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From the Great Depression and World War II to the Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race: FDR, Harry and Ike

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882. An admirer of his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy), he graduated from Harvard, attended Columbia Law School, married his distant cousin Eleanor Roosevelt (niece of Teddy) practiced law in New York City, was elected New York state Senator and became widely known by his initials, "FDR." He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1913 (the same position Teddy served in the 1890s) by President Wilson and kept this position through World War I.

FDR developed a reputation as a progressive politician and not unlike Teddy, had a knack for self-promotion. With his political and social prominence, FDR was selected by the Democratic Party as a Vice Presidential running mate with James M. Cox in the 1920 election against Republican Warren Harding. Cox and FDR lost by a landslide. Along with this political defeat, FDR met two personal tragedies: 1) the discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer by his wife Eleanor and 2) the contraction of polio (possibly Guillain-Barre) in 1921 which paralyzed him from the waist down. His marriage to Eleanor became purely professional. She focused on becoming accomplished in the world outside her home. Eleanor called Roosevelt's crippling disease his "trial by fire" which gave him patience, determination and resiliency.

Following these challenges, he convalesced, underwent intensive therapy enabling him to walk using crutches and braces, was urged to re-enter politics in 1928 and was elected governor of New York. Roosevelt became the Democratic nominee for President in 1932 in the darkest hours of the Great Depression. He promised a "New Deal" and defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover. When inaugurated the 32nd President on March 4, 1933, he inspired America with the words "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." With nearly 25% of America unemployed and banks facing a severe crisis, FDR immediately put his recovery plan into action. To inspire America out of its despair, he reached millions through the medium of radio in his "fireside chats" from 1933 to 1944 to explain directly to the people how the government was working on their behalf. Congress enacted programs for business and agriculture. The Social Security Act of 1935 brought relief to the sick and elderly and the Works Progress Administration provided work for millions.

FDR was re-elected in 1936 by an even greater margin than in 1932 and won an unprecedented 3rd term in 1940. While America continued to recover and strengthen at home, WW II escalated in Europe. FDR responded to Hitler's aggression in Europe by sending the British 50 destroyers in exchange for military bases, followed by massive "Lend-Lease" aid and proclaiming America as the "Arsenal of Democracy." The U.S. remained neutral, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 forced America to enter World War II. With Stalin and Churchill, Roosevelt planted the seeds of a post-war world and the emerging United Nations. Despite his failing health Roosevelt won a fourth election. On April 12, 1945 - just weeks into his fourth term - he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia and was buried in the Roosevelt family plot at Hyde Park.

As Abraham Lincoln for the Civil War and Woodrow Wilson for World War I, Roosevelt led America through World War II without any combat experience.

Despite his affliction with paralysis throughout his Presidency, FDR was able to pull America through its greatest crises, The Great Depression and World War II. His tools were his vigor, charm, undimmed charisma and contagious optimism. In just over 12 years as President, FDR realigned the American political system, reshaped the Democratic Party, refined domestic and foreign policy and reinvigorated the presidency and executive branch of government.

The influence of the Roosevelt family on America remains profound beginning at the onset of the 20th Century with Theodore Roosevelt. At the wedding of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in 1907, the bride was given in marriage by her uncle, President Teddy. Other influential families have emerged including the Kennedy's, the Bush's and the Clinton's but we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Roosevelt wave continued with FDR which rippled outward. Such ripples were amplified by Teddy's daughter, Alice, and most notably FDR's wife, Eleanor. As a reminder, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was probably 20th Century's first global celebrity who later hissed: "When I think of Frank and Eleanor in the White House I could grind my teeth to powder and blow them out my nose."

Adlai Stevenson said of Eleanor Roosevelt, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness and her glow has warmed the world." Eleanor was able to overcome shyness after FDR was paralyzed in 1921. She became active in politics when FDR ran for governor. When he was elected President, she emerged among the most active and influential First Ladies in American history. She was a crusader for human rights and world peace. She traveled everywhere and met everyone. She reported to her husband and worked tirelessly on behalf of African-Americans, women, the poor, and all those who hoped the federal government would help improve their lives. After the death of FDR, President Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations. She helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and spent the rest of her life promoting peace, teaching and speaking out for those treated poorly by those in power. She was recognized the most influential woman of the twentieth century.

Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884, and not unlike Lincoln, he rose from humble beginnings and his own limitations to become an American hero who led America through a most difficult time in history. Controversy about Truman abounds from whether he initiated the nuclear arms race or contained communism to whether a period should be used or not after his middle initial - he had no middle name. His initial "S" was a compromise honoring his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young, it was not an abbreviation for any name. Truman grew up on his family's farm with an aggressive father, but Harry S Truman preferred to get his way through persuasion and conciliation. Similar to Teddy Roosevelt, Harry was a weak and sickly child, but unlike Teddy, he did not build himself into a strong and athletic man. After briefly attending business college, he worked on the railroad, in banks and helped his father run the family farm until the age of 30. During World War I, Truman was sent to the French front in 1917 as first lieutenant and was discharged a major in 1919. That year he married his "only one sweetheart from the time I was six," Elizabeth "Bess" Virginia Wallace. Later that year, he opened an unsuccessful haberdashery store in Kansas City. With this failure in 1921, other than his marriage, Truman had achieved no notable accomplishments in his life - he was a farmer, a bank clerk and a haberdasher - until 1922 when he was elected a county court judge in 1922 which launched his political career. He retained this position until 1934 when he was elected to the US Senate. As a senator from Missouri, Truman was chairman of the prestigious committee overseeing the national defense program, known as the "Truman Committee." Because of his national prominence, President FDR selected Truman as his Vice Presidential running mate in 1944. Although Truman did not campaign for the Vice Presidency, he and Roosevelt handily won the election.

Truman was rather suddenly thrusted onto the political stage when sworn in as the 33rd President on April 12, 1945 merely six weeks after FDR's 4th inauguration and at a time when World War II was almost over. Germany surrendered on May 7. His first year of his Presidency was called "a year of decisions," and Truman faced his biggest decision of his life. American troops were closing in on Japan as World War II was coming to an end. Should America drop the first atomic bomb on a Japanese city, or should thousands of Americans invade Japan? Truman chose the bomb and on August 14, Japan surrendered. Noted for his candor and wit, Truman originated the line, "The buck stops her." Indeed, President Truman continued to face up to difficult decisions. In the Cold War that followed, he stood firm against the Soviets. In Greece, Turkey, West Berlin and South Korea, Truman carried out a policy of "containment." While seeking the Presidency in his own right in 1948, a campaign rally supporter shouted, "Give'em hell, Harry." Truman adopted the slogan which became his nickname. He was expected to lose to Republican Thomas E. Dewey, but he surprisingly won the election by a narrow margin. The gutsy and straight-talking politician who suffered from having to fill the shoes of a giant, FDR, was willing to decide and take responsibility when others might be reluctant to make tough decisions which earned him respect. He continued making tough choices, such as the decision to go to war in Korea in 1950 after Communist North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman was eligible to run in 1952, but instead he retired to Independence, Missouri. He died on December 26, 1972 in Kansas City of either the proverbial internal medicine residency training diagnostic dilemma of heart failure versus pneumonia complicated by multisystem organ failure. My opinion, he died of pneumonia. He was buried in Independence, Missouri in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum leaving us this quote, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Dwight D Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890, but was raised in Abilene, Kansas, where he became renowned for his athletic abilities. Originally named David Dwight Eisenhower, he went by his middle name and changed it to Dwight David when he attended West Point in 1911. He was a star halfback for the West Point team until he injured his knee. Following graduation from West Point in 1915, he worked with the Tank Corps, trained recruits for World War I and served in Panama from 1922 to 1924. Eisenhower was encouraged to attend Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, from where he graduated first in 1926. Later, he graduated from the Army War College in 1928 and accompanied General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines as a military advisor until 1939.

When World War II began, few people outside the army had ever heard of this 50-year-old career officer. But soon everyone knew "Ike," as he became one of the great generals of the century and a much-loved two-term President. As he rapidly rose through the ranks, he was put in command of US Troops in Europe in 1942. Then he directed the successful Allied invasions of North Africa and Italy. And in 1944, he planned the largest invasion in history. On June 6, more than 150,000 Allied troops under his command landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Eisenhower's ability to win the cooperation of soldiers of many nationalities was a key factor in the Allied victory over Germany. World War II made him a national hero. He was named General of the Army on December 20, 1944, and is one of only five 5-star generals in United States History. After the war, he retired from active duty and was appointed president of Columbia University in 1948 and commander of NATO forces in Europe in 1950. In 1952, he won the Republican Presidential nomination and was elected the 34th President of the United States. Although he suffered a heart attack in 1955, he was re-elected in 1956. In these Presidential elections, Eisenhower used the memorable slogan "I Like Ike" in his successful campaigns. During his presidency, he oversaw eight years of peace and prosperity. He ended the Korean War, supported civil rights and desegregation, authorized the interstate highway system and supported the development of NASA. Also during his Presidency, the polio vaccine was first made available, Alaska and Hawaii brought the number of states to 50 and America's diplomatic relations with Cuba were severed. The pursuit of peace in the Cold War era was one of Eisenhower's priorities. Domestically, he continued the New Deal policies and declaring "There must be no second class citizens in this country," he fought for equal rights for minorities. He was criticized by some for being aloof on controversial issues, however Eisenhower's down-to-earth manner and kindness won him the nation's affection. When he left office the former soldier warned against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the "military-industrial complex." He retired to his farm at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He died on March 28, 1969 of congestive heart failure, and was buried in Abilene, Kansas. Ike was a wartime leader and peacetime visionary, best remembered as the architect of victory in Europe who built peace, prosperity and equality at home. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox
  2. Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom
  3. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time
  4. Peyser, Marc and Dwyer, Timothy. Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth
  5. McCullough, David. Truman: Volumes I and II
  6. Ambrose, Stephen. Eisenhower: Volumes I and II

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