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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Franklin Roosevelt Dies, April 12, 1945

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Today in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, died at his resort in Warm Springs, Georgia. His death marked the end of an era of American leadership unsurpassed in its length, for FDR was elected President four times. He led the nation through a crippling economic depression and the Second World War, all
the while battling his own physical limitations.

Franklin Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family from upstate New York. This wealth allowed the future President to attend the best schools, including Columbia Law School, where he met the requirements for a law degree in 1907 but never actually graduated. He worked in corporate law for a short time, but felt the pull of politics early on. His first elected office was a seat in the New York State Senate, a post he won in 1910.

By the time Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912, Roosevelt had already become a popular Democrat in New York. The new President appointed him to the position of Assistant Secretary of Navy, despite the fact that he had no experience. Roosevelt proved to be a highly effective administrator; by the time the United States entered the First World War in 1917, he was essentially running the Navy Department while the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, served more as a symbolic figurehead.

FDR was married by this time to his distant cousin Eleanor. They had six children together, five of whom survived to adulthood. In 1918, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with her social secretary. She demanded a divorce, but Roosevelt's mother, who controlled the family fortune and would have a heavy hand in her only
son's life until her death, intervened and offered the young couple a deal: they would stay together in name only in order to save Franklin's political career. In exchange, Eleanor would be given a separate home and money with which to pursue her causes. This arrangement worked for the rest of FDR's life, with Eleanor becoming a
trusted political advisor.

In 1921, Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis, better known as polio, a virus which attacks the nerves in the spinal cord. He was almost totally paralyzed from the waist down. He eventually learned to stand upright in leg braces, but it was soon apparent that he would never walk again. He pursued many therapies, but the one he received the most benefit from was hydrotherapy. In 1926 he bought a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia and converted its large pool into a hydrotherapy center. Today, it is still in operation as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.

FDR reentered politics in 1928 when he ran for Governor in New York, an election he won by only 25,000 votes. His term in office tested many of his reform-minded ideas, ideas that he would later enact while living in the White House. For example, after the stock market crash of October, 1929 triggered the Great Depression, Roosevelt instituted a relief program that would later be done on a national scale. His programs were not cheap; by time he left office, the state had gone from having a surplus of $15 million to a deficit of $90 million. Despite his lack of experience as an economist, Roosevelt proved himself a master of personal influence and negotiation. He even managed to win over the corruption-ridden Tammany Hall crowd which ran New York City, enough so that he was elected to a second term in 1930.

Roosevelt ran against Herbert Hoover in the 1932 Presidential election---it was one of the darkest times in American history. During his time as President-elect, he survived an assassination attempt that instead killed the mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak. This did not deter Roosevelt, who surrounded himself with a group of advisors known as the Brain Trust and told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Volumes have been written of FDR’s handling of the Great Depression. The slide that began in October 1929 lasted throughout the 30’s, although things did improve; the unemployment rate in 1940 was 13.9% as opposed to 25.2% when FDR first took office. The President sought, and received for the most part, approval from Congress to create massive organizations whose purpose was to put Americans back to work and bolster the economy. Not all was smooth sailing, however. One of the organizations instituted by the administration and one of its laws (the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Industrial Recovery Act) were declared unconstitutional. One move the President made that did meet with approval was the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose purpose was the regulate Wall Street to a degree never before contemplated. It was hoped that the boom and bust cycles experienced by every generation of Americans to that time would become a thing of the past.

Roosevelt was elected to a second term in 1936 and an unprecedented third term in 1940. At that time, there was no constitutional amendment limiting Presidents to two terms. However, every President had observed the unwritten rule that it was best to retire after two terms. Roosevelt ran for his third term promising to keep the country out of the war in Europe, which began in September, 1939. Despite his break with tradition, he won 58% of the popular vote and 38 of the 48 states.

Of course, FDR was unable to keep his promise. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the German declaration of war several days later thrust the United States into a two-ocean war it was scarcely prepared for. Even though Roosevelt had started a program of re-armament in 1938, the industrial might of the nation was not converted to wartime production until after the beginning of hostilities. The administration worked quickly to ensure that factories which had built everything from sewing machines to automobiles quickly converted to building guns and tanks to sell to the federal government. The Arsenal of Democracy was soon running at flank speed.

Early in 1942, Roosevelt made the most controversial decision of his administration when he signed Executive Order 9066 ordering the military and civilian authorities to remove Japanese-Americans from their homes on the West Coast. They were sent to remote camps until December, 1944; many lost their homes and businesses. Almost none of them resisted the move as most felt it was their duty as Americans to obey the law. Despite this disgrace, thousands of young men of Japanese ancestry fought with valor in the European Theatre of Operations.

As the war continued and the Allies began beating back the Axis forces, it became apparent to those close to him that Roosevelt’s health was failing. His paralysis and other health problems had been such a closely guarded secret that few Americans realized how poor his health really was. After his death, historians would blame Roosevelt’s health for the some of the decisions he made towards the end of the war. The Yalta Conference in 1945 is a good example of this. To many, this was the place where Roosevelt, despite Winston Churchill’s warnings, essentially gave away Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin. The result would be over 40 years of Communist tyranny in that half of the continent.

Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs for the final time on March 30, 1945. He wanted to rest up before traveling to San Francisco to attend the founding conference of the United Nations. While signing letters on the morning of April 12, he dropped his pen, complained of a headache and then slumped over in his chair. He was pronounced dead a few hours later, killed by a cerebral hemorrhage.

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