Friday, September 13, 2013

April 12, 1945 - FDR Suffers Minor Stroke

While resting at his private retreat of the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, to renew his energies before the UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in the coming weeks, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced, "I have a terrific pain in the back of my head." The president went quiet and his body convulsed. The others in the room hurried to his side and tended to him until doctors arrived. Due to strain from his many years of political work and high cholesterol combined with a predisposition to the same congestive heart failure that ended his father's life, Roosevelt suffered a terrible, but not debilitating, stroke.

The president's health had been troubled for some time. Rumors about illness circulated widely during the 1944 election, but the press seemed to steer clear of the issue, potentially due to orders from the Office of Censorship that had also kept reporters off the battlefields as the war dragged on. His doctor ordered bed-rest, but Roosevelt took it upon himself to exercise more regularly, even though his bout with polio left him confined to a wheelchair and steel braces. This time, he lost much of the use of his left arm, but was fortunate to keep his abilities in speech.

As with his previous illness, Roosevelt soldiered on. News of the stroke was controlled by the White House, simply stating that he still suffered from the affects of fatigue. He managed to be in San Francisco for the organization of the United Nations, a term he had created from the Allies who signed the Atlantic Charter in 1942. While the papers stated he was in attendance, he spent nearly all of his time behind closed doors with only a few select meetings.

Through tenacity, Roosevelt continued to work as president. Upon the collapse of Nazi power in Europe, Roosevelt gave a radio address to Americans pronouncing Victory Day, though others such as Vice-President Harry S Truman became the faces seen in photos and movie reels. Roosevelt saw out the end of the war, skillfully defending the use of atomic weapons to end the war with Japan early, though there were some who said that the declaration of war by the Soviet Union was what had truly brought Japan to surrender unconditionally.

Roosevelt, who had long trusted Stalin, had begun to doubt his trustworthiness as the war began to come to a close and the Soviets’ plans to set up puppet governments began to show. Churchill had long warned Roosevelt about Stalin, seeing him as at-best a necessary evil until Hitler was destroyed, and soon warned of an Iron Curtain behind which Stalin plotted. Britain edged Churchill out of office in 1945, looking to break cleanly from the troubled days of the war. Roosevelt pressed on and, though his widespread popularity, managed to keep the nation voting Democrat while the Republicans cried for change.

Roosevelt promised change and continued to campaign for his Second Bill of Rights, completing the work he felt he had begun with the social measures of the New Deal. Echoing the measures of the first Bill of Rights, Roosevelt argued that the right of “pursuit of happiness” had not yet been fulfilled. Gradually, programs came into play to employment in CCC-style grants and organizations, housing, education, and medical care. With enough Democrats in Congress, he was able to push through legislation blocking the powers of big business and monopolies, reversing many of the anti-labor policies that had been in place due to necessity of production during the war.

Abroad, Roosevelt kept up pressure on Stalin and refused to allow Communism to spread. While many of the soldiers from WWII returned home, much of the materiel and provisions were shifted to the KMT forces of the Republic of China, finally squashing Mao’s armies in 1947. It became painfully clear that the Soviets would not remove themselves as the Americans, British, and French were doing. Roosevelt began to threaten use of atomic weapons, which outmatched anything the Russians had in their arsenal. Stalin tested Roosevelt again and again with false deadlines and empty promises until the tension burst in 1948 in Berlin over Soviet restrictions over passage to Berlin. Through the UN (which Soviets increasingly called a “puppet of the West”), Roosevelt demanded Stalin pull Soviet troops out of all occupied areas by that fall. Stalin refused, so Roosevelt began a bombing campaign targeting the Soviet military.

Republicans noted that the bombing began shortly before the election and accused Roosevelt of starting another war so he could maintain control of the White House as well as flat-out tyranny. Roosevelt replied that he was doing what he felt best and would understand if the American public trusted him. In the narrowest election of his career, Roosevelt won yet another unprecedented fifth term in 1948. As in 1944, much of the campaigning was done vicariously.

War with the Soviets finally drove them back to the borders of Russia in 1949, which was when Stalin announced the USSR had successfully developed its own atomic bomb in Kazakhstan. An uneasy armistice began even though much of Europe had been liberated. Preparations were made for peace talks, but the travel to a neutral summit proved too taxing for FDR, who died before he could meet Stalin face-to-face again. The war was never officially declared over, leaving a huge demilitarized “Iron Curtain” surrounding the Soviet border.

At home, the Democratic Party lost its driving force, and, in 1952, the consolidated conservatives from the Republicans pushed out the moderate Republican choice, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, calling for an end to America’s militarism with a return to isolationism within the UN. Democrat Estes Kefauver of Tennessee was no match for Robert Taft in the polls. As the new conservatives attempted to break down the New Deal in the 1950s, however, public outcry began a new era of reform, including new rights for minorities and women, furthering Roosevelt’s Bill of Rights further than he had ever imagined.


In reality, Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, of a large cerebral hemorrhage after following orders of two hours of rest a day and no lunch meetings. Only a few weeks later on May 8, Germany fell, ending the war in Europe. VP-turned-President Truman pronounced the day in honor of Roosevelt's efforts and wished publicly that "Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. By way of paying homage to your truly excellent work, might we present this reversal Dewey beats FDR in '48. Respect.

  3. I just discovered this site and am impressed. However, this entry starts well but seems like wish fulfillment.

    The first problem is that there are accounts that FDR planned to resign and retire in 1946, after the work setting up the UN was done (my source is the Michael Beschloss book on the debate over the reconstruction of Germany, its part of the explanation for why Wallace was forced off the 1944 ticket in place of Truman). If FDR's health had gotten worse in 1945 but he somehow survived, something like this probably wouldn't have happened. He certainly wouldn't have run for a fifth turn in 1948.

    A minor problem is that even though FDR seems to have picked Truman, who did good work on cracking down on war profiteers in Congress, to succeed him, Truman was given no role in the executive branch during his three months as Vice President. In part this was the standard practice of the time, the Vice President was seen as an office apart from the executive branch, and it wasn't until the Eisenhower administration that things started shifting more to the current practice. So Truman wouldn't have been "more visible" until he actually succeeded FDR as President.

    Midway through the problems with this alternative history start becoming more serious. This US did turn alot of war material over to the Nationalists historically, and there was widespread consensus at the time among military observers and China experts that there was no way the Nationalists could prevail in the civil war owing to the regime having been hollowed out by corruption (the Republican attempt to exploit "who lost China" was quite cynical). If a barely functioning FDR could somehow have produced a Nationalist victory, we really need a stronger explanation of how that would have happened.

    Second, though Churchill had his staff start planning for the scenario, and something like this happening was behind late war German strategy to the extent that Germany could have been said to have had a strategy, the US and UK initiating a war against the USSR in the 1940s was not on the cards. There was simply too much war weariness, and the Soviet armies in central Europe were too strong and well lead. In fact they probably would have advanced farther into Western Europe if it hadn't been for the atomic bomb threat. Atomic weapons and US air power in general did keep the Red Army from advancing further, but given the Soviet advantage in ground forces that was the most they could have done. There is also no grounds to believe that FDR would have taken a harder line against the Soviets than Truman, to the point where he was essentially taking up the John Birchite position.

    There was also weariness at the time with economic controls and economic planning, so its hard to get domestic policy to the left of where it was between 1945 and 1969. The Democrats controlled Congress for all but four years of this period, and of the presidents of that time even Eisenhower was not hostile to New Deal measures, while Truman and LBJ were New Dealers.

  4. I see your point on war-weariness, and scary stuff to think about losing briefly won ground in Europe to the Soviets. That much could've upped the post-war push for conservatism back to isolationism.

    Glad you're liking the site!

  5. I find the idea of various POD's regarding who gets to Eastern Europe first and how that might change the course of the Cold War to be very fascinating. I do agree with the previous comment that much of the scenario is wish fulfillment, but don't agree that the Soviets were a danger the the Western Allies in 1945. The Red Army was larger, to be sure, but the Soviet Union had lost 25 million people and 1/3 of its national wealth in the war. It suffered a famine in 1946-47 that was partly the result of the vast war damage. In fact it was Stalin who feared an invasion, and tore up train tracks in Eastern Europe as a precaution. But everyone was war-weary, it wasn't going to happen.

    The real POD is if Roosevelt had never trusted Stalin or stopped trusting him sooner, i.e. before Yalta, and how that might affect the final stages of the war, especially considering just how close the Western Allies were to Berlin in March 1945. Or other factors, e.g. Montgomery clears the Scheldt earlier, the Soviets get stymied briefly in the East, etc. It's remarkable how down to the wire the occupation of central and Eastern Europe ended up being, all things considered.

  6. on the Today in Alternate History web site we visit this idea of FDR agreeing to retire in 10th May, 1949 - Springwood, Hyde Park NY.

  7. in our blog article December 29th, 1947 - death of FDR we vary the outcome with FDR surviving only two years, and being unable to retire (as Ed suggests) due to a much-later VJ Day.

  8. I wish he hadn't trusted Stalin. As for the Second Bill of Rights - institutionalised socialism.


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