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F.D.R: The Last Journey
Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals.
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated for the fourth time, in January, 1945, twelve years of guiding the country through depression and war had sapped the strength of this vital and complex man. His health, which had been a major issue in the 1944 campaign, was the constant concern of his dedicated staff. Roosevelt himself, by this time, was thinking mostly of the problems of the coming peace.
If events abroad were reaching one of the great climacterics of history, domestic affairs by the spring of 1945 were following their own tepid cycle. In the wake of the President’s State of the Union messages in January, the committees of Congress assumed command of the legislative process with their ancient weapons of discussion, dilution, and delay. The manpower bill, after passing the House, slowly bled to death in the Senate as victories abroad blunted the spur of emergency. Former Vice President Henry Wallace was finally confirmed as Secretary of Commerce, replacing Jesse Jones. The confirmation came only after a bitter struggle in the Senate —and only after the big federal lending agencies were separated from Commerce so that Wallace could not “control” billions in loans. Congressional investigators of subversive activities conducted feckless witch hunts.
“It was a processional of terrible simplicity and a march too solemn for tears”
Not for years had the President’s legislative fortunes seemed at such a low ebb. The Republican and Democratic congressional parties were collaborating smoothly. Roosevelt, however, seemed hardly aware of the congressional situation; in any event he was not going to invite a quarrel with the legislators over domestic matters when he needed Republican and conservative support for his foreign policies, especially for American leadership in the planned new international organization.
His administration ran on with the momentum of twelve years of liberal activism. He urged renewal and strengthening of the Trade Agreements Act. He asked for an inquiry into guaranteed annual wage plans. He received ambassadors, awarded medals, discussed jobs with Democratic politicos.
He seemed to be dwelling in the past and the future, as well as the present. “I still say, thank God for those good old days and for old and tried friends like you,” he wrote to a Dutchess County friend who had remarked that it was a long step from the size of apple barrels—an issue in Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign—to meeting Churchill and Stalin and perhaps deciding the fate of the world. He was looking forward to his trips to San Francisco in April to the conference scheduled for organizing the United Nations and to England later in the spring with his wife. And by late March he could relax about military prospects in Europe. When he told Frances Perkins of his projected trip to England and she protested that it was still too dangerous, he put his hand to the side of his mouth and whispered: “The war in Europe will be over by the end of May.”
Both his daughter, Anna Boettiger, and his devoted secretary, Grace Tully, were quietly trying to conserve the President’s strength until he could get some rest at Warm Springs. Both were perplexed by sudden changes in his appearance. So were the reporters, who were watching him closely. At the White House correspondents’ dinner Allen Drury, correspondent for the United Press, noted how old and thin and scrawny-necked he looked when he was wheeled in, how he stared out at the crowded tables as though he did not see the people, how he failed to respond to the blare of trumpets and to the applause.
Then he suddenly came to life, Drury noted, and began to enjoy himself. The notables of Washington were there, including Admiral Leahy and General Marshall, Cabinet members Byrnes and Ickes and Biddle and Morgenthau, Supreme Court Justices Douglas and Jackson, several important senators, and Vice President Truman, with a handkerchief carefully folded in his breast pocket so that the four corners showed. Danny Kaye performed, and Jimmy Durante and Fanny Brice. Everyone watched the greatest performer of all—how he steadily drank wine and smoked his uplifted cigarette, how he leaned forward with his hand cupped behind his ear to hear a joke repeated as laughter welled up in the room, how his booming laughter rang out. Then a few moments later observers noticed how he simply sat at the table with an intent, vague expression on his face, while his jaw dropped and his mouth fell open.
But he lasted out the evening and gave a talk at the end. He would speak about humanity, he said—“We all love humanity, you love humanity, I love humanity. …” And in the name of humanity he would give them a headline story—“I am calling off the press conference for tomorrow morning.”