Finest Hour 121, Winter 2003-04
By Christopher H. Sterling
FDR in 1944: A Diminished President, by Matthew B. Wills. Ivy House, 192pp., illus., $22.95. Order from the publisher, (800) 948-2786.
There seems to be a growing fascination with and trend toward issuing studies of great persons in the context of their personal histories—medical and matrimonial. Recent studies of John Kennedy and Princess Diana are but two examples. This privately-published volume is such a book—a warm and feeling description of the last full year of Franklin Roosevelt’s life as his health worsened, though this vital fact was withheld from all but a tiny handful of close aides. Wills’s focus is on the impact of that disastrous decline on American policy as the war turned solidly in the Allies’ favor.
The author practiced law for a third of a century in Colorado before retiring and turning to his love of American history. He had a published study of the many wartime missions of Harry Hopkins to his credit before undertaking this analysis of the complex tale of Roosevelt’s decline. Not a medical man himself, Wills seems to have sought good advice from others as he pored over papers from the FDR Library and other resources better to understand and relate how the President’s declining faculties affected political and military decision-making in Washington, and with the Big Three, including Churchill. Only when FDR reported to Congress early in 1945, just after returning from the Yalta conference, was his obvious decline on public display for all to see. He died just three months later.
In part this is a study of deliberate deceit. Not that there was no precedent—Woodrow Wilson’s wife and doctor had conspired to keep his parlous state from the public eye in 1919-20. In those now long-vanished days, reporters and editors treated the White House with a distant respect and generally accepted what they were told. Little had changed a generation later as FDR was in decline, and a small coterie of aides could readily keep the truth from prying eyes—especially when wartime secrecy was an accepted mode of operation.
And in part Wills’s study reveals the very different press performance standards of the era. While we’ve all heard the stories of the informal agreement not to portray the President’s paralysis in photographs (and, indeed, only two or three such pictures are known to exist), readers in the early 21st century will find it hard to believe (and perhaps to understand) how editors could so limit what they reported about the President’s health. Given what we now know about present and many past political leaders—whether we want to know or not—the seeming trust of the public in what they read in 1944 helps to explain the widespread worldwide shock when the President died in April 1945.
Wills’s approach is chronological. He tells us the story of Roosevelt in 1944, from wartime decisions to domestic politics (including, of course, the 1944 national reelection campaign), to family relationships. Making good use of judicious quotes from contemporary observers, Wills focuses on the growing concerns of those around the President, the choice of Truman as Vice-President (and, as many expected to be the case, President sooner rather than later), the changing relationship between Harry Hopkins and the President, Churchill and Roosevelt, the sacrifice of General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in China in favor of retaining Chiang Kai-shek in power, the decline of American foreign policy under Secretary of State Cordell Hull (himself infirm), and a brief epilogue.
The chapter on Churchill and Roosevelt, while not adding much to what is already known of that famous relationship, is interesting nonetheless. Wills demonstrates some of the growing differences between the two men, especially concerning the future of the British Empire and the timing and location of attacks on German-occupied Europe. He concludes that Roosevelt treated Churchill inconsistently (at best), but that his declining health is probably the explanation.
Wills’s book is engagingly written, taut and to the point. It helps to shed light on a critical period in both Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s lives, making clearer the health-driven changes that few understood at the time.