The last 100 days, p.1

The Last 100 Days, page 1


The Last 100 Days

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The Last 100 Days


  Copyright © 2017 by David B. Woolner

  Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address Basic Books, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10004.

  Books published by Basic Books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the United States by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail [email protected]

  A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.

  ISBN: 978-0-465-04871-7 (hardcover); ISBN: 978-0-465-09651-0 (e-book)

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2017954582




  Title Page





  PrologueThe Last Christmas

  Chapter 1An Uncertain New Year

  Chapter 2Atlantic Sojourn

  Chapter 3Interlude at Malta

  Chapter 4On to the Crimea

  Chapter 5Sunrise over Yalta

  Chapter 6Coming to Grips with “The German Problem”

  Chapter 7The Polish Quandary

  Chapter 8The Birth of the United Nations

  Chapter 9The Final Turn

  Chapter 10The Last Mission

  Chapter 11Failure at Bitter Lake

  Chapter 12Going Home

  Chapter 13The Last Address

  Chapter 14March Days

  Chapter 15The Architect

  Chapter 16Hudson Requiem

  Chapter 17Easter in Warm Springs

  Chapter 18Off the Record

  Chapter 19The Last Day

  EpilogueLooking Beyond Victory


  About the Author

  More Praise for The Last 100 Days




  Lewis B. Woolner, 1913−2016

  That we shall die, we know; ’tis but the time And drawing days out, that men stand upon.

  Julius Caesar, Act III; Sc. 1


  FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT IS CONSISTENTLY RANKED AS AMONG the most important and effective chief executives in American history. For most historians the two most significant aspects of his presidency remain the unprecedented nature of his response to the Great Depression and the skillful leadership he exhibited in the summer of 1940, when he made the critical decision—at great political risk—to stand behind Great Britain in the twelve perilous months following the defeat of France in June 1940.1

  It was to meet the first of these catastrophes that FDR launched his famous “first 100 days,” a period of just over three months in which Congress under FDR’s leadership passed an extraordinary fifteen major pieces of legislation. Many of the provisions enacted during this frantic period—including the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the requirement for transparency in the sale of securities—are with us still. So, too, are several subsequent provisions of the “New Deal” that FDR promised the American people when he first ran for the White House, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. The social and economic safety net provided by these programs—which were designed, as FDR said, to lessen “the hazards and vicissitudes of life”—fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the American people and their government.2

  These achievements alone are enough to render FDR among the significant of our nation’s presidents. Yet he faced a growing international crisis that reached its climax less so with the German attack on Poland in September 1939 than with the shocking collapse of the French army the next spring. The import of this second catastrophe is underappreciated by the generations of Americans who did not live through World War II. France at the time had the largest army and air force in the world, to whose strength the British army added its own. Nevertheless, the Germans were seemingly unstoppable. In response to their onslaught, many officials within the British cabinet, led by then Foreign Secretary Edward Halifax, proposed coming to terms with Hitler. In Washington the consensus among FDR’s top military advisers, including his Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, was that Great Britain would not last much longer than France.3

  But FDR did not agree and, despite the fact that 1940 was an election year, resolved to support Prime Minister Churchill’s determination to fight on. The first manifestation of this support came in the form of an Anglo-American agreement to ship fifty mothballed US World War I destroyers to Britain, followed by secret staff talks among senior members of the British and American armed forces, an increased number of US naval patrols in the Atlantic, and, in March 1941, passage of the Lend Lease Act, which solidified America’s role as “the great arsenal of democracy.”4

  As with FDR’s decisive response to the economic crisis he inherited in 1933, and his response to the fall of France, the role he subsequently played in crafting the Grand Alliance that would go on to defeat the Axis is likewise viewed as one of his crowning achievements. But to FDR, winning the war was never enough. Convinced that the global economic hardship of the 1930s was what gave rise to fascism in Europe and Asia and sent the world spiraling toward war, he foresaw that the United States had to fashion a new postwar order out of the ruins of the present conflict. This conviction underlay his January 1941 articulation of the Four Freedoms and the crafting of the Atlantic Charter eight months later. In short, FDR had committed himself to the establishment of a new system of international security—as called for in the last clause of the Charter—even before the United States entered the conflict. He never lost sight of this overriding ambition and, in spite of what Frances Perkins called his “transcending preoccupation” with the day-to-day demands of the war, always considered how “each victory could be woven into a pattern of permanent peace and world organization.”5

  To a certain extent, this focus on victory and the management of the war obscured FDR’s determination to use the conflict as a catalyst for the establishment of a new postwar order centered on the creation of the United Nations. There is irony in this comment, for what also makes FDR’s tenure in office unique—aside from his election to four terms and the fact that he remains our only “wheelchair president”—was his willingness to hold two press conferences per week for virtually his entire tenure in office, meaning that by the time he died in April 1945 he had held a stunning 998 meetings with the press.

  Still, a good deal of mystery still surrounds Franklin D. Roosevelt. We might borrow Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted phrase about Russia to say that in many respects FDR remains “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” FDR rarely confided his innermost thoughts to his family, friends, and advisers; he also refused to take notes during meetings and insisted that the members of his cabinet and other senior officials do the same. Indeed, there were times when the president seemed to delight in being unreadable and unpredictable. He took great pleasure, for example, in the press’s rampant speculation about whether or not he would run for a third term—speculation well symbolized by the papier mâché sculpture of FDR as the Egyptian Sphinx that was presented to him at the annual Gridiron Dinner of December 1939. He once told a group of astonis
hed foreign policy experts visiting the White House that he was “a juggler.… I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.”

  The outstanding biographer of Roosevelt’s early life, Geoffrey Ward, has speculated that FDR’s reluctance to show emotion or reveal his inner feelings stemmed from a practice that he and his mother adopted to deal with his father’s weak heart. James Roosevelt was fifty-four years old when FDR was born; as he became increasingly frail, mother and son conspired to always remain cheerful, and to avoid stress or public shows of emotion so as not to upset his delicate constitution. FDR carried this outward effervescence into adulthood, often employing it—whether consciously or not—as a mask. For confirmation of this penchant for stoicism, we need only recall how FDR and his family coped with the devastating attack of polio that left him essentially paralyzed from the waist down at the prime of his life.6

  Emotional impenetrability has its advantages, particularly for a president. But it also has its disadvantages. It can lead to feelings of isolation and, worse still, loneliness, even for a person surrounded by a large family and dozens of aides and assistants. There is no question that by the end of 1943, the “big man,” as Time magazine called FDR, was beginning to feel alone. By the end of 1944, the twin burdens of the presidency and the war, coupled with his growing sense of isolation, had become almost too much. FDR, in short, was exhausted, and with this exhaustion came a narrowing of his view of what was important to him, the nation, and the world.7

  This is why a close look at the last 100 days of FDR’s life and presidency is so revealing, and so significant: by focusing on FDR at a time when his reduced capacity for work meant that he had to set strict personal and public priorities, we can discern what mattered most to him. Here, we see a president and a leader shorn of the usual distractions of office, a man whose sense of duty and personal responsibility for the fate of the American people and the world bore heavily upon him as he wrestled with many of the most critical issues and events of his entire presidency: the deliberations of the Yalta conference; the near completion of the atomic bomb; how best to prosecute the closing stages of the war against Japan; a last effort to secure a homeland for the Jews in Palestine; the rising importance of Middle East oil; the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy; concerns about Soviet behavior in Central and Eastern Europe and British behavior in Greece and other parts of the Empire; and, most important to him, the establishment of a new system of international security, which became the United Nations. All the while, he also had to tend to the domestic needs of a public weary of the demands of war and to a battlefront reeling from a surprise German counteroffensive that threatened to drive the Western Allies into the North Sea.

  The following pages reveal how Franklin Roosevelt—a decades-long smoker of sixty-plus years in a precarious state of health—coped with the day-to-day demands of office during this critical period. It also provides an opportunity to reexamine some of the most contentious questions asked about FDR since the day he died: Was he too ill during these last months to properly carry the burdens of office? Did Stalin dupe him at Yalta because FDR was too weak to resist? Should he have run for a fourth term? Did he ever admit to himself how unwell he was? What role did the members of his family or his closest confidants play—if any—in his ability to lead despite his reduced capacity for work?

  Fortunately, a number of new sources of information have come to light in the past few years that help round out this picture. Thanks to the work of a number of scholars and medical historians, and to the recent release of a confidential memo drafted by one of the physicians who examined the president in 1944, we now know a good deal more about the perilous state of FDR’s health than we did in the past. In addition, the declassification and return to the FDR Presidential Library of a number of records of the Office of Strategic Services and other government agencies, as well as the accession of such important collections as the Grace Tully Papers, provide new information about the president’s activities and the state of the war, including the secret negotiations over a possible German surrender in Italy that took place in Switzerland in March 1945. The release of the papers of Sarah Churchill, who was present at the Yalta conference, along with the opening of a number of other records held at the Churchill Archives Center in Cambridge, offers us a more complete view of the interplay between Churchill and Roosevelt, while the opening of a significant portion of the wartime Soviet archives provides us with a more detailed picture of how Stalin and the Russians approached their Western counterparts during this critical period.8

  An intimate view of FDR’s last months would not be possible, however, without the recently constructed day-to-day calendar of his activities and contacts. Previously, the full scope of FDR’s day-to-day activities—including appointments he wished to keep confidential—was not readily available to researchers. To remedy this, the FDR Presidential Library has spent years meticulously recording and reconstructing FDR’s schedule from a host of sources, making it possible, for the first time, to get a much better sense of what the president was doing at any given hour on any given day.

  The portrait that emerges from these final months stands in sharp contrast to the vigorous and relatively youthful figure who inspired the nation and the world when he proclaimed in his first inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The FDR of the last 100 days is a much-diminished man, often near the point of physical exhaustion, yet determined to press on and achieve the goals he set for himself and the world as he led his nation into war. That he was able to accomplish as much as he did, in spite of his physical decline, is in itself a remarkable story. It is also a poignant one as it shows him seeking, time and time again, relief from the ceaseless burdens of office while simultaneously preparing himself and those closest to him for the end of his life, even as he refused to fully consider what the inevitable “drawing out of days” brings to us all.


  The Last Christmas

  LIGHT SNOW WAS FALLING AS THE PRESIDENTIAL TRAIN MADE ITS WAY up the Hudson River Valley on Christmas Eve morning. This was only the second time in over a decade that Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent Christmas at his home in Hyde Park, and like many individuals and families across the world, the president clung to the hope that this holiday season might be the last celebrated under the cloud of war.

  Few presidents, with perhaps the exception of Thomas Jefferson, were more rooted in a particular place than Roosevelt. And with the 1944 election behind him, he was looking forward to spending a few restful days along the banks of this majestic river that had been such an integral part of his life. It was here, to this setting where he spent his youth wandering the woods and fields that surrounded the house in which he was born, that he returned again and again—seeking solace in the timeless quality of rural life, and a sense of community among the many friends and neighbors who made up the small village he called home.

  The tranquility of the winter landscape that greeted FDR that morning stood in sharp contrast to the scene in the Ardennes forest in the border region between Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. There, a surprise German offensive had caught the Allies completely off guard. The Germans—aided by inclement weather that grounded the Allied Air Force—pushed the American First Army back more than sixty miles in some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War. Hitler’s aim was to sow dissension in the Allied ranks by driving a wedge between the British and American forces. He also hoped to disrupt the ability of the Anglo-American armies in northern France and Belgium to resupply, by severing key road and rail lines and, ideally, capturing Antwerp. After the attack’s initial success, Hitler even entertained the idea that he might be able to force a negotiated settlement in the West, leaving his military free to concentrate on the defense of the Third Reich’s eastern frontier against Stalin’s Red Army.1

  The German attack provoked immense anxiety among the Western Allies. US casualties along the Western Front for the m
onth of December alone totaled more than 74,000—nearly double the monthly losses sustained since the Normandy invasion. These were losses that the US army, plagued by an increasingly dire manpower shortage, could ill afford. How different things seemed from the heady days of July and August when the Allies swept across northern France, raising hopes that the war in Europe might be over by Christmas. Hitler’s belief that he might be able to fracture the Allies with a spectacular victory on the battlefield was not entirely unfounded. There were deep tensions within the Alliance over, among other things, the futures of Greece, Italy, Romania, Poland, and even France.2

  All of this weighed heavily on FDR’s mind as he prepared to join his family for Christmas on the Hudson. But the most serious issue confronting the president concerned the impact that internal Allied tensions might have on the main reason FDR had decided to run for a fourth term: the fate of the United Nations. Indeed, it was less than twenty-four hours since he had met Democratic Senator Carl A. Hatch of New Mexico and Republican Senator Joseph A. Ball of Minnesota, two strong supporters of the proposed world organization, who had come to see the president to express their anxiety about “the gravity of the international situation” and the need for “a supreme effort… to overcome Allied disunity.”3

  What most alarmed the two men was the growing tendency toward unilateral action on the part of the major powers, which the senators argued might “hamper future cooperation to maintain the peace” and prevent the outbreak of another war. Compounding the matter was the recent revelation that the Atlantic Charter had never existed as a formal state document signed by Roosevelt and Churchill but, rather, was merely a press statement the two leaders had crafted.4

  This news led to a great deal of initial confusion in Washington and elsewhere about the relevance of the proclamation. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the American people had been “fooled” by the president, while a Washington Post reporter lamented that getting all three major powers to adhere to the Charter’s principles—which the American people had embraced “with the utmost seriousness”—was becoming increasingly unlikely in light of events in Europe. It was more and more apparent, for example, that the Soviet Union was intent on exerting direct control over Poland, and equally obvious that Churchill’s government was intent on establishing a conservative pro-British regime in Greece—even at the cost of armed conflict with Britain’s former allies, the anti-monarchist and largely communist Greek resistance. The British government had also recently intervened in liberated Italy, refusing to recognize any government in which Count Carlo Sforza, a prominent and highly respected leader of the parties of the left, might take part. These moves prompted newly appointed Secretary of State Edward Stettinius to issue a blunt statement condemning the British position on Sforza, in which he declared that the United States expected the Italians—and by implication the Greeks—“to work out their problems of government along democratic lines without interference from the outside.”5

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