James Hill is a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services.
There is a point, not very far into David B. Woolner’s excellent accounting of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last months in office, where one realizes that this history, intentional or not, is going to be a presidential death watch. “Was he too ill during these last months to properly carry the burdens of office?” the author asks in his preface. “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?”
All valid questions that Woolner seeks to answer in “The Last 100 Days,” a remarkably well-researched book on the president that Americans consistently rank among the greatest. Indeed, FDR had an amazing ability to maintain a Herculean schedule, as a self-described juggler who could handle domestic pressures as well as, later, a two-front world war that would have taxed the abilities of mere political mortals.
For this, voters rewarded him with an unprecedented third term in 1940 as war clouds had already gathered over Europe and the Pacific, and again in 1944 when victory in Europe was believed to be in sight.
As Woolner notes, FDR kept up this work ethic almost to the moment of his death in Warm Springs, Ga., on April 12, 1945. What is not so clear — how could it ever be? — is whether the work kept Roosevelt going or was his undoing.
Certainly, there have been many critics who have doubted that Roosevelt had the capacity to lead in his diminished state. One charge that still has some sticking power is that he gave away the ship at Yalta, subjecting Eastern Europe to decades of communist tyranny and an ensuing Cold War.
Woolner acknowledges the critics but offers a more nuanced view that FDR got most of what he sought at the Big Three summit in Crimea, which primarily was agreement for the establishment of the United Nations.
Moreover, Woolner enlightens us with his analysis of FDR at Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake after the Yalta summit, where the president tried to bring up the question of Jewish immigration to Palestine with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. Like most presidents who followed him, Roosevelt was rebuffed, and the issue of Middle East peace remains one of the greatest mirages of our times.
But it is the telling of the five-week, half-a-world-away voyage by ship and airplane to Yalta that is the fascinating aspect of this book, and here Woolner really shows his historian’s chops. The trip itself was the stuff of legend, an especially dangerous ocean crossing at a time when German U-boats still prowled the Atlantic. Then there was the return trip, equally as fraught but now with growing alarm over the president’s condition. “This is really a ship of death and everyone responsible in encouraging that man [FDR] to go to Yalta has done a disservice to the United States and ought to be shot,” as Alexander Kirk, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, put it in a sentiment that others, perhaps not as crudely, expressed upon seeing FDR in his sickened state — many for the last time.
To make matters worse, FDR’s personal secretary, Gen. Edwin “Pa” Watson, had taken ill and died as the ship, the USS Quincy, made its voyage back to the United States.
Roosevelt’s inner circle was getting smaller, with deaths such as Watson’s, and resignations and illnesses for others, yet the president soldiered on.
“For all of these reasons,” Woolner writes, “perhaps the most remarkable odyssey the president took in the spring of 1945 was not his trip to Yalta but his journey down the center aisle of the US House of Representatives on the morning of March 1, where in full view of the packed and wildly cheering chamber, he made his way in his wheelchair.”
This, according to Woolner, was FDR coming to grips with his disability: Labor Secretary “Frances Perkins found this ‘casual, debonair’ reference to his disability, ‘made without self-pity or strain,’ deeply moving. Choking up, she, like Eleanor [Roosevelt], realized that what FDR was admitting — not only to the audience but to himself — was ‘You see, I am a crippled man.’ ”
Disability acknowledged and his health still deteriorating, Roosevelt was nevertheless looking forward to addressing the initial conference of the United Nations in San Francisco and even hinted to associates that he and Eleanor would visit England.
Neither would come to pass. After first making a trip to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., FDR ventured south to Warm Springs, where he would enjoy the company of cousins Margaret “Daisy” Suckley and Laura “Polly” Delano, as well as a visit from Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, and rest up for San Francisco. Death interrupted. He was only 63.
This book is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Roosevelt. Its focus on his last 100 days allows the author to explore his presidency when he was most vulnerable, diagnosed with a failing heart but still holding the fate of the world in his hands. The fact he saw this challenge through to the end helps explain the juggler in him, as well as the complexity of the man.
By David B. Woolner
Basic. 349 pp. $32