F.D.R: The Last Journey

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Newspapers were still reporting people’s reactions around the world—still reporting the shock, incredulity, and fear, but above all the sense of having lost a friend. In Moscow, black-bordered flags flew at half mast; Soviet newspapers, which invariably printed foreign news on the back page, published the news of Roosevelt’s death and his picture on page one. The theme of the editorials in Russia was friendship. Many Russians were seen weeping in the street. The Court Circular of Buckingham Palace broke ancient precedent by reporting the death of a chief of state not related to the British ruling family; Roosevelt would have been pleased. In Chungking a coolie read the wall newspapers, newly wet with shiny black ink, and turned away muttering, “ Tai tsamsso liao ” (“It was too soon that he died”). “Your President is dead,” an Indian said to a passing G.I., “a friend of poor. …” Everywhere, noted Anne O’Hare McCormick, the refrain was, “We have lost a friend.”

It was this enormous fund of friendship on which Roosevelt expected to draw in carrying out his hopes for the postwar world. He expected to combine his friendships with captains and kings and his standing with masses of people with his political skills and America’s resources to strengthen the United Nations, maintain good relations with the Soviets, help the Chinese realize the Four Freedoms, and discourage European colonialism in Asia and Africa. But all depended on his being on deck, being in the White House.

The train threaded its way along the curving tracks on the bank of the Hudson, passing the towering Palisades across the river—High Tor, Sugarloaf, Storm King. At Garrison, opposite West Point, men removed their hats just as they had done eighty years before. Then Cold Spring, Beacon, Poughkeepsie, on the bank of the Hudson, the river of American politics.

Around the world men who had known Roosevelt were struggling to phrase their eulogies. Churchill was preparing a tribute for Parliament, but he would say nothing more cogent than his Tehran toast to Roosevelt as a leader who had “guided his country along the tumultuous stream of party friction and internal politics amidst the violent freedom of democracy.” The Russian diplomat Ivan Maisky would remember him as a statesman of very great calibre, with an acute mind, a wide sweep in action, vast energy, but in the end essentially bourgeois, flesh of the flesh of the American ruling class. John Buchan, author and Canadian governor general, felt that he had never met a man more fecund in ideas; Robert Sherwood found him spiritually the healthiest man he had ever known; Henry Stimson called him an ideal wartime commander in chief, the greatest war President the nation had ever had. Young Congressman Lyndon Johnson, grieving over the news of the death of his friend, said Roosevelt was the only person he had ever known who was never afraid. “God, how he could take it for us all!”

A second-rate intellect, Oliver Wendell Holmes had called him, but a first-rate temperament. To examine closely single aspects of Roosevelt’s character—as thinker, as organizer, as manipulator, as strategist, as idealist—is to see failings and deficiencies interwoven with the huge capacities. But to stand back and look at the man as a whole, against the backdrop of his people and his times, is to see the lineaments of greatness— courage, joyousness, responsiveness, vitality, faith. A democrat in manner and conviction, he was yet a member of that small aristocracy once described by E. M. Forster: sensitive but not weak, considerate but not fussy, plucky in his power to endure, capable of laughing and of taking a joke. He was the true happy warrior.

“All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River,” Roosevelt had said nine months before. The train, still hugging the riverbank, moved from Poughkeepsie into Hyde Park. It was Sunday, April 15, 1945, a clear day, the sky a deep blue. Tiny waves were breaking against the river shore where the train slowed and switched off onto a siding below the bluff on which the mansion stood. Cannon sounded twenty-one times as the coffin was moved from the train to a caisson drawn by six brown horses. Standing behind was a seventh horse, hooded, stirrups reversed, sword and boots turned upside down hanging from the left stirrup—symbolic of a lost warrior.

Following the beat of muffled drums, the little procession toiled up the steep, winding, gravelled road, past a small stream running full and fast, past the ice pond, with its surface a smoky jade under the overhanging hemlocks, past the budding apple trees and the lilacs and the open field, and emerged onto the height. In back of the house, standing in the rose garden framed by the hemlock hedge, was a large assembly: President Truman and his Cabinet, the officialdom of the old administration, family and friends and retainers, and a phalanx of six hundred West Point cadets standing rigidly at attention in their gray uniforms and white crossed belts. Behind the coffin, borne now by eight servicemen, Eleanor Roosevelt and her daughter, Anna, and her son Elliott moved into the rose garden.

The aged rector of St. James Episcopal Church of Hyde Park prayed, ”… earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Raising his hand as the servicemen lowered the body slowly into the grave, he intoned:

Now the laborer’s task is o’er, Now the battle day is past, Now upon the farther shore Lands the voyager at last. …