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The first hundred days of FDR’s presidency are justly famous, often viewed as a period of political action without equal in American history. Yet as historian David B. Woolner reveals, the last hundred might very well surpass them in drama and consequence.
Drawing on new evidence, Woolner shows how FDR called on every ounce of his diminishing energy to pursue what mattered most to him: the establishment of the United Nations, the reinvigoration of the New Deal, and the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. We see a president shorn of the usual distractions of office, a man whose sense of personal responsibility for the American people bore heavily upon him. As Woolner argues, even in declining health FDR displayed remarkable political talent and foresight as he focused his energies on shaping the peace to come.
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT IS CONSISTENTLY RANKED AS AMONG the most important and effective chief executives in American history. For most historians the two most significant aspects of his presidency remain the unprecedented nature of his response to the Great Depression and the skillful leadership he exhibited in the summer of 1940, when he made the critical decision—at great political risk—to stand behind Great Britain in the twelve perilous months following the defeat of France in June 1940.1
It was to meet the first of these catastrophes that FDR launched his famous “first 100 days,” a period of just over three months in which Congress under FDR’s leadership passed an extraordinary fifteen major pieces of legislation. Many of the provisions enacted during this frantic period—including the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the requirement for transparency in the sale of securities—are with us still. So, too, are several subsequent provisions of the “New Deal” that FDR promised the American people when he first ran for the White House, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. The social and economic safety net provided by these programs—which were designed, as FDR said, to lessen “the hazards and vicissitudes of life”—fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the American people and their government.2
These achievements alone are enough to render FDR among the significant of our nation’s presidents. Yet he faced a growing international crisis that reached its climax less so with the German attack on Poland in September 1939 than with the shocking collapse of the French army the next spring. The import of this second catastrophe is underappreciated by the generations of Americans who did not live through World War II. France at the time had the largest army and air force in the world, to whose strength the British army added its own. Nevertheless, the Germans were seemingly unstoppable. In response to their onslaught, many officials within the British cabinet, led by then Foreign Secretary Edward Halifax, proposed coming to terms with Hitler. In Washington the consensus among FDR’s top military advisers, including his Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, was that Great Britain would not last much longer than France.3
But FDR did not agree and, despite the fact that 1940 was an election year, resolved to support Prime Minister Churchill’s determination to fight on. The first manifestation of this support came in the form of an Anglo-American agreement to ship fifty mothballed US World War I destroyers to Britain, followed by secret staff talks among senior members of the British and American armed forces, an increased number of US naval patrols in the Atlantic, and, in March 1941, passage of the Lend Lease Act, which solidified America’s role as “the great arsenal of democracy.”4
As with FDR’s decisive response to the economic crisis he inherited in 1933, and his response to the fall of France, the role he subsequently played in crafting the Grand Alliance that would go on to defeat the Axis is likewise viewed as one of his crowning achievements. But to FDR, winning the war was never enough. Convinced that the global economic hardship of the 1930s was what gave rise to fascism in Europe and Asia and sent the world spiraling toward war, he foresaw that the United States had to fashion a new postwar order out of the ruins of the present conflict. This conviction underlay his January 1941 articulation of the Four Freedoms and the crafting of the Atlantic Charter eight months later. In short, FDR had committed himself to the establishment of a new system of international security—as called for in the last clause of the Charter—even before the United States entered the conflict. He never lost sight of this overriding ambition and, in spite of what Frances Perkins called his “transcending preoccupation” with the day-to-day demands of the war, always considered how “each victory could be woven into a pattern of permanent peace and world organization.”5
To a certain extent, this focus on victory and the management of the war obscured FDR’s determination to use the conflict as a catalyst for the establishment of a new postwar order centered on the creation of the United Nations. There is irony in this comment, for what also makes FDR’s tenure in office unique—aside from his election to four terms and the fact that he remains our only “wheelchair president”—was his willingness to hold two press conferences per week for virtually his entire tenure in office, meaning that by the time he died in April 1945 he had held a stunning 998 meetings with the press.
Still, a good deal of mystery still surrounds Franklin D. Roosevelt. We might borrow Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted phrase about Russia to say that in many respects FDR remains “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” FDR rarely confided his innermost thoughts to his family, friends, and advisers; he also refused to take notes during meetings and insisted that the members of his cabinet and other senior officials do the same. Indeed, there were times when the president seemed to delight in being unreadable and unpredictable. He took great pleasure, for example, in the press’s rampant speculation about whether or not he would run for a third term—speculation well symbolized by the papier mâché sculpture of FDR as the Egyptian Sphinx that was presented to him at the annual Gridiron Dinner of December 1939. He once told a group of astonished foreign policy experts visiting the White House that he was “a juggler.… I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.”
The outstanding biographer of Roosevelt’s early life, Geoffrey Ward, has speculated that FDR’s reluctance to show emotion or reveal his inner feelings stemmed from a practice that he and his mother adopted to deal with his father’s weak heart. James Roosevelt was fifty-four years old when FDR was born; as he became increasingly frail, mother and son conspired to always remain cheerful, and to avoid stress or public shows of emotion so as not to upset his delicate constitution. FDR carried this outward effervescence into adulthood, often employing it—whether consciously or not—as a mask. For confirmation of this penchant for stoicism, we need only recall how FDR and his family coped with the devastating attack of polio that left him essentially paralyzed from the waist down at the prime of his life.6
Emotional impenetrability has its advantages, particularly for a president. But it also has its disadvantages. It can lead to feelings of isolation and, worse still, loneliness, even for a person surrounded by a large family and dozens of aides and assistants. There is no question that by the end of 1943, the “big man,” as Time magazine called FDR, was beginning to feel alone. By the end of 1944, the twin burdens of the presidency and the war, coupled with his growing sense of isolation, had become almost too much. FDR, in short, was exhausted, and with this exhaustion came a narrowing of his view of what was important to him, the nation, and the world.7
This is why a close look at the last 100 days of FDR’s life and presidency is so revealing, and so significant: by focusing on FDR at a time when his reduced capacity for work meant that he had to set strict personal and public priorities, we can discern what mattered most to him. Here, we see a president and a leader shorn of the usual distractions of office, a man whose sense of duty and personal responsibility for the fate of the American people and the world bore heavily upon him as he wrestled with many of the most critical issues and events of his entire presidency: the deliberations of the Yalta conference; the near completion of the atomic bomb; how best to prosecute the closing stages of the war against Japan; a last effort to secure a homeland for the Jews in Palestine; the rising importance of Middle East oil; the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy; concerns about Soviet behavior in Central and Eastern Europe and British behavior in Greece and other parts of the Empire; and, most important to him, the establishment of a new system of international security, which became the United Nations. All the while, he also had to tend to the domestic needs of a public weary of the demands of war and to a battlefront reeling from a surprise German counteroffensive that threatened to drive the Western Allies into the North Sea.
The following pages reveal how Franklin Roosevelt—a decades-long smoker of sixty-plus years in a precarious state of health—coped with the day-to-day demands of office during this critical period. It also provides an opportunity to reexamine some of the most contentious questions asked about FDR since the day he died: Was he too ill during these last months to properly carry the burdens of office? Did Stalin dupe him at Yalta because FDR was too weak to resist? Should he have run for a fourth term? Did he ever admit to himself how unwell he was? What role did the members of his family or his closest confidants play—if any—in his ability to lead despite his reduced capacity for work?
Fortunately, a number of new sources of information have come to light in the past few years that help round out this picture. Thanks to the work of a number of scholars and medical historians, and to the recent release of a confidential memo drafted by one of the physicians who examined the president in 1944, we now know a good deal more about the perilous state of FDR’s health than we did in the past. In addition, the declassification and return to the FDR Presidential Library of a number of records of the Office of Strategic Services and other government agencies, as well as the accession of such important collections as the Grace Tully Papers, provide new information about the president’s activities and the state of the war, including the secret negotiations over a possible German surrender in Italy that took place in Switzerland in March 1945. The release of the papers of Sarah Churchill, who was present at the Yalta conference, along with the opening of a number of other records held at the Churchill Archives Center in Cambridge, offers us a more complete view of the interplay between Churchill and Roosevelt, while the opening of a significant portion of the wartime Soviet archives provides us with a more detailed picture of how Stalin and the Russians approached their Western counterparts during this critical period.8
An intimate view of FDR’s last months would not be possible, however, without the recently constructed day-to-day calendar of his activities and contacts. Previously, the full scope of FDR’s day-to-day activities—including appointments he wished to keep confidential—was not readily available to researchers. To remedy this, the FDR Presidential Library has spent years meticulously recording and reconstructing FDR’s schedule from a host of sources, making it possible, for the first time, to get a much better sense of what the president was doing at any given hour on any given day.
The portrait that emerges from these final months stands in sharp contrast to the vigorous and relatively youthful figure who inspired the nation and the world when he proclaimed in his first inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The FDR of the last 100 days is a much-diminished man, often near the point of physical exhaustion, yet determined to press on and achieve the goals he set for himself and the world as he led his nation into war. That he was able to accomplish as much as he did, in spite of his physical decline, is in itself a remarkable story. It is also a poignant one as it shows him seeking, time and time again, relief from the ceaseless burdens of office while simultaneously preparing himself and those closest to him for the end of his life, even as he refused to fully consider what the inevitable “drawing out of days” brings to us all.
The Last Christmas
LIGHT SNOW WAS FALLING AS THE PRESIDENTIAL TRAIN MADE ITS WAY up the Hudson River Valley on Christmas Eve morning. This was only the second time in over a decade that Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent Christmas at his home in Hyde Park, and like many individuals and families across the world, the president clung to the hope that this holiday season might be the last celebrated under the cloud of war.
Few presidents, with perhaps the exception of Thomas Jefferson, were more rooted in a particular place than Roosevelt. And with the 1944 election behind him, he was looking forward to spending a few restful days along the banks of this majestic river that had been such an integral part of his life. It was here, to this setting where he spent his youth wandering the woods and fields that surrounded the house in which he was born, that he returned again and again—seeking solace in the timeless quality of rural life, and a sense of community among the many friends and neighbors who made up the small village he called home.
The tranquility of the winter landscape that greeted FDR that morning stood in sharp contrast to the scene in the Ardennes forest in the border region between Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. There, a surprise German offensive had caught the Allies completely off guard. The Germans—aided by inclement weather that grounded the Allied Air Force—pushed the American First Army back more than sixty miles in some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War. Hitler’s aim was to sow dissension in the Allied ranks by driving a wedge between the British and American forces. He also hoped to disrupt the ability of the Anglo-American armies in northern France and Belgium to resupply, by severing key road and rail lines and, ideally, capturing Antwerp. After the attack’s initial success, Hitler even entertained the idea that he might be able to force a negotiated settlement in the West, leaving his military free to concentrate on the defense of the Third Reich’s eastern frontier against Stalin’s Red Army.1
The German attack provoked immense anxiety among the Western Allies. US casualties along the Western Front for the month of December alone totaled more than 74,000—nearly double the monthly losses sustained since the Normandy invasion. These were losses that the US army, plagued by an increasingly dire manpower shortage, could ill afford. How different things seemed from the heady days of July and August when the Allies swept across northern France, raising hopes that the war in Europe might be over by Christmas. Hitler’s belief that he might be able to fracture the Allies with a spectacular victory on the battlefield was not entirely unfounded. There were deep tensions within the Alliance over, among other things, the futures of Greece, Italy, Romania, Poland, and even France.2
All of this weighed heavily on FDR’s mind as he prepared to join his family for Christmas on the Hudson. But the most serious issue confronting the president concerned the impact that internal Allied tensions might have on the main reason FDR had decided to run for a fourth term: the fate of the United Nations. Indeed, it was less than twenty-four hours since he had met Democratic Senator Carl A. Hatch of New Mexico and Republican Senator Joseph A. Ball of Minnesota, two strong supporters of the proposed world organization, who had come to see the president to express their anxiety about “the gravity of the international situation” and the need for “a supreme effort… to overcome Allied disunity.”3
What most alarmed the two men was the growing tendency toward unilateral action on the part of the major powers, which the senators argued might “hamper future cooperation to maintain the peace” and prevent the outbreak of another war. Compounding the matter was the recent revelation that the Atlantic Charter had never existed as a formal state document signed by Roosevelt and Churchill but, rather, was merely a press statement the two leaders had crafted.4
This news led to a great deal of initial confusion in Washington and elsewhere about the relevance of the proclamation. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the American people had been “fooled” by the president, while a Washington Post reporter lamented that getting all three major powers to adhere to the Charter’s principles—which the American people had embraced “with the utmost seriousness”—was becoming increasingly unlikely in light of events in Europe. It was more and more apparent, for example, that the Soviet Union was intent on exerting direct control over Poland, and equally obvious that Churchill’s government was intent on establishing a conservative pro-British regime in Greece—even at the cost of armed conflict with Britain’s former allies, the anti-monarchist and largely communist Greek resistance. The British government had also recently intervened in liberated Italy, refusing to recognize any government in which Count Carlo Sforza, a prominent and highly respected leader of the parties of the left, might take part. These moves prompted newly appointed Secretary of State Edward Stettinius to issue a blunt statement condemning the British position on Sforza, in which he declared that the United States expected the Italians—and by implication the Greeks—“to work out their problems of government along democratic lines without interference from the outside.”5
Not satisfied with this expression of disapproval, some members of Congress said that the Charter’s principles were being “crucified in the current Polish and Greek crises,” and they and others began to call for the administration to clarify US policy in Europe. In a press conference held on December 19, 1944, Roosevelt insisted that there was no need to do so, since his administration’s foreign policy was already on record. As for the Atlantic Charter, FDR downplayed the importance of the disclosure. When asked about it again a few days later, he said that the Charter represented an important objective—one not unlike President Wilson’s fourteen points, which signified “a major contribution to something we would all like to see happen… a step towards a better life for the population of the world.”6
Although FDR did his best to give the impression that all was in order and that American foreign and domestic policy was proceeding apace, the challenges he faced in late December 1944 were grave. Throughout the fall—and certainly since October—FDR understood that the growing divisions among the Allied powers meant that another summit meeting with Churchill and Stalin was necessary. The fate of postwar Germany, the timing and extent of Soviet participation in the war against Japan, the question of whether France should be given a zone of occupation and a seat on the Allied Control Commission for Germany, the acrimony that had crept into the Alliance over Poland and Greece and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe—all of these matters remained unresolved.7
Looming above these questions was the fate of the United Nations Organization, the establishment of which was threatened not only by the growing dissention among the major powers but also by a serious impasse among the “Big Three” regarding the voting procedure for the proposed Security Council and the number of seats allocated to the Soviet Union in the General Assembly. Given the Kremlin’s strong stance over these questions, FDR understood that obtaining a firm Soviet commitment to the new institution was not going to be easy. Nor could he afford to overlook the difficulty of maintaining the American public’s support for the new international body, particularly given the recent disillusionment over the Atlantic Charter reported in the press and the growing isolationist sentiment it seemed to herald as the end of the conflict approached.
At home, FDR faced still other problems. He had to reconstitute his cabinet, deal with the threatened resignation of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and find a place for his soon-to-be-former vice president, Henry A. Wallace, who was strongly supported by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He also had to act to maintain war production, solve the growing manpower crisis, and reverse the sudden consumer shortage of gasoline, meat, and canned fruits and vegetables. Most important, FDR needed to find a way to balance all of these urgent matters while adhering to the rest-regimen that his two primary physicians insisted was critical to his survival.8
In fact, by this time, FDR’s health had become a major item of concern among those who were closest to him. Since his return from the Tehran conference at the end of 1943, FDR had struggled with a number of illnesses that he couldn’t seem to shake, including a lengthy bout of both flu and bronchitis. It was during these months that his daughter Anna, who had recently moved back into the White House, began to express alarm about the state of her father’s health. This led to two extensive medical workups by a team of physicians in March and May of 1944. These examinations revealed that FDR was suffering from severe hypertension and the early stages of congestive heart failure.9
That the president of the United States was suffering from heart disease unleashed a fierce debate between Vice Admiral Dr. Ross McIntire, FDR’s surgeon general and long-serving White House physician, and the other specialists brought in to examine him: Dr. James A. Paullin, former head of the American Medical Association; Dr. Frank Lahey, director of the Lahey Clinic in Boston and widely regarded as one of the most prominent surgeons in the country; and Dr. Howard Bruenn, the young naval cardiologist tasked by Dr. McIntire to carry out the initial cardiac examination. It was Dr. Bruenn who determined that FDR had heart disease and who was the most disturbed by the state of the president’s health. He insisted that FDR’s condition was serious enough to warrant aggressive treatment, including extensive rest as well as the administration of digitalis and two other medications.10
But McIntire was initially incredulous—“You can’t do that,” he said to Bruenn. “This is the President of the United States.” Nor were Paullin and Lahey convinced that such treatment was necessary—in part, because they disagreed with Bruenn about the extent of the president’s cardiac disease, but also out of concern that the sudden administration of a number of medications might cause the president distress.11 Thus they tended to concur with Dr. McIntire’s more conservative assessment and, according to Bruenn, “grudgingly” agreed to support a compromise proposal put forward by the young cardiologist at the end of March: the president would take digitalis, go on a low-fat diet, cut the number of cigarettes he smoked to six per day, and try to avoid stress and significantly reduce the number of hours he worked—not an easy task for a man charged with the responsibility of running a global war.12
By the time FDR had made the decision to run for a fourth term, however, the fragile consensus the team of physicians had reached over the state of FDR’s health and treatment had broken down. Indeed, just days before FDR made his historic July 11 announcement to seek reelection, Lahey telephoned Admiral McIntire to inform him that the second round of tests they had conducted on the president in late May had convinced him that the president’s heart condition was worse than he initially suspected and that he thus did not believe that the president “had the physical capacity to complete [a fourth] term.” Lahey acknowledged that it was not his place to determine whether or not the president should run; but, suspecting that the president was on the verge of making his announcement, he insisted that it was the admiral’s duty—as surgeon general and FDR’s primary physician—to inform the president about the likelihood that he would not survive the strain of another four years in office and, in a clear indication of the gravity of the situation, argued that if the president did accept another term, “he had a very serious responsibility concerning who is Vice President.”13
According to a secret signed, sealed, and witnessed memo that Lahey drew up recording his conversation with McIntire, the latter “was in complete agreement” about the state of FDR’s health and had in fact “informed the President” about the nature of his condition. There is no way to confirm definitively whether or not this is true (and the Lahey memo would remain locked away in a safe in Boston for more than seventy years), but the balance of the evidence suggests that neither McIntire nor Bruenn—who would go on to become FDR’s attending physician under the supervision of McIntire—ever provided FDR or his family with a blunt warning about the risks involved in his decision to seek another term. Nor was the public fully informed. The standard line taken by Dr. McIntire—an ear, nose, and throat specialist—was that FDR was in fine health for a man his age. This was the mantra that was repeated to the press whenever the issue of the president’s health came up—which was often during the course of the 1944 campaign—and despite all of the evidence to the contrary, it appears that the surgeon general clung to this view right up until FDR’s death.14
Still, there is no question that FDR understood that he had “some trouble with [his] heart,” as he once informed his cousin, Daisy Suckley, and was well aware of his physicians’ insistence that he had to cut back on his workload. Moreover, the weight loss that accompanied FDR’s treatment, along with the ever more frequent bouts of fatigue brought on by his coronary disease and the gray pallor brought on by the digitalis, made it increasingly difficult for McIntire and other senior aides to simply brush aside both the private and public expressions of concern over the state of FDR’s health. As the 1944 campaign intensified, these expressions broke out into the open. On October 17, the Chicago Daily Tribune insisted that the president’s health be regarded as “one of the principal issues of the campaign” and two weeks later editorialized that “A Vote for F.D.R. may be a Vote for Truman.” On October 25, the Detroit Free Press and the Los Angeles Times published an editorial that took issue with the Democratic Party’s insistence that “Roosevelt’s health is a private matter.” Taking note of recent photographs that “revealed a man so changed” as to be almost unrecognizable, and calling Dr. McIntire’s subsequent claim that the president “is a few pounds underweight” but is “otherwise in perfect health… nonsense,” the two papers insisted that the president’s health “is not a private matter at all” but an issue “of vital concern to all the people.”15
- "Excellent...remarkably well-researched...a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Roosevelt."—Washington Post
- "A balanced, readable book based on thorough archival sources that will have considerable appeal to historians and political scientists, as well as general readers interested in the presidency."—Library Journal
- "An elucidating, poignant study of an elusive leader." —Kirkus Reviews
- "They say the fruit tree produces its greatest harvest in its last season. Perhaps the last few months of FDR's administration, so overshadowed by the first few months, may be as important. Woolner deftly brings those last moments in power beautifully alive and leaves us with a lasting sense of the man as well as his accomplishments."—Ken Burns
- "The Last 100 Days is an imaginative, deeply researched page-turner that is a pleasure to read. At a time when many Americans find the White House desolating, David Woolner invites the reader to enjoy some time with a president who, even in his final year, radiated good cheer and hope for our country's future."—William E. Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940
- "In this magisterial account, David Woolner makes a compelling case that FDR's last hundred days deserve to be ranked in importance with the first. Drawing on unequalled knowledge of both Roosevelt and the sources, Woolner refutes the notion of a feeble dying president who had lost his grip and was unwilling to confront difficult issues. He shows that an exhausted FDR conserved his limited energies single-mindedly to concentrate in the two most important issues facing the President--winning the war over the Axis powers and securing post-war international cooperation. A wonderfully lucid and convincing study."—Tony Badger, professor of American history at Northumbria University and author of FDR: The First Hundred Days
- "Everyone knows about FDR's First Hundred Days but until now there has been little notice of his last. In this finely-honed and impressively accessible account, David Woolner offers an up-close and insightful look at a dying president wrongly maligned for giving away too much at Yalta and beset by the immediate dangers of the postwar period."—Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
- "David Woolner has 'hung around' with FDR for over a quarter-century, and we are the beneficiary of that special relationship. Neatly using the last hundred days as a vehicle for a broader assessment, Woolner has given us an honest, solidly researched appreciation of Roosevelt's dreams and actions--dreams and actions that shaped the remainder of the 20th century."—Warren Kimball, author of Forged in War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Second World War
- "At a time when a majority of Americans are so disillusioned about politics, and with a sitting president under investigation for possible impeachable offenses, David Woolner's book offers a compelling look at a great Chief Executive. His portrait of FDR's last hundred days is a powerful reminder of courageous leadership and provides hope that we can return to presidential effectiveness in the not too distant future."—Robert Dallek, presidential historian and author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
- "We know the story-of course we do. But David Woolner invests it with a sense of Greek tragedy, as we watch a man struggling against time, fate and the furies to complete his life's work. In The Last 100 Days, Woolner uses his unrivalled knowledge of the archives to bring alive with vivid new detail FDR's grand finale and to show how the dying president tried to bring peace to the world--even though his private life remained in turmoil. In an era when the American presidency is under particularly intense scrutiny, here is a sobering yet uplifting account of the demands and costs of power."—David Reynolds, author of From Munich to Pearl Harbor
- "Franklin Roosevelt's last 100 days were every bit as fascinating and consequential as his first. If you want to know how much of the modern world came to be, this is the place to begin."—Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt
- On Sale
- Dec 12, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Basic Books