Skip to main content


F.D.R: The Last Journey

May 2024
28min read

Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals.

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.”

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.

The work, my friends, is peace. More than an end of this war—an end to the beginnings of all wars. Yes, an end, forever, to this impractical, unrealistic settlement of the differences between governments by the mass killing of peoples.

Today, as we move against the terrible scourge of war—as we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world—the contribution of lasting peace, I ask you to keep up your faith. I measure the sound, solid achievement that can be made at this time by the straight edge of your own confidence and your resolve. And to you, and to all Americans who dedicate themselves with us to the making of an abiding peace, I say: The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

Warm Springs on Thursday morning, April 12, 1945, was sunny and pleasant. Dogwood and wild violets bloomed along the road to Pine Mountain. There, at his favorite picnic spot, friends of Franklin Roosevelt were preparing a barbecue for the late afternoon; the smells of honeysuckle and stewing beef and chicken mingled in the soft Georgia air. A wooden armchair was set out for the guest of honor under a wisteria-laden oak tree, placed so that he could gaze at the greening valley below.

Down in the valley, in his corner bedroom in the Little White House, the President was sitting in bed reading the Atlanta Constitution; the big-city newspapers from the North had been delayed by bad weather in Washington. The headlines reported American troops fifty-seven miles from Berlin and 115 miles from the Russians; a big fleet of Super-Forts had bombed Tokyo in daylight. Roosevelt looked up from his paper at the sound of chatter in the kitchen. He called out to Lizzie McDuffie, who was dusting the living room. What were they talking about? Lizzie came to the door. Mr. Roosevelt had always had time to talk with her, to answer her questions.

“Well, Mr. Roosevelt, do you believe in reincarnation?” Did she believe in it? he countered. She didn’t know, Lizzie said, but if there was such a thing she wanted to come back as a canary bird.

“A canary bird!” The President looked at her two-hundred-pound frame, threw his paper down, and burst out laughing. Lizzie McDuffie would never forget that: the President with his head thrown back, his eyes closed, laughing and exclaiming—as she had heard him do a hundred times—“Don’t you love it? Don’t you love it?”

When Hassett reached the Little White House around noon with the delayed mail pouch, Roosevelt was sitting in the living room in his leather armchair chatting with his cousins Margaret Suckley and Laura Delano and with Mrs. Winthrop Rutherfurd.∗ Two years before, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd had commissioned a portrait painter, Elizabeth Shoumatoff, to do a water color of the President; recently he had asked the artist to paint another picture of him as a gift to Lucy’s daughter. Madame Shoumatoff came in while Roosevelt was signing a sheaf of appointments and awards Hassett had put before him—signing them as usual with a wide, flowing pen, so that Hassett had to spread them out to dry. The usual banter followed about putting out Hassett’s “laundry.” One document was a bill just passed by Congress to continue the Commodity Credit Corporation and increase its borrowing power. The President signed it with a flourish, telling the ladies, “Here’s where I make a law.”

∗An assistant to Mrs. Roosevelt and intimate friend of Franklin Roosevelt during the World War I years, Lucy Mercer had later married Winthrop Rutherfurd. She and Roosevelt re-established their old friendship during World War II.

Hassett looked on disapprovingly as the painter set up her easel, measured Roosevelt’s nose, asked him to turn back and forth. His boss looked much too weary for all this, he felt. He collected the signed documents and departed, leaving the President with some papers to read while he was being sketched. The room was quiet now. The artist continued her work, but the President became so intent in his reading that he fell out of his pose. She used the time to fill in colors. At one o’clock the President looked at his watch.

“We’ve got just fifteen minutes more.” The houseboy was setting the dining table on the other side of the room. Margaret Suckley continued to crochet, Laura Delano to fill vases with flowers. Lucy Rutherfurd watched the President. He made a little joke and looked into her smiling face. He lit a cigarette and studied his papers.


The fifteen minutes were almost up when the President raised his left hand to his temple, dropped it limply, then raised and pressed it behind his neck. He said very quietly: “I have a terrific headache.” Then his arm dropped, his head fell to the left, his body slumped. A call went out to Dr. Bruenn, who had been sunning himself at the pool. When Bruenn arrived, the President was still slumped in his chair; only with difficulty was the heavy, inert body carried into the bedroom. The President’s breathing stopped, then started again in great snoring gasps. Bruenn sheared away his clothes, injected papaverine and amyl nitrate, and telephoned Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, the President’s personal physician, in Washington. Madame Shoumatoff had already left with Mrs. Rutherfurd. Hassett arrived and knew the end was near when he heard the awful labored breathing. Grace Tully sat quietly in a corner of the living room, her lips moving in prayer. The minutes ticked by; the breathing grew more tortured; then it stopped. Bruenn could hear no heart sounds. He injected adrenalin into the heart muscle. No response. At 3:55 P.M. Dr. Bruenn pronounced him dead.

Grace Tully walked into the bedroom, kissed the President lightly on the forehead, then walked out onto the porch and stood there wordless and tearless. The reporters were summoned from the barbecue on Pine Mountain. They swept into the little house. Hassett was standing near the center of the living room. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “it is my sad duty to inform you that the President of the United States is dead. …”

The news came to Churchill in his study at 10 Downing Street just before midnight; for a long time he sat stunned and silent, feeling as though he had been struck a physical blow. In Moscow, Ambassador Averell Harriman was awakened at 2 A.M. ; he drove to the Kremlin to see Stalin, who seemed moved and preoccupied by the news as he held the envoy’s hand for a long moment, saying nothing. In Chungking, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek received the news as he began eating breakfast; he left the meal untouched and retired for mourning. In Japan an announcer for Radio Tokyo read the death bulletin and surprisingly presented some special music “in honor of the passing of a great man.”

In Berlin the news came to Goebbels on the steps of the Propaganda Ministry just after a bombing attack. His exultant face could be seen in the light of the flames from the burning Chancellery across the Wilhelmplatz. He had been telling the Führer and others that Germany would be saved at the eleventh hour by an unexpected event, just as Frederick the Great had been saved by the death of the czarina two centuries before. He called for champagne and telephoned Hitler, who was in his deep bunker.

“My Führer! I congratulate you. Roosevelt is dead. It is written in the stars that the second half of April will be the turning point for us. This is Friday, April 13. It is the turning point!”

Next morning the army band and a thousand infantrymen from Fort Benning, black streamers flying from their colors, led the hearse between lines of helmeted paratroopers down the curving red clay road through the Warm Springs Foundation. Behind came Eleanor Roosevelt in an open car, the President’s Scottie, Fala, at her feet. At Georgia Hall patients in wheel chairs waved farewell to the friend who had presided at their Thanksgiving dinners and swum with them in the warm pool. Graham Jackson had waited at the barbecue to play his accordion for the President; now, his face a map of anguish and disbelief, he stepped out from the columned portico and rendered “Going Home.”

Its drums beating a steady, deadened roll, the procession wound down to the little railroad station. The heavy, flag-draped coffin was handed through a window into the rear car of the presidential train. There it rested on a pine box so low that only the top of the casket could be seen through the windows. Four servicemen stood guard. The train started imperceptibly and began rolling down the track to Atlanta.

Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the presidential lounge car. The afternoon before, she had been at the White House when word came from Warm Springs that her husband had fainted; Admiral McIntire, in Washington, advised her to go ahead with a speaking engagement so that people would not be alarmed. She had done so, with her unquenchable sense of duty, only to be called back to the White House and told the definite news. She had had time to ask Harry Truman, “Is there anything we can do for you?“; to send a message to her four soldier sons, “He did his job to the end as he would want you to do.” Then she had flown south with McIntire and Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary.

While the train rolled through the gently billowing land of west central Georgia—his adopted state, Roosevelt called it—the world was trying to adjust to the death of the President. Almost everywhere the first reactions had been shock, incredulity, grief, and fear. Now it was time for second thoughts. Editorialists struggled to capture the nature of the man, the meaning of his life, the measure of the loss.

It was no easy task, for even those who knew Roosevelt best agreed that he was a man infinitely complex and almost incomprehensible. On such a relatively simple matter as his behavior toward fellow human beings he oscillated; like all men, he was both generous and vindictive, but it was Roosevelt’s mixture of the two qualities that was so baffling. Even now, friends of Al Smith were remembering how Roosevelt had befriended him during the war years and tried to bail out his Empire State Building, even though the “Happy Warrior” had scathingly attacked the New Deal. And Henry Luce, who had not treated the President ungently, was suddenly and arbitrarily barred by the White House from touring the Pacific Theater; he would hate Roosevelt to his dying day. The President could get along with anyone he wanted to, from Stalin to MacArthur to Huey Long to the man in the street. People in Warm Springs remembered the time he was driving his little car through the town and had stopped and waved over a Negro walking by; how the “colored man was scared, scraping his feet and all. … Then, first you know, he was leaning on the President’s automobile, throwing his arms around like he was talking to anybody.” Yet people as different as Jim Farley and Dean Acheson felt that he condescended—that he conveyed, Acheson felt, much of the attitude of European royalty.

South of Gainesville, Georgia, black women in a cotton field saw the train coming and fell to their knees in supplication. It was remarkable, this human touch of the President’s, but sometimes his charm had an edge of coquetry and pretense. Marshal Sir William Sholto-Douglas, of the R.A.F., remembered how Roosevelt had greeted him with a lecture on Scottish history and the achievements of the Douglases, told how he had a Scottish grandmother himself, and so on. Douglas sensed an indefinable flaw in his manner; he felt that he was witnessing some kind of performance—still, he was moved to the point of tears, and Roosevelt, he confessed later, nearly had him eating out of his hand. Jesse Jones, just fired from the administration, told a reporter that the President was a hypocrite and lacking in character but “you just can’t help liking that fellow.”

Along with all his democratic manner and instincts he had that curious interest in royal and noble personages and doings. He told a friend, rather improbably, that he had been hurt in England after the first war when he had not been invited to Buckingham Palace. In a different vein, and most curiously, he allowed and even encouraged Adolf Berle to call him “Caesar” in addressing the President in private. Berle, who was always bemused by the irony of power, was still calling him this the last time he saw Roosevelt, just after Yalta. Did the President derive from the term some curious satisfaction that outweighed the risk of his enemies’ discovering it and gleefully publicizing it—or did he tolerate Berle’s fun because he enjoyed imagining what they would do if they did find out about it?

Night came, and the funeral train—blacked out except for the ghostly, half-lit rear coach—wove slowly back and forth through the Carolina piedmont. Looking out from her berth at the countryside her husband loved, Eleanor Roosevelt glimpsed the solemn faces of the crowds at the depots and crossroads. The train would arrive in Washington eighty years to the day after Lincoln was shot. Eleanor remembered Millard Lampell’s poem “The Lonesome Train”:

A lonesome train on a lonesome track, Seven coaches painted black. …

A slow train, a quiet train,
Carrying Lincoln home again. …

Perhaps it was in Roosevelt’s home that the main clues to his character lay. William James, borrowing from Cardinal Newman, at one time spoke of the “once-born,” those who easily fitted into the ideology of their time, and of those “sick souls” and “divided selves” who went through a second birth, seizing on a second ideology. Roosevelt was one of the once-born. His identity was formed in a harmonious and stable family; he moved securely and surely from the pedestal of the only child of doting parents into the wider but equally untroubled environments of Hyde Park, Groton, and Harvard friendships. If his loving references to his Hyde Park home were not revealing enough of his sense of identity and of roots, his habit all through his Presidency of reducing policies and programs to terms of home and family would have betrayed his thinking: thus the Good Neighbor policy, the Big Four constables or policemen, the Lend-Lease “garden hose”; his idea that new institutions like the United Nations must toddle like a child for a few years before gaining strength; his repeated references to heads of state sitting around the table like members of the same family, or like neighbors; and his suggestion on at least one occasion that the best way to keep peace in a family—he was referring to de Gaulle and the other Frenchmen—was to keep the members of the family apart.

With an assurance undergirded by his sense of identity, Roosevelt moved from Groton and Harvard into the muckraking decade of Theodore Roosevelt, into the simmering politics of the Hudson Valley, into the reformist and idealistic mood of the Wilson years. It was with this assurance, sometimes bordering on arrogance, that he could confront and overcome his domestic adversaries of the 1930’s—and do so without personal hatred for a Huey Long, a Carter Glass, a Norman Thomas, an Al Smith, or a Wendell Willkie. He reserved his hatred for people in his own social world, such as Hamilton Fish, who he felt had betrayed him; and they reciprocated.

He embraced the ideology of freedom not with the demonic passion of the true believer who possesses a creed and ends up being possessed by it, but with the easy assurance of a man who slowly fashions his political faith, borrowing from the thinkers and political leaders of the day, reshaping his ideas as he undergoes new experiences and lives through changing times—and hence can, when necessary, keep his distance from that faith’s possessive demands. He overcame his adversaries not only because he outwitted and outmaneuvered and outstayed them but also because he outsermonized and outmoralized them. Only a man deadly serious and supremely self-assured could have spent the time Roosevelt did appealing to old-fashioned moralisms of home and school, the golden rule and the Ten Commandments as interpreted by Endicott Peabody (the headmaster of Groton), the maxims of freedom as practiced by Wilson and Al Smith, the “simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back,” as he said in 1932. So certain was he of the Tightness of his aims that he was willing to use Machiavellian means to reach them; and his moral certainty made him all the more effective in the struggle. He used the tricks of the fox to serve the purposes of the lion.

People in northern Virginia and Washington felt they had never known such a lovely spring. On the warm and windless morning of Saturday, April 14, the lilacs and azaleas were in full bloom. The funeral train rolled through woods spattered with showers of dogwood, crossed the Potomac, and pulled into Union Station. Thousands waited outside in the plaza, as they had so often before. Anna, Elliott, and Elliott’s wife entered the rear car; President Truman and his Cabinet followed. Then the soldier’s funeral procession began—armored troops, truck-borne infantry, the Marine band, a battalion of Annapolis midshipmen, the Navy band, WACS , WAVES , SPARS , women Marines, then a small, blackdraped caisson carrying the coffin, drawn by six white horses, with a seventh serving as outrider. Army bombers thundered overhead.

“It was a processional of terrible simplicity and a march too solemn for tears,” William S. White wrote, “except here and there where someone wept alone. It was a march, for all its restrained and slight military display, characterized not by this or by the thousands of flags that hung limply everywhere but by a mass attitude of unuttered, unmistakable prayer.”

In front of the White House the coffin was lifted from the caisson during the playing of the national anthem, carried up the front steps, and wheeled down a long red carpet to the East Room. Here, where Lincoln had lain, banks of lilies covered the walls. The President, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, labor leaders, diplomats, politicians, agency heads, crowded into the room and spilled over into the Blue Room. At the close of his prayer Bishop Dun paused and quoted from F. D. R.’s First Inaugural: ”… Let me assert my firm belief that the only thiner we have to fear is fear itself. …”


Eleanor Roosevelt rose and left the room; then the others filed out. Later, upstairs, she came into Anna’s room, in anguish. She had heard in Warm Springs, from a relative, about Lucy Rutherfurd’s visits; she had heard that Lucy had been with her husband when he died. Her daughter must have known of this; why had she not told her? Mother and daughter confronted each other tensely. Then, as always, Eleanor Roosevelt steadied herself. She returned to the East Room, had the casket opened, and dropped in some flowers. Then the casket was sealed for good. Later in the evening the funeral cortege went back to Union Station. Crowds still lined the avenues. The presidential train, with seventeen cars filled with officials and politicians, pulled out before midnight.

The train had brought Roosevelt’s body up through Virginia, the land of Washington and Jefferson; now, from the capital all the way to Hyde Park, he would be following the route of Abraham Lincoln’s last journey, and people would be thinking of the strange parallels between the two—the sudden, unbelievable deaths, the end for each coming in the final weeks of a terrible war, both in the month of April—and of things that seemed to be more than coincidence. Both men had been perplexing combinations of caution and courage, of practicality and principle; both had taken their countries into war after faits accomplis had allowed it; both had acted for black Americans only under great pressure.

Through the long night, under weeping clouds, the train moved north, through Baltimore to Wilmington to Philadelphia. And everywhere it was as it had been eighty years before:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom‘d …

With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,

With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn …

After all his delays and evasions Lincoln had won standing as a world hero, through emancipation and victory and martyrdom; but Roosevelt—what kind of hero was Roosevelt? Some close observers felt that people exaggerated Roosevelt’s political courage. Clare Boothe Luce remarked that every great leader had his typical gesture—Hitler the upraised arm, Churchill the V sign. Roosevelt? She wet her index finger and held it up. Many others noted Roosevelt’s cautiousness, even timidity. Instead of appealing to the people directly on great developing issues and taking clear and forthright action to anticipate emergencies, he typically allowed problems to fester and come to a head in the form of dramatic issues before acting with decision. He often took bold positions only to retreat from them in subsequent words or actions. He seemed unduly sensitive to both congressional and public opinion; he used public-opinion polls much more systematically than was realized at the time, even to the point one time of polling people on the question of who should succeed Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy (Harold Stassen lost). His arresting speeches gave him a reputation as the fearless leader, but he spent far more time feinting and parrying in everyday politics than in mobilizing the country behind crucial decisions.

Around 2 A.M. the train crossed into New Jersey, the state where Woodrow Wilson had plunged into politics as a reformer, while young Roosevelt, impressed, watched from Hyde Park and Albany. Old Wilsonians later had compared Roosevelt unfavorably to the great idealist who had gone down fighting for his dream. Roosevelt, too, had watched that performance—had been part of it—and had drawn his conclusions from it. Robert Sherwood remembered him sitting at the end of the long table in the Cabinet room and looking up at the portrait of his onetime chief over the mantlepiece; the tragedy of Wilson, Sherwood said, was always somewhere within the rim of Roosevelt’s consciousness.

“The tragedy of Wilson …” There were some who said that this was merely a personal tragedy for the man and a temporary tragedy for the nation and the world, that the prophetic warnings of the great crusader had been vindicated so dramatically by the collapse of the balance of power twenty years later, that Wilson’s very defeat had made possible American commitment to a new international organization. Roosevelt did not share this view. He had no wish to be a martyr, to be vindicated only a generation later. He believed in moving on a wide, short front, pushing ahead here, retreating there, temporizing elsewhere, moving audaciously only when forces were leaning his way, so that one quick stroke— perhaps only a symbolic stroke, like a speech—would start in his direction the movement of press and public opinion, of Congress, his own administration, foreign peoples and governments. All this he could do only from a position of power, from the pulpit of the Presidency. To gain power meant winning elections; and to win elections required endless concessions to expediency and compromises with his own ideals.

Projected onto the international plane this strategy demanded of Roosevelt not only the usual expediency and opportunism but also a willingness to compromise with men and forces antagonistic to the ideals of Endicott Peabody and Woodrow Wilson. Again and again, self-consciously and indeed with bravado, he “walked with the devil” of the far right or far left, in his deals with France’s Darlan and Italy’s Badoglio, his toleration of Franco, his concessions to Stalin. Yet this self-confessed, if temporary, companion of Satan was also a Christian soldier striving for principles of democracy and freedom that he set forth with unsurpassed eloquence and persistence.

Did he then not “mean it”? So Roosevelt’s enemies charged. It was all a trick, they said, to bamboozle the American people or their allies, to perpetuate himself in power, or to achieve some other sinister purpose. But it seems clear that Roosevelt did mean it, if meaning it is defined as intensity of personal conviction rooted in an ideological commitment. “Oh—he sometimes tries to appear tough and cynical and flippant, but that’s an act he likes to put on, especially at press conferences,” Harry Hopkins said to Sherwood. “He wants to make the boys think he’s hardboiled. Maybe he fools some of them, now and then—but don’t ever let him fool you, or you won’t be any use to him. You can see the real Roosevelt when he comes out with something like the Four Freedoms. And don’t get the idea that those are only catch phrases. He believes them . …”

Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals. It might have been more dramatic if he had been assassinated by an ideological foe or had been stricken during a speech. But his decisions to aid Britain and Russia, his daring to take a position before the 1944 election against giving power to the Senate to sabotage America’s peace-enforcing efforts in the proposed council of the United Nations, his long, exhausting trips to Tehran and Yalta, his patient efforts to win Stalin’s personal friendship, his willingness to go out on a limb in his belief that the United States and the Soviet Union could work together in the postwar world—all this testified to the deoth of his conviction.


Yet he could believe with equal conviction that his prime duty was to defend his nation’s interests, safeguard its youth, win the war as quickly as possible, protect its postwar economy. With his unconquerable optimism he felt that he could do both things—pursue global ideals and national Realpolitik —simultaneously. So he tried to win Soviet friendship and confidence at the same time that he saved American lives by consenting to the delay in the cross-Channel invasion, thus letting the Red Army bleed. He paid tribute to the brotherly spirit of global science just before he died even while he was withholding atomic information from his partners the Russians. He wanted to unite liberal Democrats and internationalist Republicans in one progressive party, but he never did the spadework or took the personal political risks that such a strategy required. He yearned to help Indians and other Asiatic peoples gain their independence, but not at the risk of disrupting his military coalition with Britain and other Atlantic nations holding colonial possessions in Asia. He ardently hoped to bring a strong, united, and democratic China into the Big Four, but he refused to apply to Chungking the military resources and political pressure necessary to arrest the dry rot in that country. Above all, he wanted to build a strong postwar international organization, but he dared not surrender his country’s substantive veto in the proposed peace-keeping council, and as a practical matter he seemed more committed to Big Four, great-power peace-keeping than he did to a federation acting for the brotherhood of all mankind.

“I dream dreams but am, at the same time, an intensely practical person,” Roosevelt wrote to Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa during the war. Both his dreams and his practicality were admirable; the problem lay in the relation between the two. He failed to work out the intermediary ends and means necessary to accomplish his purposes. Partly because of his disbelief in planning far ahead, partly because he elevated short-run goals over long-run, and always because of his experience and temperament, he did not fashion the structure of action, the full array of mutually consistent means—political, economic, psychological, military—necessary to realize his paramount ends.

So the more he preached his lofty ends and practiced his limited means, the more he reflected and encouraged the old habit of the American democracy to “praise the Lord—and keep your powder dry,” and the more he widened the gap between popular expectations and actual possibilities. Not only did this derangement of ends and means lead to crushed hopes, disillusion, and cynicism at home, but it helped sow the seeds of the Cold War during World War II, as the Kremlin contrasted Roosevelt’s coalition rhetoric with his Atlantic First strategy and falsely suspected a bourgeois conspiracy to destroy Soviet Communism. And Indians and Chinese contrasted Roosevelt’s anticolonial words with his military concessions to colonial powers and falsely inferred that he was an imperialist at heart and a hypocrite to boot.

Roosevelt’s critics attacked him as naïve, ignorant, amateurish, in foreign affairs, but this man who had bested all his domestic enemies and most of his foreign ones was no innocent. His supreme difficulty lay not in his views as to what was —he had a Shakespearean appreciation of all the failings, vices, cruelties, and complexities of man—but of what could be . The last words he ever wrote, on the eve of his death, were the truest words he ever wrote. He had a strong and active faith, a huge and unprovable faith, in the possibilities of human understanding, trust, and love. He could say with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that love is the law of life even when people do not live by the law of love.

It was still dark when the train drew into Pennsylvania Station. New York had been alive with rumors that Jack Dempsey or Frank Sinatra or some other celebrity had died, too. At the time of Roosevelt’s funeral service in the White House, New York City news presses stopped rolling, radios went silent, subway trains came to a halt, police held up traffic. In Carnegie Hall the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Serge Koussevitzky, played Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Roosevelt’s train paused for a time at the Mott Haven railroad yards in the Bronx, then moved up the east bank of the Hudson— the route that Roosevelt had taken so often before.

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. …

A breeze off the Hudson ruffled the trees above. Cadets fired three volleys. A bugler played the haunting notes of taps. The soldier was home.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.