February 20, 1945
It has not been a good day. The President of the United States is sitting alone, swaddled in blankets on the deck of the heavy cruiser USS Quincy, a ship expensively retrofitted with an elevator and other conveniences, in order to accommodate the wheelchair bound Commander-in-Chief.(This was also the case for the USS Tuscaloosa, which FDR utilized on three occasions in 1939 and 1940, as well as a number of other vessels.)
He has been avoiding Sam Rosenman,
his speechwriter who joined the return cruise from Yalta in Algiers, specifically to assist with his anticipated address to Congress upon his return. (Some historians assert that FDR gave away Poland to Stalin at the Yalta conference. In fact this was already a done deal with a provisional puppet government already in place at Lublin.)
The speech is perhaps the most important Franklin Delano Roosevelt will ever give, a report on his recent negotiations with Churchill and Stalin and to lay out his plan for a peace organization that will shape the future of the world following the the defeat of Nazi Germany and the militaristic Japanese regime.
Yes, the brilliant phrase from his first inaugural “the only thing we have to fear but fear itself” instilled hope for downtrodden millions in the throes of the worst economic crisis America had ever endured.
Surely “a date which will live in infamy” was the masterful catchphrase that led his countrymen into four years of vicious and costly armed conflict.
But this speech is very different. For nearly a quarter of a century Roosevelt fought health problems that would have relegated a lesser man to a life of solitude and retreat, overcoming crippling polio
and keeping the ravages of cancer and the long-standing knowledge of its inevitable and fatal return in check for a decade.
(In regard to FDR’s health, this is the premise of my book “FDR’s Deadly Secret”. It has been validated by a series of articles accepted and published in prominent peer-reviewed medical journals. While this remains perhaps the most closely protected Presidential cover-up, the massive body of circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.)
At the conference, the British prime minister, his physician, Lord Moran, and virtually everyone who knew him were aghast at the deterioration of the President’s health.
Time is rapidly running out, and he knows it! It is his last chance to establish a legacy, to succeed where his mentor Woodrow Wilson had failed a quarter of a century before and plant the seeds of a successful world peace organization he has championed, The United Nations.
(Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson and bore witness to Wilson’s failure to get the United States Congress to endorse his plan for the League of Nations.)
The cold Atlantic wind is strangely refreshing to the veteran seaman, a slap in the face to a mind that has increasingly frequent and severe lapses of function. He must focus as his body betrays him. It did not help that his daughter Anna informed him at breakfast that his Chief of Staff “Pa” Watson, had succumbed to a stroke suffered on board three days earlier. The devoted and amiable Watson was a year younger than Roosevelt and, like him, had been dealing with heart disease and prostate problems for years.
Pa Watson’s death was not just the loss of one of his few remaining close confidantes, but also a bitter reminder that his own tenuous grip on life was nearly at an end. He had known of Watson’s death watch for three days but never made the trip a few decks below to sick bay to see him. It was just too painful to bear witness, just as it had been after the stroke that devastated his devoted companion, gatekeeper, secretary and adviser of two decades, Marguerite “Missy” Lehand in late 1941.
This speech must be given to a live audience; it was simply too crucial for radio or edited video as he had done for his State of the Union address in January before leaving for the Crimea. Nor was there time to call in the professional makeup artists from Hollywood as he had before to disguise the ravages of a forty pound weight loss over the previous year.
The charade of vitality could no longer be kept up. Standing behind a lectern was no longer a viable option.
The first bitter lesson was in August at a shipyard in Bremerton, Washington following a long and difficult trip to Hawaii to meet with his military leaders to plan the strategy for the last stages of the War, when pain was an unwelcome accompaniment to an hour long address on the fantail of a docked destroyer. The searing discomfort in his back from cancerous invasion of his spine from a mere five minutes of standing on January 20th at his fourth inauguration pushed him to the limit of what even he could endure.
Over and over, Roosevelt pondered how he would reveal to the American public the disability had been painstakingly shielded from them since he became President.
A pronouncement of this monumental importance could not be extemporaneous. The master orator and showman who orchestrated meticulous control of every word and gesture of his public appearances would have to commit it to memory, nor would he share these most intimate thoughts with Rosenman.
For the first time he would be wheeled into the chamber of the House of Representatives for all the see (Until this time, FDR had been wheeled to the podium prior to the entry of the members of congress.and then transfer himself into a comfortable chair to present the address). Even then, no permanent visible record of this event would be permitted, enforced by virtue of the airtight control of the media he had cultivated over twelve years with his trusted Press Secretary Stephen Early. (No complete video of the speech is known to exist. Of the original 54 minutes, only about ten carefully edited minutes remain. Even the audio transcript has been edited to remove the coughing and some of the more disjointed ad-lib remarks.)
Day after day, Franklin Roosevelt did little else than search for the answer. Finally it came. It was just too much out of character for him to directly say, in effect, “ Look, I am crippled”. The appeal would be for empathy rather than pity.
“I hope that you will pardon me for an unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me in not having to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs, and also because of the fact that I’ve just completed a fourteen thousand mile trip”.
Now that the really hard part was over, the thirty-second President of the United States could finally summon Rosenman and begin the tedious business of speech writing. (The fifty-four minute speech went through seven drafts. It would be the most challenging public appearance of FDR’s life. It would also be his last!)