James Hill is a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services.
There is a point, not very far into David B. Woolner’s excellent accounting of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last months in office, where one realizes that this history, intentional or not, is going to be a presidential death watch. “Was he too ill during these last months to properly carry the burdens of office?” the author asks in his preface. “Did Stalin dupe him at Yalta because FDR was too weak to resist? Should he have run for a fourth term? Did he ever admit to himself how unwell he was? What role did the members of his family or his closest confidants play — if any — in his ability to lead despite his reduced capacity for work?”
All valid questions that Woolner seeks to answer in “The Last 100 Days,” a remarkably well-researched book on the president that Americans consistently rank among the greatest. Indeed, FDR had an amazing ability to maintain a Herculean schedule, as a self-described juggler who could handle domestic pressures as well as, later, a two-front world war that would have taxed the abilities of mere political mortals.
For this, voters rewarded him with an unprecedented third term in 1940 as war clouds had already gathered over Europe and the Pacific, and again in 1944 when victory in Europe was believed to be in sight.“The Last 100 Days,” by David B. Woolner (Basic Books)
As Woolner notes, FDR kept up this work ethic almost to the moment of his death in Warm Springs, Ga., on April 12, 1945. What is not so clear — how could it ever be? — is whether the work kept Roosevelt going or was his undoing.
Certainly, there have been many critics who have doubted that Roosevelt had the capacity to lead in his diminished state. One charge that still has some sticking power is that he gave away the ship at Yalta, subjecting Eastern Europe to decades of communist tyranny and an ensuing Cold War.
Woolner acknowledges the critics but offers a more nuanced view that FDR got most of what he sought at the Big Three summit in Crimea, which primarily was agreement for the establishment of the United Nations.
Moreover, Woolner enlightens us with his analysis of FDR at Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake after the Yalta summit, where the president tried to bring up the question of Jewish immigration to Palestine with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. Like most presidents who followed him, Roosevelt was rebuffed, and the issue of Middle East peace remains one of the greatest mirages of our times.
But it is the telling of the five-week, half-a-world-away voyage by ship and airplane to Yalta that is the fascinating aspect of this book, and here Woolner really shows his historian’s chops. The trip itself was the stuff of legend, an especially dangerous ocean crossing at a time when German U-boats still prowled the Atlantic. Then there was the return trip, equally as fraught but now with growing alarm over the president’s condition. “This is really a ship of death and everyone responsible in encouraging that man [FDR] to go to Yalta has done a disservice to the United States and ought to be shot,” as Alexander Kirk, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, put it in a sentiment that others, perhaps not as crudely, expressed upon seeing FDR in his sickened state — many for the last time.
To make matters worse, FDR’s personal secretary, Gen. Edwin “Pa” Watson, had taken ill and died as the ship, the USS Quincy, made its voyage back to the United States.
Roosevelt’s inner circle was getting smaller, with deaths such as Watson’s, and resignations and illnesses for others, yet the president soldiered on.
Source : https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-an-active-fdr-rose-above-his-fraility-late-in-his-presidency/2018/01/12/5247892c-c8bd-11e7-b0cf-7689a9f2d84e_story.html765