Images of an Ill President. This photo clearly shows a growth over FDR's left eye - a growth that mysteriously disappears after 1940.

Prelude:  A History of Health Deception

Just a year after fighting for election as the 1920 Democratic Party nominee for Vice President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt he was fighting for his life.  In a matter of just a few days, Roosevelt had gone from feeling somewhat unwell to having a fever, to bowel and bladder dysfunction, to permanent paralysis from the waist down.  Diagnosed with poliomyelitis at the time, today it's believed Roosevelt's symptoms more consistent with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease which contemporary physicians had failed to consider.  Spending several years out of the public eye, Roosevelt was determined to resume his political career, feeling that being seen as ambulatory was essential to his public perception.

While never denying his illness, with the help of assistance (both human and mechanical), Roosevelt initiated a grueling form of physical "rehabilitation," teaching himself to use custom-made hip and leg braces and a cane and "walk."  His handlers, meanwhile, took great pains to prevent Roosevelt from being portrayed as disabled:  never having him seen using his wheelchair in public, having him give speeches while seated in the back seat of automobiles, etc.  Rather than being viewed as an object of pity as a number of (then presumed) polio sufferers were, by the mid-1920's Roosevelt was gaining reverence, perceived as a man who had battled back from enormous personal hardship... a man who had beaten the odds.

The reality, however, was that it was no more than a deception:  Roosevelt was as ambulatory in 1932 as he'd been in 1922.  Elected Governor of New York in 1928, Roosevelt positioned himself perfectly to run for President in 1932; and thanks to the Great Depression being at its zenith and having Republican Herbert Hoover in the White House?  Ambulatory or not it was evident to virtually everyone from the moment he clinched the Democratic Party's nomination:  Franklin Roosevelt was going to be the 32nd President of the United States.  And the general 

An undated photo of the President, probably taken at some point from 1940-42.

But having been chosen as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in opposition to incumbent Herbert Hoover at a time when the Great Depression was at its zenith?  Ambulatory or not it was evident to virtually everyone that Franklin Roosevelt would become the 32nd President of the United States.  And the general deception about his health condition having worked for him so far, the President and his staff would spend the rest of his life covering up and/or downplaying news of his ailments - which as his administration continued on, would become quite an extensive list.

1940:  An Unprecedented Third Term

With World War II having begun in earnest the previous September and fearful that the United States may be dragged into the conflict, in the spring and summer of 1940 there was an unusual amount of speculation that President Roosevelt would break with historical tradition and seek an unprecedented third consecutive term in office (seeking a third overall term was not unprecedented, however, as Ulysses Grant had sought the Republican Party nomination in 1880).  Cagey by practice, the President refused to reveal his plans, going so far as to gently encourage other Democrats who had interest in succeeding him.

As the year went on and German military forces decimated the Netherlands, Belgium and France, the President believed that only he had the necessary combination of skills, experience, and forethought to see the country through what was to come.  FDR had a fairly sized ego in this presumption, but history has to some degree proven him correct.  Upon learning that the Republican Party had nominated popular businessman Wendell Willkie for President and adopting a staunchly isolationist stance in its 1940 platform, the leaders of the Democratic Party meanwhile believed that only Roosevelt could beat Willkie that November.  This sentiment was not shared by everyone within the party however, including Roosevelt's own Vice President; Texan John Nance Garner, who had grown disenchanted with the President and openly opposed him for the nomination.

The in-party opposition to Roosevelt would prove insufficient to keep him from renomination at the 1940 Democratic National Convention.  Having offered the Vice Presidential slot on the ticket to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and been discreetly refused, the President announced that he wanted Agriculture Secretary (and purportedly near-Communist) Henry Agard Wallace as his Vice President, the convention openly rebelled.  First lady Eleanor Roosevelt went to the convention to assuage delegates, but to no avail.  Finally it would take an ultimatum from FDR himself - "give me Wallace or find a new presidential nominee" - for the convention delegates to consent to Wallace's nomination.  Even then, Wallace would garner less than 60% of the delegate's votes.  In November the Roosevelt-Wallace pairing would be elected over Willkie and Oregon's Charles McNary by ten percentage points and a whopping 449 to 82 electoral college tally.

Color photograph taken of President Roosevelt in 1944.

World War and an Increasingly Ill President

Having previously elected to stay quiet with respect to the true extent of the President's physical disabilities, throughout his administration the staff at the White House portrayed Franklin Roosevelt as somewhat infirmed but otherwise generally healthy.  As his second term was coming to a close however, maintaining that subterfuge was proving more and more difficult.

The first evident sign that something (other than paralysis) was wrong with the President came to public attention shortly after his re-election in 1940.  A growth which had long existed over Roosevelt's left eye suddenly disappeared that July, which meant either that the President had begun to use pancake makeup on his forehead or that the growth had been surgically removed.  The press inquired about it, but didn't force a definitive answer on the subject.  During the course of his third term however, Roosevelt seemed to age much faster than a man in his late 50's would seem to age.  Media of the time attributed this change in the President's appearance to the severe stresses of managing a nation engaged in a global military conflict.  But in truth FDR likely was simultaneously suffering from multiple maladies, one compounded on the next, until finally he succumbed to them.

Among those things FDR suffered from to which the public (eventually) became aware were:

  • Cardiomyopathy and atherosclerosis.
  • Severe systolic and diastolic hypertension.  At one point during a physical exam in 1944, FDR's blood pressure would be recorded as an astonishing 250/150.
  • Respiratory issues, no doubt exacerbated (as the above two ailments) by the President's habit of smoking two packs of Camel cigarettes a day.
  • Ongoing migraine headaches.
  • Spontaneous loss of consciousness (black-out spells).
  • Significant digestive issues, which evidently began sometime in 1943.  During the period from his renomination in the summer of 1944 to his election to a fourth term that November, the President was documented as having lost 25 pounds.
  • Severe iron deficiency.
  • Bleeding hemorrhoids.
  • Chronic fatigue.

The final two photographs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taken within minutes of one another and within 24 hours of his death.

In addition, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that President Roosevelt may have had fought cancer during the entirety of his final five years in office.  As mentioned and documented in the first photo above, during the first two terms the President had a noticeable mark (some would call it a mole, others perhaps a lesion) which mysteriously disappeared sometime during 1940.  Meanwhile, there are several reports of outside specialists being brought in to examine Roosevelt and consult with White House physicians on other ailments; at least two of which reportedly learning that the President had been diagnosed with terminal, metastasized cancer sometime in early 1944.  Adding to the circumstantial evidence in this regard is the timing, as in March 1944 FDR underwent a complete physical examination at Bethesda Naval Hospital; one at which cardiologist Dr. Howard Bruenn diagnosed the President with acute congestive heart failure and another doctor who saw him advised Surgeon General Ross McIntire (no relation) that Roosevelt would never survive another four years in the White House.

While the public at large was wrapped up in the progress of the war and perhaps delusional to a point of not believing their leader was dying, the leaders of the Democratic Party knew that regardless of his condition, Franklin Roosevelt would be the party's nominee for a fourth term as President.  Roosevelt himself was consumed by the war's prosecution, to an extent that while he realized his health might be in decline, he was unaware of the extent of it - in the wake of his March 1944 examination, he asked not a single question about his condition; indicative perhaps that either the man either realized he was dying and didn't want confirmation of it, or that it was unconscionable for him to imagine that he'd die before the war had reached its conclusion.

Wallace Out; Truman In

With the deceptions regarding the President's physical condition being more and more betrayed by his physical appearance, during the spring of 1944 Democratic Party national chairman Robert Hennegan, DNC treasurer Edwin Pauley, and other party leaders initiated discussions with the President about the prospect of replacing Vice President Wallace on the ticket.  In spite of his considerable ailments and well aware that the President could die between then and January 20, 1949, the party leadership believed maintaining continuity in government essential to national security as the war slowly drew to a close.  But the idea that if FDR died the White House would be occupied by Henry Wallace as something the party's leaders simply couldn't bear.

Initially Roosevelt dismissed Wallace's removal from the ticket out of hand.  For over a decade, FDR reasoned, Wallace had been a loyal servant of the United States and a good soldier for the Democratic Party; in the President's view, he'd earned another term as Vice President if he wanted one.  But the President also understand that he lacked the political clout he'd held in 1940, and rather than insist that Wallace continue as his running mate, he asked the party bosses for potential alternatives.  By the time he asked they'd already devised an answer, having considered over a half dozen potential candidates, including:

  • Vice President Henry Agard Wallace (left) and President Franklin Roosevelt.
    Alben W. Barkley - current United States Senator from Kentucky.  Barkley would eventually be chosen as the Democratic Party's Vice Presidential nominee, to run alongside an incumbent President.  But that choice would be made at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, not in 1944.
  • James F. Byrnes - former United States Supreme Court justice and close Roosevelt confidant; so close, in fact, that he was often referred to as the "assistant president."  A southerner, Byrnes would eventually be ruled out despite being FDR's preferred candidate primarily due to his stance on racial issues.
  • William O. Douglas, current United States Supreme Court justice.  Appointed to the court by Roosevelt in 1939, Roosevelt would ultimately choose him as a "finalist," though to this day no one's quite sure why he did so.
  • Henry J. Kaiser, industrial magnate.  At one time or another during his life, Kaiser would build ships, manufacture aluminum and steel, own a car company, and build a vast real estate empire.  He'd also organize Kaiser Permanente as a means of providing health care for his employees and their families.
  • Samuel T. Rayburn, current Speaker of the House of Representatives.
  • Harry S Truman, current United States Senator from Missouri.  Truman would ultimately be the choice of the party leaders, but their priority was to get Wallace out the door; if FDR clearly preferred Douglas, they'd have gone along.

While Roosevelt indicated that Byrnes would be his personal choice from among the names discussed, the bosses demurred, saying that his stance on racial issues would hurt the ticket with African-American voters.  When Roosevelt suggested Douglas the bosses added him to the list, but were unsure how effective he would be in helping shepherd legislation through Congress.  Essentially through attrition, all but one candidate would be weeded out, leaving the last man standing:  Harry S Truman of Missouri.

A week prior to the Democratic convention, Vice President Wallace learned of what had transpired - that when the convention assembled, the party bosses would be supporting Truman.  Confronting FDR directly on the issue, Roosevelt prevaricated by telling Wallace that if he were a delegate at the convention, he'd vote for him.  Wallace got the message, but figuring he had nothing to lose (there had, in fact, been a new job set aside for Roosevelt's new term - Secretary of Commerce), he decided to fight for the nomination anyway.  And surprisingly, while the 1940 Democratic National Convention loathed the notion of Henry Wallace being Vice President, the 1944 convention was reticent about him not being Vice President.

Despite the party leaders putting the word out among the state delegations that Truman was their man (and allegedly, the President's), on the first ballot it would be the incumbent Vice President who had garnered more delegate votes.  Neither Wallace or Truman would receive the support of a majority; in all eight candidates had received support from at least 25 delegates.  Suddenly, the nomination of a Vice President was a political free-for-all.  Just as with the first ballot, neither Wallace or Truman had gained majority support, though Truman would inch ahead in terms of delegate count, 417 1/2 to 413.  Finally, thanks to some major arm-twisting by party leaders (contemporary reporters openly speculated what patronage positions and ambassadorships had been offered to whom in exchange for votes), the third ballot would be the charm for Truman as virtually all support for the other seven candidates, including the incumbent Vice President, shifted Truman's way.

History vs. Alternate History

The way history played out is no mystery.  The Roosevelt-Truman ticket would be elected in November 1944, but President Franklin Roosevelt would die of a cerebral hemorrhage less than three months after their inauguration.  Harry S Truman, left out of the loop with respect to policy and war planning during his short stint as Vice President and relatively unknown to a great number of Americans, suddenly found himself as their President.  A year later, Truman would ask for Wallace's resignation from the job he'd been offered as a consolation prize, Secretary of Commerce.  But it's interesting to consider several "What If's" with respect to FDR, Wallace, Truman and the others during this period:

  • What if, for example, Cordell Hull accepts Roosevelt's invitation to join him on the 1940 Democratic Party campaign ticket?  Would Hull have been kept on in 1944, only to succeed FDR upon his death?
  • What if after threatening to abandon a campaign for a third term unless Wallace is chosen as his running mate, the leaders of the Democratic Party call his bluff?  Does he actually decline the nomination, is a third choice offered the Vice Presidential slot?
  • What if Roosevelt is fully made aware of how serious his health issues are in 1944?  Does he put together a succession plan so war planning continues unabated if he dies?  And for that matter, what if Hull is Vice President when Roosevelt is examined - do his doctors suggest he immediately resign due to health issues?
  • What if Roosevelt sticks to his guns and the 1944 DNC nominates William O. Douglas rather than Harry S Truman as Vice President?  What if they renominate Wallace?