- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
The return air trip was bumpy and all were concerned for Watson as well as for the President. Once aboard the Quincy , Watson seemed to make rapid improvement for a time and the President enjoyed his famous good will meeting with the three eastern kings. He gave them all the same advice—to use their natural resources for the good of their people by better roads, schools, hospitals, sanitation and irrigation. After a brief stop at Alexandria for a last talk with Churchill, we thought our troubles were over, but it was not to be. Despite all signs of a quick recovery, Watson suddenly died at the very moment that the doctor thought he might begin to see visitors. It was a great shock to all of us, and a bitter personal blow to Franklin Roosevelt, who for twelve years had greatly enjoyed the company and counsel of this loyal and cheerful servant. We were at sea at the moment and I dispatched a destroyer to stand off at some distance from the task force and transmit the news home. Thus no interception by Axis forces would betray our position.
It was a sad homecoming for us all. And we had hardly begun to get readjusted when a tirade arrived from Stalin accusing the President of bad faith in negotiating a truce with Austria without consulting Russia. The President’s indignant reply was immediate and equally tart. Stalin finally hedged by saying he never questioned the President’s integrity but believed he was not getting all the facts from his generals. This was also flatly contradicted and the incident passed into history. After all the effort that had been made to bring Russia into the family of nations, it was a disturbing sign of Russian suspicion and distrust.
When the President was persuaded to take a rest at Warm Springs, I had not the slightest foreboding of a crisis. I knew he was tired, but I had seen him very tired many times before and I never ceased to be amazed at how quickly he responded to even a few days’ rest. I was his age and pretty tired myself, and in fact tried to suggest my retirement to him. But Mr. Roosevelt returned my memorandum with a wry smile and this endorsement: “Returned disapproved, without consideration…The time is not ripe to raise canaries like old man Osterhaus. F.D.R.”
One day I seized the opportunity for an afternoon of golf. My wife and I were coming in on the second nine when a house boy came running out to tell me the White House had been trying to get me on the phone for the past hour. As he turned away, he said, “You knowed the President is dead, didn’t you?” “How dare you say such things,” I said, crossly. “I don’t know,” said he, “that is what they say.” I reached the White House gates after a frenzied drive just in time to see Mrs. Roosevelt, Ross McIntire and Steve Early drive out on their way to the airfield. They gave me a sad wave in passing. I paused for a moment to watch them go as if they were the last tangible link with a friend I loved and revered. I had been the first naval officer to welcome him at New York 33 years before and the last to bid him farewell on his visit to the Springs.
When I got to my office the swearing in of President Truman was all over. The wheels of government had moved smoothly, thanks, I believe, to the competence of Secretary Steve Early, who had been a reporter on the train with President Harding at the time of his death and knew from experience exactly what to do.
The next few days still have for me a sense of the numbness and unreality which accompanies bad dreams. The weeping, stricken throngs that lined Pennsylvania Avenue in place of the cheering multitudes of former days; the service in the East Room of the White House; the final drive with the casket to the train; the unloading at the Hyde Park side track; the gallant struggle of the cavalry horses to drag the heavy caisson up the steep unpaved country road with frightening risk of tumbling casket and caisson into the ditch; the quiet burial service at the grave.
It seems to me that the strain of that whole Yalta expedition must have hastened Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Had he realized the cost, I think he would not have hesitated to go, for he hoped the Russians might be persuaded to join the family of nations in the spirit of good neighbors. He believed they should be given their chance. Some men can gentle a wild horse, and some can’t. Who knows whether Franklin Roosevelt, if he had lived, might have gentled Stalin? Probably not, but he would gladly have given his life trying.
For two years my daily Washington routine had started with my attending the secretary of the Navy’s secret information conference at nine o’clock. At this conference the head of Naval Intelligence gave a brief of the day’s war news, and I had an opportunity to question any member on any technical subject that interested the President.
After the conference, which usually lasted only fifteen minutes, I went direct to the White House, read over the night’s dispatches in my office, and waited with Admiral Leahy for the President to come downstairs to his office. Toward the end he delayed his arrival more and more so that we always had time to spare for sorting out the important dispatches and Leahy to block out suggested action.*