Seventy-five years ago, the United States and much of the world was thrown into shock and grief at the news that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt unexpectedly died.
Roosevelt was at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, having his portrait painted when he blurted “I have a terrific headache.”
That was the last thing he ever said. Aides carried the unconscious president into the bedroom. A doctor pronounced him dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 63 years old.
Children were the first to learn about the president's death when the news bulletins broke into the radio adventure serials “Captain Midnight,” and “The Tom Mix Ralston Straightshooters.”
The news quickly spread. Men and women in stores, in offices, on buses, and in the streets cried openly.
Hitler and the crumbling Nazi regime saw FDR’s death as a sign from heaven that the war was about to turn into Germany's favor.
U.S. forces fighting in Europe said it was like losing their own father. But they had little time to grieve and Roosevelt’s death made them even more determined to pound the final nails into the Nazi coffin.
Thousands lined the railroad tracks that brought his body from Warm Springs to Washington for the funeral on April 14 and from Washington to Hyde Park, New York for burial on the 15th. Radio brought the sounds of the funeral march into millions of homes.
Roosevelt had been president for a little more than 12 years and an entire generation could not recall a time when there was anyone else sitting in the Oval Office.
Marist College history professor David Woolner is the author of “The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace.”
“Franklin Roosevelt transformed the relationship between the American people and their government and between the United States and the rest of the world,” Woolner said.
What made Roosevelt’s death especially tragic was if he had lived just four more weeks, he would have seen the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
“It wasn’t uncommon to see people in foreign countries, in London and Paris and even in Moscow to be weeping in the street when they learned the news that Roosevelt had died...in countries around the world, certainly in Europe and in Russia and in parts of Asia they remember Roosevelt with great respect and affection,” Woolner said.
And Woolner believes if Roosevelt had not been elected president during the very depth of the Great Depression, the United States as we know it today, may not exist.
“Roosevelt essentially saved capitalism...before Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, we didn't have unemployment insurance, we didn’t have Social Security, we didn't have federal deposit insurance, we didn’t have the regulation of the stock market, we didn’t have the right of working men and women to join unions, we didn’t have a minimum wage.”
Although his legacy has been questioned, with some believing he did little to advance civil rights in the U.S. and others saying he ignored pleas to save more European Jews from the Nazis, Woolner says to those who lived through the depression and World War Two, Roosevelt will always be universally revered.