In early 1944 a full medical examination disclosed that Roosevelt had serious heart and circulatory problems and he was placed on a strict regime of diet and medication. Roosevelt, a chain-smoker throughout his entire adult life, had been in declining physical health since at least 1940.
In March 1944, he underwent further testing and was found to have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, and congestive heart failure. Hospital physicians, specialists and his own doctor ordered Roosevelt to rest and changes to his schedule were made to accommodate this. However, his declining physical health was kept secret and Roosevelt made it clear that he was seeking another term. When it was time for the 1944 Democratic National Convention and re-election campaign, his personal doctor declared that “The President’s health is perfectly OK. There are absolutely no organic difficulties at all.” When it came time for the election in November 1944, Roosevelt and his vice-presidential running mate, Harry S. Truman, won by a comfortable margin.
Within months of his election to a fourth term, Roosevelt was looking old, thin and frail. On March 29, 1945, he traveled to the Little White House, a personal retreat of his located in Warm Springs, Georgia. On the afternoon of April 12, Roosevelt said, “I have a terrific headache” before slumping forward in his chair, unconscious. He was then carried to his room and his attending cardiologist, Dr. Howard Bruenn, diagnosed the medical emergency as a massive stroke. He died just two and one-half hours later without regaining consciousness. He was 63 years old and just three months into his fourth term.
His death was met with shock and grief across the United States and around the world. The next day, his body was placed in a flag-draped coffin and loaded onto the presidential train for the trip back to Washington, D.C. Along the route, thousands flocked to the tracks to pay their respects. After a White House funeral on April 14, Roosevelt was transported by train to his estate at Hyde Park, New York where he was buried in the Rose Garden on April 15.
After Germany surrendered the following month, newly-sworn in President Truman dedicated Victory in Europe Day and its celebrations to Roosevelt’s memory, and kept the flags across the U.S. at half-staff for the remainder of the 30-day mourning period, saying that his only wish was “that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day”.
World War II finally came to a complete end with the surrender of Japan in September following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman would preside over the demobilization of the war effort and the establishment of the United Nations and other postwar institutions envisioned during Roosevelt’s presidency.
Today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of the United States and is often ranked by historians and political scientists as one of the three greatest presidents, along with George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.
Others, however, adamantly disagree. During his presidency, and continuing to a lesser extent afterward, there has been much criticism of Roosevelt. Critics question his rapid expansion of government programs that redefined the role of the government and his breaking with tradition by running for a third term as president. He also increased the power of the presidency at the expense of Congress. During his presidency, some of his programs were declared by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, but many, like Social Security, became permanent parts of the American political system.
After his death, his widow, Eleanor, continued to be a forceful presence in politics, serving as a delegate to the conference which established the United Nations and championing civil rights and liberalism. Many members of his administration played leading roles in the administrations of Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, each of whom embraced Roosevelt’s political legacy.
Roosevelt was the first and only president to serve more than two terms. Up until that time, two terms had been the tradition, established by George Washington when he refused to run for a third term in the 1796 presidential election. Every other president after him, up until Roosevelt, had followed Washington’s lead until Roosevelt. Afterward, Congress passed the Twenty-Second Amendment, which limits an elected president to two terms in office, in 1947. It was ratified by the states in 1951.
Though it was not widely known until the 1960s, Roosevelt had several extra-marital affairs. According to one biographer, this was perhaps because Eleanor had an aversion to sexual intercourse and considered it “an ordeal to be endured.” The main affair was with Eleanor’s social secretary Lucy Mercer, which began soon after she was hired in 1914. After several years, Eleanor found letters revealing the affair in Roosevelt’s luggage in 1918.
Though Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce and Franklin considered accepting, his mother, Sara, strongly objected because it would end his political career and threatened to cut him off from the family fortune. Further, Lucy would not agree to marry a divorced man with five children. Afterward, Franklin promised to never see Lucy again and the couple remained married but became more of a political partnership. In fact, Eleanor established a separate home in Hyde Park at Val-Kill, and increasingly devoted herself to various social and political causes independently of her husband. The couple never “officially” lived together again. When Roosevelt was president he was often not even aware when she visited the White House. Roosevelt, in turn, did not visit Eleanor’s New York City apartment until late 1944. The emotional break in their marriage was so severe that when Roosevelt was in failing health in 1942 and asked Eleanor to come back home and live with him again, she refused.
After the affair was discovered, Lucy Mercer married wealthy socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd, a widower then in his fifties, in 1920. However, despite Franklin’s promise to Eleanor and her marriage to another man, the two remained in secret contact for the next several decades. In fact, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was at Roosevelt’s retreat home in Warm Springs, Georgia when he died. But, she was quickly whisked away to avoid negative publicity and implications of infidelity.
Roosevelt’s son Elliott also claimed that his father had a 20-year affair with his private secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. Another son, James, stated that “there is a real possibility that a romantic relationship existed” between his father and Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, who resided in the White House during part of World War II. At that time, aides referred to her as “the president’s girlfriend” and gossip linking the two romantically appeared in the newspapers.
The Springwood family estate in Hyde Park, New York, where Roosevelt was born and was buried, was given to the United States. Today, it is a National Historic Site, which remains largely unchanged since his death. The house is still full of his personality including his boyhood collection of stuffed birds.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, February 2019.