A few days ago, a Toronto radio newscaster used the word “unprecedented” while describing the drama around U.S. President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. And it’s true. No previous election had such a story just weeks before going to the polls.
That’s because 2020 is a more transparent world.
In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt – the Democratic incumbent running for a then-permitted fourth term – was a much sicker man than anyone let on. His doctors believed that, if elected, he wouldn’t live to serve out the new term.
Roosevelt’s polio-derived paralysis – dating from 1921 – wasn’t a secret, although great care was taken to downplay it and minimize photo opportunities that would draw attention. But his election year health situation was a very different animal.
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On March 27, 1944, cardiologist Dr. Howard Bruenn diagnosed Roosevelt as suffering from severe high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, reduced lung capacity and bronchitis. As drugs for controlling blood pressure hadn’t yet been invented, treatment options were limited. So action mostly related to a combination of diet and rest, including the reduction of the president’s work day to four hours.
The fact that Roosevelt was seriously ill was clear to those around him but not to the general public. There were, of course, rumours. And 1944 being a presidential election year, his Republican opponents adopted a “tired old men” line of attack.
However, it was a very different world then and coverups were much easier to pull off. Consequently, many millions of Americans were surprised when Roosevelt died in April 1945, just a few months into his new term.
What, if any, were the historical implications of this concealment?
For instance, would the 1944 election result have been different had voters understood the true dimensions of Roosevelt’s health problems?
Of the four presidential races Roosevelt ran, 1944 was the closest. Still, he took 36 of what was then 48 states and won 432 electoral college votes. At the time, the magic electoral college threshold was 266.
Mind you, a number of these states were carried with margins of less than five per cent. If all such states were switched, the Roosevelt electoral college tally would’ve dropped to 297. And if New York, where the winning margin was the slimmest whisker over five per cent, had also flipped, he’d have lost.
It’s a tricky call, but my guess is that Roosevelt’s status – particularly as a wartime leader – would’ve seen him through even if the truth was known.
Internationally, the big question revolves around the February 1945 Yalta conference, where Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill effectively ceded Eastern Europe, including Poland, to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.
By all accounts, Roosevelt was way below par. Suffering from extreme fatigue, he struggled throughout the conference.
Would the outcome for countries like Poland have been happier if Roosevelt had been at the top of his game?
Probably not. As these things invariably do, it came down to two considerations: priorities and facts on the ground.
What Roosevelt most wanted out of the conference was Stalin’s support for the establishment of the United Nations and the promise of Soviet participation in the Pacific war against Japan. The fate of countries like Poland was of much less consequence to him.
And thanks to the Red Army’s advances, Stalin was already ensconced in Eastern Europe. There was no American appetite to challenge this reality by force of arms. Even had there been such an appetite, it would’ve been a very big ask militarily.
There was, though, one area where Roosevelt’s illness played a significant role. It caused him to change vice-presidents.
Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s 1940 running mate, wasn’t popular with the Democratic leadership. His political views were considered too far to the left and his personality was seen as eccentric. So he was dumped and replaced by Harry Truman, a relatively undistinguished senator from Missouri.
In the circumstances, you’d think that care would’ve been taken to groom Truman for succession by bringing him into the president’s inner circle and keeping him fully informed. But that didn’t happen.
It’s not unfair to describe Roosevelt as having an exalted conception of his abilities and indispensability. So Truman wasn’t even aware of the atomic bomb’s existence until he was sworn in following the president’s death.
Welcome to the job!
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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