F.D.R.’s Irresponsible Deception

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reputation is at an all-time high these days, thanks to reflections on his handling of  The Great Depression prompted by our current financial mess. But looking at F.D.R.’s record  risks ethics whiplash, as a new book again reminds us. 

F.D.R.’s Deadly Secret speculates that he was battling the effects of a deadly melanoma when he sought re-election, and was ultimately killed by it. The theory is hardly proven, but there is little doubt that Roosevelt, like Presidents Cleveland Kennedy, and especially Wilson, who was incapacitated by a stroke for the last part of his presidency, hid his  serious health problems from the public.

In his case, however, F.D.R.’s arrogance and irresponsibility were especially epic and dangerous. Roosevelt evidently knew he was failing physically and probably was unfit to serve his fourth term,  and yet he ran for re-election without letting the public know the risks of voting for him. The consequences? Quite possibly the handing of Poland over to Soviet totalitarianism and the laying of the cornerstone of the Iron Curtain, as a sick Roosevelt was unable to restrain the ambitions of a treacherous Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference.  Historians and partisans argue about the extent of Roosevelt’s so-called “betrayal,” but there should be no argument that he had an obligation to make sure he was physically and mentally up to the job in the crucial period, had every reason to know he was not, and yet hid his infirmities, stayed in office and undertook tasks with world-wide implications while in a diminished state.

He also knew that he was unlikely to live another four years, but still showed little interest in choosing his Vice-President in 1944, essentially gambling with America’s safety and future during a World War that  he would either survive, or an obscure Missouri politician would be able to finish the war.
America was lucky: Harry Truman was up to the job. Poland and Eastern Europe were not so fortunate.

Melanoma or not, F.D.R.’s decision to run in 1944 was one of the most shocking examples of irresponsible conduct in U.S. Presidential history. Presidential critics take note: even our best have been far from perfect, ethically and otherwise.

2 thoughts on “F.D.R.’s Irresponsible Deception

  1. You go from the book you cite’s word “speculates” to your own “He also knew that he was unlikely to live another four years”. Your source for that is what, communicating with the dead? Mightn’t someone like Roosevelt felt — whether or not justified — that he’d live through the war?

    And aren’t you judging actions 60+ years ago by today’s standards? Weren’t society, politics, news radically different then? Didn’t other politicians and news media facilitate keeping FDR’s health secret? Motivated by the now-quaint notion of privacy, plus the fact that there was a war on?

    You weren’t there, you don’t know what Roosevelt knew or suspected about his health — what he felt, what he’d been told — and you don’t know what role various people played at Yalta. Yet you use words like “arrogance and irresponsibility” and blame him for losing Poland and starting the Cold War. Look how the country reacted when he died. What would have happened had he not run? We’ll never know, but it might not have been pretty.

    You pile massive conclusions on flimsy speculation to build a — unsubstantiated, I think — nasty and revisionist conclusion.

    • FDR knew he was sick. Very, very few historians dispute that—it is hardly revisionism. He was also running for a 4th term, which is arrogance itself. Every other President has managed to accept that he could be replaced, but not Franklin. This was hardly a different standard of the times—FDR simply ignored the standard. I don’t think calling that arrogant is “revisionism.” Nor is concluding that Stalin picked FDR’s pocket at Yalta. Roosevelt gave up Poland; Churchill wanted free elections, but Stalin got what he wanted. FDR screwed up. It’s not nasty. It’s pretty much historical consensus. And the fact that he took little interest in the VP’s Identity is well-documented. He had barely spoken to Truman.

      If you can find me one fair historian who doesn’t attribute the Cold War to the US’s capitulation’s to Stalin’s demands—partitioned Germany? Think the Cold War was fueled by that a bit?—I’ll be very impressed. It’s fine to admire FDR, but his irresponsible conduct—no so much hiding his infirmities from the public but ignoring their effect of his job performance—at the end is as much part of his legacy as Jefferson’s hypocrisy is of his or JFK’s reckless infidelities are for him. FDR was sick. He had trouble keeping his train of thought. He had lost a lot of weight. He was already compromised health-wise, as most paraplegics are. You don’t run for President like that, then, or now. I don’t see how you can argue with that. And “nasty” it’s not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.