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FDR’s War with Polio

July 2024
6min read

Have historians underestimated the importance of Roosevelt’s twenty-four-year struggle with the disease that made him a paraplegic?

The afternoon of August 26, 1933, was warm and sunny in Poughkeepsie, and a large crowd had gathered on the Vassar College campus for a Dutchess County reception in honor of the area’s most illustrious citizen, Franklin Roosevelt. The new President had motored over from Hyde Park, and his open Packard had brought him to within a few steps of the outdoor platform from which he would speak. As he finished his remarks, a local physician named Harold Rosenthal stationed himself next to the car. He had his 16mm movie camera with him and was eager to get some close-up footage of FDR to show his family and friends. The result—less than a minute of silent black-and-white film recently deposited at the FDR Library in Hyde Park—is a unique historical document.

Rosenthal began filming as Roosevelt and his aides left the specially built ramp that led down from the platform, perhaps thirty feet away. The President wears a dark jacket and white summer pants. His left hand grips the right arm of his stocky bodyguard, Gus Gennerich; his right fist holds a cane on which he leans heavily. As he starts to move forward along the dappled path, a member of his party steps out from behind him and hurries toward the camera. His expression is pleasant but purposeful; he is a Secret Service man and he silently orders Rosenthal to stop filming. The doctor complies, but not before we have clearly seen FDR take three unsteady steps, his head and torso rocking alarmingly from side to side as he heaves himself forward from the hips. It is suddenly, shockingly clear that nothing works below those hips; his legs, encased in hidden braces, are utterly stiff and so wasted that there seems nothing of substance within his billowing trousers.

The camera stops, then starts again—Dr. Rosenthal was evidently not easily discouraged. Roosevelt is now so close that his broad shoulders and big profile fill the whole screen. Only the ghost of his customary smile is present; his jaw is set, his eyes downcast; he looks uneasy, even irritated, as his helplessness is captured by the loudly whirring camera just inches away. (FDR is waiting while, out of the frame, an aide opens the car door so that he can be helped to turn around and fall back along the seat; the aide will then unsnap his braces, allowing his knees to bend while he swings himself into a normal sitting posture.) Again, the film is interrupted, and when it resumes once more, FDR is safely in his seat—and transformed: his head cocked companionably, the famous grin in place, he shouts greetings to old friends in the crowd. He is himself again.


Franklin Roosevelt was President for a dozen crowded years. No man has ever been filmed or photographed more often. Yet among all the hundreds of thousands of still pictures and miles of movie film, this brief amateur footage is the only clear, close-up glimpse we have of the central physical fact of his life—that he was not just “lame” as millions believed, or merely crippled, but in fact a polio paraplegic, powerless to stand unaided on fragile limbs that an examining physician once described with harrowing objectivity as “flail legs.”

Hugh Gregory Gallagher brings a certain hard-won expertise to FDR’s Splendid Deception, his provocative new study of Roosevelt’s illness and its impact upon him. Like FDR, Gallagher is a “polio”—a term he understandably prefers to polio “victim” or “survivor”; like him, too, he lives confined to a wheelchair and was a patient at Warm Springs, the Georgia treatment center Roosevelt established in the twenties. He argues persuasively that most of FDR’s biographers have gravely underestimated the importance of Roosevelt’s polio, relegating it to a chapter or two as just the most formidable of the series of obstacles he overcame on the way to the White House.

As he clearly shows, no one ever truly “conquers” polio: its physical damage can never be undone; its psychological assault on any patient’s self-esteem takes a lasting toll. The limitations paralysis imposed on FDR affected every waking hour of his life from the onset of the disease in 1921 until his death, twenty-four years later. He was unable even to get into bed by himself: late one night during the war, his son John returned to the White House to find the leader of the Allied world alone in his bedroom, still dressed and trapped in his wheelchair; his valet had had too much to drink and had fallen asleep.

That so few Americans understood the full extent of Roosevelt’s disability was very largely his own doing. He was determined from the first never to seem pitiable. It was his goal, he once told a physical therapist, to be able to enter a room under his own power, “without scaring everybody. I’ll stand easily in front of people,” he said, “so that they forget I’m a cripple.” I suspect that is the goal of most polios. (I should perhaps add here that I am one myself, though nowhere near so seriously affected as FDR or the author.) But in Roosevelt’s case, political ambition provided added incentive; for a would-be leader, Gallagher writes, “pity is poison.” And to avoid inspiring that fatal emotion, he made great sacrifices; he would not allow himself to use the crutches that would have increased his mobility, for example, because to have done so would have been a public confession of his reliance upon them. So far as possible, he simply pretended even to those closest to him that his handicap did not exist, and thereby encouraged others not to notice it either. Even so shrewd an observer as Rexford Tugwell, an important adviser and one of his most perceptive biographers, seems to have been fooled: “The President,” he once said, “never gave his handicap a thought, never.”

Certainly others did. Gallagher is especially good on the elaborate lengths to which those who worked with him went to ease his special burdens and shield his helplessness from the public. The engineer who drove the train he so loved to ride was ordered to go slowly because too much sudden jarring could topple the President from his seat. Eleanor Roosevelt dawdled uncharacteristically when she had to lead White House dinner guests down the stairs from the President’s study—where he relished mixing cocktails—to the state dining room, thus giving FDR’s valet time to wheel him on and off the elevator and transfer him to his chair at the head of the table, so that he could welcome his guests as they entered. Even the briefest public appearance required deft choreography from the Secret Service: ramps were hurried in and out of buildings to accommodate his chair; a way always had to be found to bring him as close as possible to the podium—and that podium had to be solidly anchored. On one occasion, Gallagher writes, the level of the street itself was raised so that FDR could be seen walking into a funeral service; his slow rocking gait would not work on even the slightest incline, and every inch of the path before him had to be surveyed for loose pebbles or hidden depressions, since the slightest irregularity could send him sprawling. During the war he gradually abandoned even these brave tottering performances and allowed himself to be carried to and from his car. He had to teach himself to “walk” again for the 1944 campaign; he had not even tried to stand for nearly a year.

The press helped keep Roosevelt’s secret. In those pre-adversarial days, even reporters from hostile newspapers considered references to his paralysis out of bounds. Professional photographers and newsreel cameramen lowered their cameras whenever his disability was most evident—and when overeager newcomers dared raise theirs, the veterans deliberately blocked their view. Home-movie-makers were gently led aside by Secret Service men who took their film, had it developed in Washington, snipped out any footage they thought too revealing, and returned the rest. No one seemed to mind. (I doubt whether even so magnetic a polio as FDR could be elected in our all-intrusive television age; certainly his handicap could never have been so humanely hidden.)

The limitations polio imposed on FDR affected every waking hour of his life from the onset of the disease in 1921 until his death, twenty-four years later.

But if Gallagher demonstrates that other biographers have paid too little attention to FDR’s affliction, I believe that he himself pays too much attention to it. It simply cannot be true, as he asserts, that Roosevelt’s crippling provides the “central key to understanding FDR’s personality and motivation.” There is no “central key” to understanding him; like the rest of us, he was the complex product of all the things that ever happened to him, good and bad, late and early. Roosevelt was a middle-aged man when polio struck; disease does not create personality anew—though it may exaggerate some existing traits and dull others—and many of the characteristics that Gallagher ascribes largely to FDR’s illness had always been critical elements in his makeup—his desire to dominate through charm, his occasional pleasure in the discomfiture of others, his delight in secrecy, his willingness to try one remedy after another until one worked.

Nor, as Gallagher further argues, was polio Roosevelt’s “one and only major experience with failure … humiliation and loss.” He had much earlier been embarrassed by his inability to live up to his parents’ expectations for him at school and college; had been spurned by the first woman he asked to marry him; suffered defeat for the U.S. Senate nomination from New York and for Vice-President; mourned the deaths of his father and his own first-born son; and had been discovered conducting a romance with his wife’s social secretary, nearly destroying his marriage and his public career into the bargain. That these events—like his later polio—did not seem unduly to disturb his insouciance is proof only of his emotional reticence and of his highly developed skill at ignoring unpleasantness, lessons learned from his formidable parents long before he left home.

Still, this book provides a vivid and useful antidote to traditional accounts of FDR’s illness, and it is filled with examples of Roosevelt’s gallantry. In the summer of 1944, for example, the President visited a Hawaiian naval hospital overlooking Pearl Harbor. He was already failing and gray with fatigue, but when he learned that there were some eighteen hundred wounded men in the orthopedic wards, many of them amputees, he insisted on wheeling himself from bed to bed so that the newly maimed men could see what they had in common with their Commander-in-Chief.

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