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Franklin Roosevelt 70 Years On: America Never Really Recovered From FDR's Passing

04/12/2015 12:00 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
First Inaugural Address
March 4, 1933

Hillary Clinton, who will perhaps coincidentally announce her presidential candidacy on this 70th anniversary of FDR's death, can only hope to match even part of her fellow New Yorker's vast accomplishments.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt loved the train. Next to a cruise on the presidential yacht Potomac or one of his beloved naval vessels, it was his favorite way to travel. His intimates spoke of how the sights of the countryside, the motion of the train, were all a restorative for his spirit. That was especially so as he would journey to his favorite retreat of Warm Springs, Georgia.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12th, 1945. America has never really recovered from his passing.

When Roosevelt left the White House for what turned out to be the last time near the end of March 1945 to travel by train to Warm Springs, he and his familiars all hoped the trip would be a major restorative, as it had been in the past. Roosevelt, elected to a record fourth term as president in November 1944, was powerfully tired. World War II was nearly won, but big military decisions remained. And Roosevelt was thinking of the upcoming founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. After a good, long stay in Warm Springs, he intended to take the train out to California and dominate the United Nations conference from its beginning on April 25th.

The president did improve, both on the train ride down and in his time at Warm Springs, alternating between work sessions on the war and the world to come, signing official papers and the convivial little parties he loved to throw. But on April 12th, talking and joking with friends after signing a variety of orders, while in the midst of posing for a portrait, he was suddenly stricken.

"I have a terrible headache," he said, and then collapsed. Not long after, FDR was dead, to the shock of those around him and his associates at large, much as they had worried about his energy level and health. He had passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage, a the relatively young age of 63.

The ever charming master politician, easily one of the best-prepared men ever to become president after eight years as governor of New York and seven years as assistant secretary of the Navy before that -- a sort of foxy political father figure -- had taken a very fearful nation on the verge of collapse in the Great Depression back from the edge of the abyss. He imbued it with sustenance, hope, renewed purpose and a great sense of economic justice. Then he took this nation, mired in a fearful isolationism, and cleverly set about preparing it for the greatest war in world history, which he knew would come.

When the war against onrushing fascist powers on opposite sides of the world did come, he saw the nation through its long early days of fearsome defeat, the building of a complex and necessary international coalition featuring his wildly disparate partners, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, into the ultimate drives for victory across the world which would leave America -- at far less cost than those experienced by its two great allies, the British Empire and the Soviet Union -- not only the greatest power in the world but one on a still fast ascending trajectory.

Is there a date on the calendar with sadder associations in American history than April 12th?

Not only is it the 70th anniversary of FDR's passing. It is also the anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, the day in 1861 on which Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter.

With Roosevelt's untimely passing, the fear which permeated American life when he became president during the Great Depression, and which returned when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor nearly nine years later -- a fear which he not only alleviated, but transcended -- returned with a vengeance.

The Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the wartime casualties in fighting Nazi Germany, following Roosevelt's strategic conception of limiting the cost in American blood while providing plenty of tools for the allies, would have bridled perhaps to the point of breaking the alliance absent FDR's deft handling.

After FDR's passing, and the end of the war, Moscow suddenly became a larger-than-life threat. Much larger than life. There was a threat from Soviet Russia, but we know now that it was usually greatly exaggerated. Fear simply coursed through American politics.

The Cold War was real, but hyped, with fear leading us down some infamous blind allies, most notably in Vietnam.

FDR never had a proper successor. John Nance Garner was a ticket-balancing political hack. Henry Wallace was a bit too exotic and left. Harry Truman was a decidedly higher order of hack than Garner, but a hack nonetheless, who FDR spent little time with.

If the 1960s were too early for Peggy Olsen to be the protagonist of Mad Men, the 1940s were far too early for Eleanor Roosevelt to be a Hillary Clinton arriving 70 years ahead of time.

Harry Hopkins, the ex-social worker who was perhaps the greatest general purpose White House advisor and operative in history, might have been FDR's successor at one point, but his health problems were worse than his boss'. Also suffering from the twin strains of the Depression and World War, Hopkins died after undertaking a last high-level international mission for Truman.

Probably John F. Kennedy, a long 16 years later, was the closest FDR had to a proper successor. And he himself used fear -- a "missile gap" with the Soviets that was real only in reverse -- to get elected. Only after the Cuban Missile Crisis was he able to move beyond the fear factor. And not, as it happened, for very long.

It's been mostly fear ever since, even though America has been by far the most powerful nation on the planet, thanks to Roosevelt's leadership. Thus highlighting both the truth of FDR's famed observation that heads this column and the profound loss this nation suffered 70 years ago.

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