Thursday, January 26, 2017

What We're Reading: Franklin Roosevelt's Final Months

His Final Battle:
The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt,
by Joseph Lelyveld

His Final Battle organizes and contextualizes what we know largely in bits and pieces of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his final months. The author examines that period with thoroughness and detail, and gives us a thoughtful analysis. The result is that we get fresh insight about the character of the man who was arguably the most important and, as has often been remarked, enigmatic, American political leader of the 20th Century. With Franklin Roosevelt we are always left guessing, not only because misdirection and opacity were the hallmarks of his political style, but because he had few people in his personal life or in government to whom he fully confided his true feelings and intentions. He left us no diary or memoir. The only things we have that may record the “true” Roosevelt are her diary and the letters from FDR preserved by his adoring cousin Daisy Suckley, who, it appears, was Roosevelt’s only intimate correspondent during most of his years as President.

The challenge for Lelyveld, then, is to take the diary and letters Suckley left us and, with the various and often conflicting public and private observations of Roosevelt’s contemporaries, give us a plausible understanding of what was behind Roosevelt’s statements and public pronouncements, what objectives during these final months animated his thoughts and motivated his actions. It is not something easy to do, as Roosevelt was always performing for the interlocutor at hand, telling them what he knew they would like to hear, and nudging them in the direction he wanted them to go. Lelyveld does a good job of sorting through this. His book may be the closest we will ever come to an understanding of Roosevelt during this time.

Franklin Roosevelt with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta.
One of the photos from Yalta that shows a more animated Roosevelt
than those that are commonly reproduced.

In His Final Battle, Lelyveld gives us an account of Roosevelt’s diminished health. This is the most detailed medical history I’ve seen to date, and it follows the issue throughout the course of public events in Roosevelt’s final months. It is a shocking story of deception, not only of the public at large, but also of those closest in government to the President, his family, and perhaps even in the early stages of his decline, to Roosevelt himself. His personal physician, Admiral McIntire, was apparently neither competent nor honest. After his death, Roosevelt’s medical records mysteriously disappeared from a safe at Bethesda. Lelyveld, however, effectively refutes the conclusions of Roosevelt’s critics, who paint him as an inept and pathetic figure during these months--one who didn’t fully understand what was going on in the negotiations he conducted, duped and taken advantage of because of failing physical and mental powers. We are all familiar with the pictures of the big three at Yalta, showing a haggard Roosevelt with Churchill and Stalin, but as Lelyveld points out, those are the “preferred” photos taken at Yalta, ones we see over and over again, because they fit the narrative of events in which Roosevelt is accused of having been duped by Stalin. They are chosen to presage, in hindsight, the subsequent unraveling of U.S.-Soviet relations as the Soviet Union established its hegemony in Eastern Europe in the years following Roosevelt’s death. Lelyveld shows us that there were other photos of the “big three” in the set taken at Yalta that show a more animated and smiling Roosevelt, and recent examinations of the Yalta Conference portrays a Roosevelt very much aware and engaged on the policy issues and lively in the social venues (see Yalta: The Price of Peace by Serhii Plokhy, previously reviewed on this blog).

FDR with his Scottish Terrier Fala, a gift from his cousinDasiy Suckley.
Fala became the subject of a celebrated 
humorous speech by FDR
in the 1944 Presidential campaign.

The purpose of this book is to show Roosevelt still in command, despite the significant challenges to his health and mortality. We receive here not the derogatory portrait of a man responding in a desultory way to events, but the story of a man in fact guiding them. Lelyveld explains why Roosevelt made the choices he did in his final months, not only on the international front, but in domestic politics--the decision to run for election for a fourth term and to oust Henry Wallace from the ticket and put Harry Truman in his place. On international issues, while Roosevelt was always occupied with the immediate problem of maintaining the alliance between England, the United States, and the Soviet Union to effectively prosecute the war, from the earliest days of America's entry into the war he was concerned about planning for the world that would follow. As Lelyveld shows us in one of the finest chapters in this book, Roosevelt was haunted by the failure Woodrow Wilson had met in the aftermath of the First World War, and was determined not to repeat his mistakes. A plan to preserve the impending peace became an even greater focus as, in his final months, the Allies appeared headed to victory in Europe.

A huge rally at Ebbets Field capped off a long
tour of New York in a pouring rain. Roosevelt's
toughness in weathering the journey was
touted, disingenuously, as evidence of his
continued stamina and good health. 
While the story of the 1944 election has been told in greater detail elsewhere, Lelyveld gives us an insightful analysis of Roosevelt’s manipulation in replacing his Vice-President, Henry Wallace, on the 1944 ticket. This is the best “political” story in His Final Battle, an episode that demonstrates vintage Roosevelt: the evasion, deception, and manipulation at which he was so skilled when it came to domestic politics. For Roosevelt, Henry Wallace’s problem was that he was not a skilled politician; he did not have the formidable skills of Roosevelt himself, and Roosevelt felt those were essential to the job of being President. While it is difficult to ascertain to what degree he thought Truman had those skills--and if he had them to an adequate degree to do the job of President--Roosevelt had been impressed with how Truman managed the Senate inquiry into misappropriation of war funds, handling it in such a way that it ended up being a political credit rather than the black eye it should have been for the Roosevelt administration. It is hard to believe, however, that Roosevelt ever imagined his own mortality, or that he thought of Harry Truman as his impending successor. (If you want to read more about the 1944 election campaign, books that focus on that in our collection are Stanley Weintraub’s Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary Campaign for President During World War II and David Jordan’s FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944)

Roosevelt campaigns in 1944 with Harry Truman and with the
man Truman replaced on the ticket, Vice-President Henry Wallace.

His Final Battle gives us a portrait of Roosevelt as a man who, while perhaps not viewing himself as indispensable, undoubtedly believed that he himself was the man best able--whatever his health--to bring about the world he envisioned. He would do it not by Wilsonian idealism, but by the pragmatism and political acumen that had allowed him to achieve power and be an effective leader. Things were always open, subject to re-visitation and revision. As Lelyveld writes, “Roosevelt was protean because he was a master of the overview, able to look at most issues from all sides. Leadership for him remained an exercise in cautious optimism.” There is something poignant and lonely in this picture of Roosevelt. He was a man who was supremely gifted at manipulating others in order to achieve economic well being and peace that benefitted millions. But it seems that the price for this was that he really had no close personal relationships with anyone, and that while he was able to trust others to do some tasks--for example he hardly ever interfered with his generals’ conduct of the war--on the issues that he thought were preeminent, he seldom trusted the ability or counsel of anyone around him as much as he trusted his own intuition.

It is an appropriate season to give some thought to the larger questions that Lelyveld’s account of Roosevelt’s final battles might prompt us to ask. It seems that American democracy, foundationally and structurally, depends on the practice of “politics.” Some say we have entered the age of the anti-politician. But politics is the way American democracy works. It is the means by which competing interests are balanced and fashioned into coalitions for governance, the process that allows us to move forward and to accomplish change in a manner, we hope, that results in the common good for the nation. It often, tragically, extracts a personal price from those we select to lead us. There is a troubling ambivalence at the heart of our political life. We want, paradoxically, politicians who are “above” politics. Roosevelt was not above politics; he reveled in politics and celebrated the process, finding it essential to leadership. His Final Battle shows us he was the great master of American politics…..and he was that until the end.

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