Although it occurred 65 years ago and was overshadowed by the later death of a much younger and more vigorous president, most people who were alive at the time will tell you the same thing: the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 was one of the saddest days of their lives.
He had, after all, been the leader of the country for 12 years – longer than any other man, during which time the country struggled through a ten year long depression and became engaged in a protracted battle for its very survival against implacable foes. His deft handling of the politics of the era, slowly maneuvering his reluctant country into a necessary war, stands as one of the greatest political achievements in American history. Once the United States committed itself to the fight, there was no longer any question of if, but when victory would be achieved. A great deal of credit for the heroism and self sacrifice of the era which resulted in the defeat of fascism, must be laid at his feet.
Nevertheless, FDR’s reputation in recent years has taken a considerable pummeling. Amity Shlaes’ best selling 2007 book The Forgotten Man produced abundant evidence that FDR’s economic policies, by leaning too heavily on Keynesian monetarist policy at the expense of hard nosed business acumen, unnecessarily extended the Depression by years, deflating the currency and pumping government money into the wrong programs. His decision to maintain the Hoover era Smoot-Hawley Act, which raised tariff barriers, only served to break up world trade and reduce economic activity everywhere.
These economic policies and their impact on the well being of this country can be debated. What cannot be debated however, are the shocking revelations of his failure to take any interest in the plight of European Jewish refugees and his reluctance to authorize intervention in their mass murder. Authoritative reports of the concentration camp system and the mechanized killing in gas chambers had reached Roosevelt as early March, 1942. From that point onwards he came under increasing pressure from the American Jewish community to respond. But he deflected their criticism by arguing that winning the land and sea wars were the surest and most expedient means of rescuing Jews.
This was a flat out lie and he knew it. As both David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews and Sir Martin Gilbert in Auschwitz and the Allies have ably demonstrated, the concentration camps and the railways leading to them could have been bombed almost at any time after March 1942, but the fear of what to do with hundreds of thousands of rescued Jews outweighed any humanitarian impulse to save them.
Very little of this was known to average Americans on that spring morning in 1945 when the President suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Georgia and passed away within 12 hours. For most Americans he was and remains a towering figure of compassion, perseverance and morality and even a cult-like sage whose wisdom in navigating the nation through the raging storms of the 30s and 40s is regarded as unassailable. It was a form of long lasting reverence made understandable, in part, by the difficulties of life in the United States during that time. It was also, we can’t forget, an era of paternalism, with citizens around the world according father figure status to their leaders.
But from the vantage of the 21st Century, more nuanced readings of history might demand a revision of previous assessments. Presidents are men, after all, not supermen, with all the flaws, personal idiosyncrasies and innate prejudices of ordinary citizens. Not many people could claim to have really known the true Franklin D. Roosevelt since, much like the present occupant of the White House, he kept many of his personal feelings to himself. Such inscrutability served him well as he trolled the rough political waters of American politics. Whether it ultimately served American honor and dignity well is, however, another matter.