By Hugh E. Evans, M.D.

“The President is dead.” Shock, disbelief, and profound sorrow spread across the nation and world sixty years ago. Having just taken the Oath of Office for an unprecedented 4th term, 83 days earlier, FDR was going to be President for another four years, or so it was assumed. Even a 5th term was seriously discussed. His sharply declining health, based on long-standing hypertension, was repeatedly concealed by official medical and political sources. Rationalizations were offered for his obviously deteriorating appearance and fatigue including a diagnosis of merely bronchitis. His episode of advanced congestive heart failure, belatedly diagnosed, March 27th, 1944 remained a closely guarded secret on a level with the Manhattan Project. The patient himself was not advised of his grim prognosis. The reiteration, “sudden, unexpected death”, a “bolt from the blue” in the media was medically erroneous. In reality, his death April 12, 1945, occurred at the time predicted by his grave illness. Was this cover-up justified even during World War II as a matter of military necessity? Could this happen in the current era?

From the outset FDR’s career as a state and national leader was medically determined. Afflicted with paralysis due to poliomyelitis at age 39, his public career was thought to be over. He had been a New York State Senator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and a Vice Presidential candidate. His “recovery” was essentially that of the spirit alone over the irretrievable loss of his ability to walk. He persuaded his constituents in New York State, and later throughout the nation, that he was fully qualified for the rigorous demands of executive service in times of crisis. His buoyancy, humor, magnificent voice and handsome visage (until the last year) reassured the nation of his presumably excellent health. Indeed he identified with his affliction as healer rather than as patient. Self-styled as Dr. New Deal (an internist) and Dr. Win-the-War (an orthopedist) he provided treatment to a nation suffering from its worst depression and most dangerous global war.

What are the professional, ethical responsibilities of a physician serving in the U.S. Navy, in the midst of WWII, to his patient, the Commander-in-Chief? Dr. Howard Bruenn, a board certified internist and cardiologist was also LCDR Bruenn. He was assigned by Surgeon General Ross T. McIntire, FDR’s official physician, to examine the President at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland on March 28, 1944. As such Dr Bruenn was sworn to absolute secrecy and did not volunteer a prognosis even in the most guarded terms to his “patient.” FDR himself is said to have asked no questions and was an entirely compliant patient. The President had plans for the remainder of April 1945 which included opening the newly formed United Nations in San Francisco. Beyond this he would accept invitations from Prime Minister Churchill and the Royal Family to visit England in June and address the Parliament and then travel to Continental Europe. He envisioned a wider role for Vice President Truman during the 4th term encompassing domestic legislation and dealing with the Congress generally. That Truman was not advised of plans for detonation of the Atomic Bomb is readily understandable. He met with the President on only three occasions during the 4th term, as FDR was away for most of this brief interval. Vice Presidents were peripheral figures in that era, and since FDR had no contemplation of death, there was no need to alert Truman.

This volume is based on 80 interviews with FDR’s cardiologist, Margaret Truman Daniels, Herbert Brownell, Harold Stassen, John Kenneth Galbraith, Douglas MacArthur II, Secret Service agents, airplane pilots, family members and eyewitnesses.

Six decades have elapsed since FDR’s death. The New York Times forecast that men would “thank God on their knees” that it was FDR who was President during these tumultuous, critical times. His memory is invoked in times of crisis such as the attacks of September 11. His successors are judged by comparing their achievements with his. We continue to live in his shadow. Beyond that, his indomitable spirit in overcoming the harshest of afflictions with humor, courage and imagination serve as a beacon to all who follow. His last words, “The only limit to our dreams of tomorrow are our doubts of today – let us move forward with strong and active faith” are truly luminous.

The Hidden Campaign: FDR’s Health and the Election of 1944
By Hugh E. Evans, M.D.
M.E. Sharpe, 208 pages, $34.95 (Hardcover)

Hugh E. Evans, M.D. is Professor of Pediatrics at the New Jersey Medical School