- Historic Sites
Incident In Miami
On a warm Florida evening in 1933 a madman with a pistol and a personality profile now all too familiar—“unskilled, unfriendly, unmoneyed, and unwell”—came within inches of altering the course of American history in one of its most critical moments
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
The sun had gone down on a warm Florida winter day (it was seven in the evening of February 15, 1933) when Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal tied up at a Miami dock after twelve days of cruising through the Bahamas. She was one of the largest private yachts afloat—virtually a small liner with her 263 feet of length, her diesel-powered speed of sixteen knots, her cruising range of 19,000 miles—and she had been much-publicized ever since her maiden voyage to New York from Friedrich Krupp’s Kielgaarden shipyards in Germany ( Astor had bought her there) in the summer of 1928. No doubt her gleaming white beauty would have attracted a good deal of attention in normal circumstances, even on a waterfront habitually crowded with luxury craft. As it was, hundreds of people watched her mooring with avid interest: aboard was the President-elect of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was to replace Herbert Hoover in the White House in just seventeen days.
The evening papers told of probable Sino-Japanese war; told of a consequent and soon impending day of reckoning for the League of Nations, whose inevitable condemnation of Japanese aggression might well provoke a contemptuous Japanese withdrawal from the League; told of policecondoned, Nazi-organized street violence throughout Germany as the newly installed Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, moved to crush all opposition; and told, under the biggest and blackest headlines of all, how the governor of Michigan had ordered closed every bank in that state for at least eight days.
This last news was frightening, even panic inducing: it presaged a total collapse of the national credit structure—the end of a process of failure that had begun with the stock market crash of 1929 and had been continuous, latterly accelerating, ever since. Some fifty-four hundred banks had failed. The physical volume of American industrial production had been halved, national income had been more than halved (down from $90 billion to $42 billion), farm prices had fallen below production costs, and unemployment had climbed from less than 1.5 million to well over 12 million. Fully one-fourth of the nation’s labor force was out of work, a brutal fact evinced in every city by lengthening bread lines of ragged hungry men and by the ghastly spread over urban wasteland of “Hoovervilles,” where flimsy shacks made of discarded materials sheltered, miserably, a discarded humanity. The Great Depression was entering its fourth year, each worse than the last, and if there had not yet developed in America the kind of bitter class antagonisms that in other lands had produced social revolution and fascist reaction, the development was manifestly under way, emergent from a stunned, apathetic hopelessness more horrible to contemplate, somehow, than almost any violent protest would have been. Among the unemployed there was more and more muttering about the need for a new American revolution; among businessmen there was increasingly open talk about the need for an American Mussolini.
Hence it was a sorely troubled nation, in a sorely troubled world, of which Franklin Roosevelt would soon be Chief Executive. The President-elect faced in mid-February, 1933, problems as crucial as Abraham Lincoln’s in mid-February, 1861—and problems harder to define. Heavy on the minds of Americans, therefore, as they watched and waited with growing anxiety, was the question of whether Roosevelt was strong enough of mind and will to respond successfully to his awesome challenge.
Many doubted it, having studied the man and his record.
His very charm, so personal and immense, made him suspect. Was not this kind of charm generally associated with serious defects of character? Did it not imply an excessive eagerness to please, a deficiency of purpose, tenacity, courage? True, he had suffered and triumphed over great personal affliction; but against this evidence of fortitude must be weighed dubious portions of his public record and doubts of his seriousness and determination. His dealings as governor of New York with banking chicanery and, the preceding spring and summer, with ugly Tammany scandals had been less than bold and forthright. Under pressure from isolationists whose support he wanted in the Democratic nominating convention, he had abruptly reversed his position regarding United States entrance into the League of Nations (he had formerly been a leading advocate of such entrance). His campaign speeches had been notably vague on specific issues (where did he really stand on the tariff? on monetary policy?), and since the election he had given no sign that he had any definite plans for dealing with the crisis. Finally there were persistent rumors of his superficial intellect, his adolescent humor, his frivolous “playboy” proclivities—rumors allegedly emanating from people who had long known him well in his private life.