In early 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered his 12th year as President of the United States.
The popular Democratic leader had led his country through the Great Depression with his revolutionary New Deal programs, and had won an unprecedented third term with a margin of some 5 million votes in 1940. Now, at the dawn of a Another election year, Roosevelt faced another monumental challenge: defeating Germany and Japan to win World War II and negotiating with the Soviet Union to build lasting peace after the war.
Just as he did, however, his health was deteriorating. Shortly after his return from Conference in Tehran, Roosevelt developed a violent cough, started to lose weight and was constantly tired. His daughter Anna was worried enough to urge Roosevelt’s personal doctor, Dr. Ross McIntire, who arranged for the president to consult Dr. Howard G. Bruenn, cardiologist at Bethesda Medical Naval Hospital, for a checkup on March 28, 1944 .
According to Bruenn’s medical notes, which he released later, he diagnosed Roosevelt, 62, with reduced lung capacity, hypertension (or high blood pressure), acute bronchitis, and – more severely – acute congestive heart failure.
The grim prognosis of the FDR
At the time, no medication had yet been developed to manage hypertension and the only treatment was to regulate the patient’s lifestyle. In addition to a course in digitalis, a herbal drug extracted from the leaves of the digitalis flower, Bruenn prescribed the President a restricted diet, reduced consumption of alcohol and tobacco and increased rest. This meant that in May 1944, a month before D-Day: the daily program of the American president included only four hours of work per day.
Under Bruenn’s diet, some of Roosevelt’s symptoms improved, but he remained significantly underweight. In July 1944, Dr. Frank Lahey, head of the Lahey Clinic in Boston, informed McIntire that he thought Roosevelt would not survive another full term. Lahey, one of the medical experts who examined Roosevelt in March after Bruenn’s diagnosis, also recorded his assessment in an unpublished memo, the full text of which will not be released until more than six decades after the death of Roosevelt.
“It was my opinion,” wrote Lahey, “that during the four years of another term with his charges, he would have heart failure again and be unable to complete it.”
According to Lahey, McIntire agreed with his assessment of the situation, although it is unclear how much information he passed on to his powerful patient. In any case, Lahey dated his memo on July 10, 1944. Ten days later, Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for a fourth term as president.
Why FDR ran for a fourth term
The 1944 election came at a precarious time for Roosevelt, his country and the world at large, and Roosevelt clearly felt the duty to carry out the Second World War. As Joseph Lelyveld explained in His final battle: the last months of Franklin Roosevelthe also desperately wanted to avoid the fate of Woodrow Wilson, another president who had seen his country go through world conflict only to see his idealistic plans for a founding lasting peace in the post-war years.
Now Roosevelt thought he should personally appeal to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in order to ensure Soviet cooperation both in the war against Japan and in the foundation of a new international organization: the United Nations. Only a solid relationship between the two largest powers in the world, he was convinced, could effectively maintain world peace.
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FDR’s Careful VP Pick
Concerns about Roosevelt’s health among other Democratic leaders made the question of his running mate in 1944 a subject of debate. Before accepting the nomination, Roosevelt decided to remove his vice-president, Henry Wallace, whom many considered too far left and too eccentric, from the ticket in favor of a senator of Missouri, Harry S. Truman.
Although his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, undoubtedly benefited from widespread speculation about Roosevelt’s disease, Roosevelt managed to show enough stamina before the elections to convince voters of his viability. He notably gained points for fiery speech on his dog, Fala, and toured New York City in an open car in the rain several weeks before Election Day. In November, he beat Dewey by hand, albeit by a narrower margin in the popular vote than in his previous victories.
Last weeks of the FDR
In January 1945, Roosevelt traveled about 14,000 miles to the Yalta Conference, where he and Winston Churchill clashed bitterly with Stalin over the Soviet domination of Poland, among others. On March 1, one day after completing the difficult journey back to Washington, Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress to report on the conference. For the first time in his presidency, he appeared in public in his wheelchair.
After apologizing for his speech while sitting, he said he felt “refreshed and inspired” and insisted that even if Yalta was a good start, Congress and the American people would ultimately the responsibility to carry out to achieve lasting peace.
“There cannot be common ground here”, Roosevelt declared. “We will have to take responsibility for global collaboration, or we will have to take responsibility for another global conflict.”
At the end of March, Roosevelt left Washington for his retirement in Warm Springs, Georgia. On April 12, just 82 days after his fourth term, he died of a brain hemorrhage. Roosevelt’s sudden death left Truman, as his successor, to make the crucial decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, as well as to manage an increasingly strained relationship with Stalin.
It also sparked lingering controversy over Roosevelt’s deception of the American people, as well as whether his illness affected his judgment and performance at a crucial time in the Yalta Conference.
Ultimately, Roosevelt’s dream that the UN would prove to be an effective peacekeeping organization would not come true. As he hoped, the Soviets did not commit to maintaining peace alongside the United States. Instead, the post-war years saw the deterioration of US-Soviet relations, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the advent of a new titanic struggle during the Cold War.