On April 12, 1945, with the total destruction of Adolf Hitler's Germany only weeks away, the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, died in Warm Springs, Ga., from a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Elected to an unprecedented four terms, Roosevelt had been president since his first inauguration in 1933. He had led the nation during the Great Depression and had overseen America's war effort against Germany and Japan since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most of the boys in uniform fighting in Europe and the Pacific hardly remembered a time when Roosevelt hadn't been president.
The announcement of his death sent shock waves around a world that had come to see him as the face of America.
Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister who had counted the president as a dear friend, wrote in his memoirs, “When I received these tidings early in the morning of Friday, the 13th, I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played so large a part in the long, terrible years we had worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irreparable loss.”
Churchill went to the House of Commons and requested it adjourn immediately that day as a show of respect. The House members agreed and left the chambers. It was the first time a foreign head of state was ever given such an honor.
In Moscow, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov went immediately to the American embassy and met with Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador. Molotov spoke at length of the great respect that Joseph Stalin and the Soviet people had for the president, and Harriman telegramed Washington to say that he had “never heard Molotov talk so earnestly.”
On May 8, the day the Germans surrendered, a mob of Russian people gathered at the U.S. embassy to yell, “Hurray for Roosevelt.” Despite the fact that he was dead, he still stood as a symbol of America's commitment to her allies.
There was a different reaction entirely in that part of Berlin still controlled by the Nazis. With the Red Army completely encircling the city center and Hitler hunkered down with his chief lieutenants in the FÜhrerbunker, the news was greeted with ecstatic joy.
Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, had only a few weeks earlier commissioned an astrological study that predicted hard times in early April, with advantage coming in the second half of the month. Hitler jumped onto this thin hope enthusiastically. The German leader beamed, “Here we have the great miracle that I have always foretold. ... The war is not lost!”
Additionally Goebbels reminded him of Frederick the Great's precarious position in the Seven Years' War, when the Prussian king found himself surrounded by enemies and very nearly defeated. Only the death of the Russian Czarina Elisabeth saved the Prussian king. Now, Goebbels said, history was repeating itself.
In Washington, Vice President Harry Truman was in the capital building having drinks and discussing business with congressmen when a call came that he was needed at the White House. Thinking he was going to meet with Roosevelt, he hurried over as quickly as he could.
According to Truman's biographer, David McCullough, the president's wife Eleanor Roosevelt stepped forward and, putting her arm around Truman, said, “Harry, the President is dead.” For a moment Truman was silent, then said to the First Lady, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She responded with, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
The next day Truman said to a group of assembled reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”
Robert Taft, a Republican opponent of FDR for years, said, “The president's death removed the greatest figure of our time at the very climax of his career, and shocks the world to which his words and actions were more important than those of any other man. He dies a hero of the war, for he literally worked himself to death in the service of the American people.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular "History Challenge" iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]