Franklin D. Roosevelt died 70 years ago today in Warm Springs, Ga.—though you would not know it from a glance through newspapers or the cybersphere this weekend. That is in marked contrast to the anniversaries of the deaths of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, which are regularly featured all the time in the media whenever their respective dates (April 14 and November 22) roll around.
It’s a far from the intense feeling across the land in April 1945, when hundreds of thousands paid their final respects to FDR on the long funeral train journey from Warm Springs to his Hyde Park, N.Y. home.
The difference between these reactions might be described this way: the deaths of Lincoln and JFK, because they involved assassination, left America confused and traumatized; the demise of FDR left the nation bereft, the way a family would feel at the loss of a strong father.
Roosevelt’s third term (and first few months of his fourth) constituted only four years, but he aged more visibly during this point than at any other in his life. The reason, I think, was not merely the heart disease that would increasingly plague him, but the heavy weight of conducting an unprecedented two-ocean war in which thousands of young men would lose their lives. Death clung to him, as surely as we know it did for Lincoln, in the final photo of his care-lined face by Alexander Gardner.
Feeling that he could not lay down the burden of power, any more than a serviceman could neglect his duty, FDR ran for a fourth term, at a point when (as made abundantly clear in the final episode of Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History), many of those who loved him dreaded the signs of his physical deterioration.
But FDR felt responsible not just for the lives of the young men (including all his sons) in harm’s way throughout the war, but the lives of those for generations to come. He had seen how, despite Woodrow Wilson’s most strenuous efforts after WWI, the attempt to prevent another global conflict had collapsed within 20 years, with even more catastrophic results. He was determined to create international structures of security that would prove better this time.
How well he succeeded may be glimpsed in this 3,800-lb, 17th-century Japanese pagoda tree that I photographed while in Washington, D.C., a year and a half ago. The tree, a gift to the United States from the mayor of Yokahama, Japan, came to Washington in 1957, long before the opening of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.
I have written before on the memorial concerning its statue of FDR as well as its “Forgotten Men” representation of the nation’s unemployed. But the pagoda’s placement just outside America’s tribute to its greatest 20th-century President, next to the Tidal Basin he loved so much, seems powerfully appropriate as well, and certainly worthwhile examining.
In April 1958, the tree was dedicated in order to recognize the centennial of the peaceful relations between Japan and the United States after Commodore Matthew Perry helped open up the long closed-off Asian nation to the West in 1854. But that tree was symbolic not only of the longstanding prewar amity between the two countries, but also of what it takes to reconstitute a seemingly familiar form in an unfamiliar environment.
The pagoda embodies the Japanese ideal of balance. But when its shipment arrived in the U.S., researchers at the Library of Congress discovered that, to facilitate its transport, the tree had been shipped in five carts. Now the researchers needed not just to reassemble the whole (with no instructions enclosed, no less), but also to ensure that it could flourish in far different soil. It was not unlike the task facing FDR and the bureaucrats in his War and State Departments faced as the war drew to a close.
FDR himself would not be around for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let alone the surrender ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri. But the lawyers retained by Douglas MacArthur to write the constitution for postwar Japan had been part of FDR’s New Deal. The Asian nation they envisioned would take root not in an imperial nation, but a Western-style democracy.
They learned what the Americans dealing with the pagoda tree would grasp in the following decade: that an organic thing, whether a landscape fixture or a nation, could be reconstituted in foreign soil, but only if reassembled with the utmost care.
Japan, like Germany, could not be allowed to re-militarize and threaten its neighbors again, FDR felt. At the same time, the country needed to be reintegrated, economically and diplomatically, back into the community of nations.
By and large, the postwar world envisioned by FDR, then carried through by Harry Truman, succeeded in its objectives—though not without tensions or ironies. Germany and Japan, with the burden of maintaining arms removed, have instead, to varying degrees, constituted economic rather than military rivals to the U.S. for long periods in the postwar era. To neutralize a GOP concern that had derailed U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the President ensured that America, as a charter member of the U.N. Security Council, would have veto power over measures—a right that the former U.S.S.R., unfortunately, had as well as a member of the council.
Most of all, in order to eradicate the virus of nationalistic, race-based militarism, FDR was forced to create the modern American national-security state—an apparatus based on secrecy (in this case, the Manhattan Project that would climax in the dropping of the atomic bomb).
None of this negates, however, the value of the collective security system that FDR created. In foreign as in domestic policy, he believed in “bold, persistent experimentation”: “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Nor did he believe, despite his enjoyment of power, that his example alone would be enough to maintain international order. As he told Congress upon his return from Yalta, in a quote that appears on one of the walls of his memorial today: “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one Nation….It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”