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