By Paul Sparrow, Director, FDR Presidential Library
As America and the world confront the deadly COVID 19 pandemic, we should all take a moment to remember the inspirational legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the 75th anniversary of his death. The society we live in today is based on his vision of global cooperation and economic equality – Social Security, minimum wage, a 40 hour work week, child labor laws, the World Bank, NATO and the United Nations are all just a small part of the Roosevelt legacy. But it is his inspiring leadership in the face of global catastrophe, and his ability to speak hard truth and instill confidence in the future that are most relevant today. During his 12 years as president FDR confronted first the Great Depression and then the rise of Fascism and totalitarianism. Yet he never wavered in his belief that the American people could overcome any challenge.
It was April 12, 1945. President Roosevelt was recovering at the polio rehabilitation center he created in Warm Springs, Georgia on that early spring day. His exhausting travel to the military conference in Yalta with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill had taken a toll on his already poor health.
World War II was nearing its end in Europe and FDR was focusing on the post-war world, especially the United Nations. The first meeting to draft a charter was scheduled for the end of April. The grand alliance FDR had created to defeat Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan represented humanity’s last best chance for an enduring peace. The free world looked to FDR as a beacon of hope for a better tomorrow, and his death came as a stunning shock to a world in turmoil.
Franklin Roosevelt’s personal story can inform and inspire us in this challenging moment of global pandemic. Perhaps no leader in American history was more familiar with deadly diseases than FDR. In 1918, while serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR was stricken with the Spanish Flu and nearly died.
More than 5,000 Navy sailors died from the 1918 pandemic, four times as many as were killed in combat. In 1921 FDR contracted polio, also known as infantile paralysis, and again nearly died. He lost the use of his legs and was essentially paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.
In the coming years FDR experimented with a wide variety of treatments to regain the use of his legs, and discovered a remote spa at Warm Springs where the mineral waters offered him some relief and hope.
He invested half his fortune in turning the rundown resort into the premier polio research and rehabilitation facility in the world. Refusing to let his physical handicap limit him FDR ran for Governor of New York and set his sights on the White House. After he was elected President he continued to raise money to support the Warm Springs Foundation, which eventually became the March of Dimes. Ten years after FDR’s death, Dr. Jonas Salk, whose research was funded by the March of Dimes, developed a vaccine for polio. It was a medical breakthrough that changed the world.
On that early April morning in Warm Springs, the President was working on a speech he was set to give in a few days – his annual Jefferson Day speech.
In it he praised Thomas Jefferson as a great statesman and scientist. FDR truly believed that science offered hope for the future. His words then are especially true today as the scientific world searches for a cure for COVID 19.
“Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another. Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that if civilization is to survive we must cultivate the science of human relationships, the ability of all people of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”
His final words in that undelivered speech reflect his most deeply held belief:
“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”
Sitting at his desk in the small, unassuming cottage on the grounds of the Warm Springs clinic, he was the most powerful person in the world. But a cerebral hemorrhage struck him down and at 3:35 pm he was declared dead. As the news spread across the globe people broke down and cried, from Warm Springs to Warsaw, from Hyde Park to Hong Kong He was at that moment perhaps the most beloved American who ever lived. The great tragedy is he died just weeks before Germany surrendered unconditionally.
Eleanor Roosevelt flew down to Georgia so she could escort his body back to Washington, and then on to his beloved home on the Hudson River.
She stood strong in the face of great sadness and sorrow, she gave strength to a grieving nation. She endured the pain of losing a loved one, a pain that so many millions of others had endured during the brutal bloody years of World War II.
Citizens lined the railroad tracks that connected the red clay of southern Georgia with the marble halls of Washington D.C. As his casket came down Pennsylvania Ave. people stood with tears streaming down their cheeks, in disbelief that FDR was gone. His soothing voice had told them not to fear the economic crisis of the Great Depression, and he led them out of it. He ensured them that a dastardly attack on a day of infamy would never stop America from defending freedom for ALL people. He preached freedom of religion and speech, and freedom from want and fear. And he gave his life for a better world.
When his body arrived in Hyde Park on April 15th, the train stopped at the edge of his property. The Hudson River on one side, his beloved home Springwood on the other. Hundreds of uniformed servicemen lined the path from the tracks to his mother’s famous rose garden, where he had carefully selected his burial site.
It was a somber affair as the war raged on in the Pacific and Europe. Just days earlier Nazi death camps had been liberated by Allied forces and the true horror of the Holocaust had come to light. Eleanor Roosevelt, an icon in her own right who had blazed a trail that women today are still treading, stood strong, bowed but unbroken.
The New York Times had this to say regarding the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And it remains as true today as it was 75 years ago.
“Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. It was his hand, more than that of any other single man, that built the great coalition of the United Nations. It was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”