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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
The applause rang out as he was shifted back to his wheel chair, Drury noted in his diary, “and just before he went out the door he acknowledged it with the old, familiar gesture, so that the last we saw of Franklin Roosevelt was the head going up with a toss, the smile breaking out, the hand uplifted and waving in the old, familiar way.” The usual crowd clustered around the little Warm Springs station as Roosevelt’s train pulled in on Good Friday, March 30, 1945. Something seemed different this time as Roosevelt’s big frame, slumped in the wheel chair, seemed to joggle uncontrollably as he was rolled along the platform. A murmur drifted through the crowd. But the President drove his own car to the Little White House on top of the hill.
That evening William Hassett, a presidential secretary, told Dr. Howard G. Bruenn that the President was slipping away. Hassett blurted out that he had been maintaining a bluff to the family and even to Roosevelt himself, but he felt there was no hope for him. His signature had become feeble—the bold stroke and heavy line of old were gone, or simply faded out. Dr. Bruenn cautiously granted that Roosevelt was in a precarious condition but said it was not hopeless if he could be protected from emotional and mental strain. That was impossible, Hassett said. He and Bruenn were on the verge of despair.
But after a few days in the warm Georgia sun Roosevelt’s gray pallor changed and some of his old vitality returned, though his blood pressure had become erratic, ranging between 170/88 and 240/130. The news from Europe was exciting: American, British, and Canadian troops were encircling the Ruhr, spearing northwest toward Hanover and Bremen, driving ever deeper into the heart of Germany. Reports were also coming to Washington of the many thousands of civilian deaths in the fire bombings of Japanese and German cities; it is doubtful that Roosevelt understood the enormity of the civilian losses, which would compare with the effects of the later atomic bombings.
“how old and thin he looked A when he was wheeled in, how he stared as though he did not see the people”
Stalin’s harsh messages were forwarded to Warm Springs. Roosevelt was disturbed but not depressed by his deteriorating relations with the Kremlin. Unlike Churchill, who at the time foresaw the darkness ahead, as he said later, and moved amid cheering crowds with an aching heart, Roosevelt was sure that things would be put right. He tried to calm the troubled waters, cabling Stalin that in any event there must not be mutual distrust. He urged on Churchill that the Soviet problem be minimized as much as possible; things would straighten out. He added: “We must be firm however, and our course thus far is correct.”
The President seemed more concerned with Asia than with Europe during these early April days. He was pleased with the news of the sudden fall of the Japanese cabinet in the wake of the invasion of Okinawa. Philippine President Sergio Osmena was back in the United States to report on the terrible destruction in Manila. The President talked with reporters in remarkable detail about conditions in the Philippines, economic problems, the need for American assistance. It was his 998th press conference.
He was especially determined that there be no change in plans for immediate independence for the Philippines. It depended only on how quickly the Japanese were cleared from the islands. He would set an example for the British and the other colonial powers. He wrote to his old Navy Department chief, Josephus Daniels, that he would like independence to go into effect in August and to be present himself, but he feared he might have to be in Europe for a conference about that time.
On the afternoon of April 11 the President dictated the draft of a speech for Jefferson Day: “Americans are gathered together in communities all over the country to pay tribute to the living memory of Thomas Jefferson—one of the greatest of all democrats; and I want to make it clear that I am spelling that word ‘democrats’ with a small d. …”
The President paid tribute to Jefferson as Secretary of State, President, and scientist. Then he continued:
The once powerful, malignant Nazi state is crumbling. The Japanese war lords are receiving, in their own homeland, the retribution for which they asked when they attacked Pearl Harbor.
But the mere conquest of our enemies is not enough.
We must go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible. …
Today we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.
Let me assure you that my hand is the steadier for the work that is to be done, that I move more firmly into the task, knowing that you—millions and millions of you—are joined with me in the resolve to make this work endure.