemen, but resisted her urgings of new ways to improve upon the status quo.

FDR and Churchill.

FDR and Churchill.

In truth, imploring him on principals distracted him from practicalities. His was solely the big picture. It was one reason why the only houseguest he truly welcomed was his friend and ally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

To avoid the weariness which beset him when confronted with issues he didn’t want to face, Roosevelt receded into a few working rooms with a few trusted aides. He became withdrawn from many aspects of the reality of wartime American life.

Yet in his deep isolation, there was evidence of the tremendous stress that FDR was actually experiencing yet refusing to acknowledge.

Smoking and drinking were often the only relief for FDR during the war.

Smoking and drinking were often the only relief for FDR during the war.

He began to smoke cigarettes even more incessantly and never went an evening without some of his self-mixed martinis.

As 1944 began, he had closed himself into a circle of only his daughter Anna and two distant female cousins because they all refused to raise any unpleasant subjects in his presence. When his daughter finally began to suggest that his shockingly deteriorating physical condition might warrant closer medical examination. He smilingly stared at her as if she had said nothing. Just as he had responded to his inability to walk, President Roosevelt refused to acknowledge his growing limb weakness, heart palpitations, shaking hands, greying skin, and worsening eyesight.  As the Allies gained on the Axis, the war’s progress, however, only fueled FDR’s workload, fixated as he was to lay groundwork for his postwar vision, including a United Nations and International Monetary Fund.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in front of broadcast microphones mounted on a plank across the backseat of their limousine during a stop in Hyde Park, NY, 1944

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt; he no longer made the effort to get out of cars but instead addressed crowds from a mike mounted on a plank across the backseat. 1944

Enabled by a physician willing to upset him with details he didn’t want to hear. FDR gleefully ignored what was arteriosclerosis, only worsened by the war. Instead of slowing down, FDR kept to his game, joined by Churchill in negotiating and compromising with their Soviet ally Josef Stalin.

He refused to consider not running for a fourth term that year. Only when some in the press noted how long it had been since the general public had seen him did FDR begin making campaign appearances, including his refusal to have his car top lowered during an endless, driving rain while motoring through crowds in New York.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at Yalta, January 1944.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at Yalta, January 1944.

Despite the physical arduousness involved, FDR forced himself to make several overseas trips to meet with them: Casablanca in January of 1943, Teheran in November of 1943 and Yalta in January of 1945. Even the discreet Churchill and brusque Stalin were stunned at how rapidly FDR had deteriorated.

Eleanor Roosevelt later seemed to suggest that FDR knew he was killing himself for the war, and didn’t care, but that he just hoped to live long enough to see the war end and the UN established.

Perhaps it was his remote method for showing empathy with the troops. Yet by his steady focus on the abstract, bigger picture, he helped guide the U.S. and Allied Forces for victory. Even though the war killed him before it ended.

Three months after Yalta, President Roosevelt suffered a massive stroke and died.

Categories: Franklin D. Roosevelt, History, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Presidential wars, The Roosevelts, Wartime Presidents

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2 replies »

  1. I had read and heard that FDR actually despised Churchill but found him necessary. I heard that the love fest was the other way around – Churchill really admired FDR for many reasons. I heard that FDR remained close to Churchill so that he could insure a presence in the region for the entirety of the war. Due to his mother Jennie my understanding was that Churchill had a considerable affinity for the USA which few of his British upper crust comrades could really understand. Could you clarify their relationship in a bit more detail or have you written about it somewhere?

    • Dear Kevin – I hesitate to respond because I am on shaky ground there. My knowledge of FDR and Churchill as friends and/or allies is based only on popular secondary sources from FDR’s perspective, so on this one I must take a pass and admit ‘not expert enough’ to provide worthwhile illumination to your question. Still, appreciate you writing very much – and flattered you would ask.


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