HIS FINAL BATTLE: THE LAST MONTHS OF FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT by Joseph Lelyveld

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(President Franklin Roosevelt circa late 1944)

A number of years ago historian, Warren Kimball wrote a book entitled THE JUGGLER which seemed an apt description of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach to presidential decision making.  As the bibliography of Roosevelt’s presidency has grown exponentially over the years Kimball’s argument has stood the test of time as FDR dealt with domestic and war related issues simultaneously.  In his new book HIS FINAL BATTLE:  THE LAST MONTHS OF FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, Joseph Lelyveld concentrates on the period leading up to Roosevelt’s death in April, 1945.  The key question for many was whether Roosevelt would seek a fourth term in office at a time when the planning for D-Day was in full swing, questions about the post war world and our relationship with the Soviet Union seemed paramount, and strategy decisions in the Pacific needed to be addressed.  Lelyveld’s work is highly readable and well researched and reviews much of the domestic and diplomatic aspects of the period that have been mined by others.  At a time when the medical history of candidates for the presidency is front page news, Lelyveld’s work stands out in terms of Roosevelt’s medical history and how his health impacted the political process, war time decision making, and his vision for the post war world.  The secrecy and manipulation of information surrounding his health comes across as a conspiracy to keep the American public ignorant of his true condition thereby allowing him, after months of political calculations to seek reelection and defeat New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944.  Roosevelt’s medical records mysteriously have disappeared, but according to Dr. Marvin Moser of Columbia Medical School he was “a textbook case of untreated hypertension progressing to [likely] organ failure and death from stroke.” The question historians have argued since his death was his decision to seek a fourth term in the best interest of the American people and America’s place in the world.

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(Roosevelt confidante, Daisy Suckley)

Lelyveld does an exceptional job exploring Roosevelt’s personal motivations for the decisions he made, postponed, and the people and events he manipulated.  Always known as a pragmatic political animal Roosevelt had the ability to pit advisors and others against each other in his chaotic approach to decision making.  Lelyveld does not see Roosevelt as a committed ideologue as was his political mentor Woodrow Wilson, a man who would rather accept defeat based on his perceived principles, than compromise to achieve most of his goals.  Lelyveld reviews the Wilson-Roosevelt relationship dating back to World War I and discusses their many similarities, but concentrates on their different approaches in drawing conclusions.  For Roosevelt the key for the post war world was an international organization that would maintain the peace through the influence of the “big four,” Russia, England, China, and the United States.  This could only be achieved by gaining the trust of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and making a series of compromises to win that trust.  The author will take the reader through the planning, and decisions made at the Teheran Conference in November, 1943, and Yalta in February, 1945 and the implications of the compromises reached.  Lelyveld’s Roosevelt is “the juggler” who would put off decisions, pit people against each other, always keep his options open, and apply his innate political antenna in developing his own viewpoints.  This approach is best exemplified with his treatment of Poland’s future.  In his heart Roosevelt knew there was little he could do to persuade Stalin to support the Polish government in exile, but that did not stop him from sending hopeful signals to the exiled Poles.  Roosevelt would ignore the Katyn Forest massacre of 15,000 Polish officers by the Russian NKVD in his quest to gain Stalin’s support, and in so doing he fostered a pragmatic approach to the Polish issue as Roosevelt and Churchill were not willing to go to war with the Soviet Union over Poland.

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(Yalta Conference, February, 1945)

While all of these decisions had to be made Roosevelt was being pressured to decide if he would run for reelection.  Lelyveld’s analysis stands out in arguing that the president did not have the time and space to make correct decisions.  With his health failing, which he was fully aware of, and so much going on around him, he could not contemplate his own mortality in deciding whether to run or not.  The problem in 1944 was that Roosevelt would not tell anyone what he was planning.  As he approached 1944 “his pattern of thought had grown no less elusive….and the number of subjects he could entertain at one time and his political appetite for fresh political intelligence had both undergone discernible shrinkage.”  By 1944, despite not being not being totally informed of his truth health condition by physician Admiral Ross McIntire, Roosevelt believed he was not well.  Lelyveld relies a great deal on the diaries of Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin who he felt comfortable with and spent more time with than almost anyone, to discern Roosevelt’s mindset.   Lelyveld raises the curtain on the Roosevelt-Suckley relationship and makes greater use of her diaries than previous historians.  She describes his moods as well as his health and had unprecedented access to Roosevelt.  In so doing we see a man who was both high minded and devious well into 1944 which is highlighted by his approach to the Holocaust, Palestine, and Poland.

Lelyveld spends a great deal of time exploring Roosevelt’s medical condition and the secretiveness that surrounds the president’s health was imposed by Roosevelt himself which are consistent with “his character and methods, his customary slyness, his chronic desire to keep his political options open to the last minute.”  He was enabled by Admiral McIntire in this process, but once he is forced to have a cardiologist, Dr. Howard G. Bruenn examine him the diagnosis is clear that he suffered from “acute congestive heart failure.”  Bruenn’s medical records disappeared after Roosevelt died and they would not reappear until 1970.  Roosevelt work load was reduced by half, he would spend two months in the spring of 1944 convalescing, in addition to other changes to his daily routine as Lelyveld states he would now have the hours of a “bank teller.”  Despite all of this Roosevelt, believing that only he could create a safe post war world decided to run for reelection. But, what is abundantly clear from Lelyveld’s research is that by the summer of 1944 his doctors agreed that should he win reelection there was no way he would have remained alive to fulfill his term in office.

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(First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt)

Since awareness of Roosevelt’s health condition could not be kept totally secret Democratic Party officials were horrified by the prospect that Roosevelt would win reelection and either die or resign his office after the war, making Henry Wallace President.  Party officials had never been comfortable with the Iowa progressive and former Republican who was seen as too left leaning and was no match for Stalin.  Roosevelt entertained similar doubts, but using his double bind messages convinced Wallace to travel to Siberia and Mongolia over fifty-one days that included the Democratic Convention.  Lelyveld explores the dynamic between Roosevelt and Wallace and how the president was able to remove his vice president from the ticket; on the one hand hinting strongly he would remain as his running mate, and at the same time exiling him to the Russian tundra!   For Roosevelt, Wallace did not measure up as someone who could guide a postwar organization through the treaty process in the Senate, further, it was uncovered in the 1940 campaign that Wallace had certain occult beliefs, he was also hampered by a number of messy interdepartmental feuds over funding and authority, and lastly, Roosevelt never reached out to him for advice during his four years as Vice-President.  The choice of Harry Truman, and the implications of that decision also receive a great deal of attention as the Missouri democrat had no idea of Roosevelt’s medical condition.  Lelyveld provides intricate details of the 1944 presidential campaign which reflects Roosevelt’s ability to rally himself when the need arose to defeat the arrogant and at times pompous Dewey.  Evidence of Roosevelt’s ability to revive his energy level and focus is also seen in his reaction to the disaster that took place at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge, and finally confronting Stalin over Poland.   In addition, the author does not shy away from difficulties with Churchill over the future of the British Empire, the Balkans and other areas of disagreement.  In Lelyveld portrayal, Roosevelt seems to be involved through the Yalta Conference until his death in April, 1945.

Lelyveld is correct in pointing out that Roosevelt’s refusal to accept his own mortality had a number of negative consequences, but he does not explain in sufficient detail how important these consequences were.  For example, keeping Vice President Truman in the dark about the atomic bomb, Roosevelt’s performance at Yalta, and a number of others that made the transition for Truman more difficult, especially in confronting the Soviet Union.  Overall, Lelyveld’s emphasis on Roosevelt’s medical history adds important information that students of Roosevelt can employ and may impact how we evaluate FDR’s role in history.

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(President Franklin Roosevelt towards the end of his life)

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