President Franklin Roosevelt Suddenly Dies, April 12, 1945

franklin roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt – Wikipedia

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unexpected death from a stroke in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, was a huge shock to many people. He had been the president since 1933 and re-elected three times – the most of any president. During this long tenure he had led the nation through the Great Depression and into Word War Two.

Many Americans considered Roosevelt a father figure because he’d been the president for much of their lives. This was especially true for the young men fighting overseas against fascism in the Western European and Pacific theaters of WWII. There were many reports of American soldiers and sailors crying upon receiving word of his death.

American forces in the Pacific theater were fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa at the time of Roosevelt’s death. They U.S. had invaded that southern Japanese island on April 1st and the troops had made good progress until they had encountered a strong Japanese defensive line along Kakazu Ridge. The initial American assaults against it failed and the Japanese took advantage of this by distributing propaganda leaflets trying to discourage further attacks. They began with, “We must express our deep regret over the death of President Roosevelt.”

The Germans also took note of Roosevelt’s death in the European theater. The Western Allies had launched attacks across the Rhine River on Germany’s western border in March of 1945 which had destroyed Nazi Germany’s defenses on that front. The allied troops, under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, were approaching Berlin from the west. On Germany’s eastern border, the Soviets were poised along the Oder River preparing to attack Berlin, which was only about 50 miles away.

Hitler knew there was little chance that his depleted forces could stop the Allies. But when he learned of Roosevelt’s death he became elated. He had always been inspired by Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia who had held out against overwhelming odds in the Seven Years’ War until the alliance against him unexpectedly dissolved after the Russian Empress Elizabeth died. Hitler thought Roosevelt’s death was a sign that the alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviets would now disintegrate. But Hitler soon found that Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, had no intention of betraying the Soviets by making a separate peace with the Nazis. On May 8, 1945, when Truman announced Germany’s unconditional surrender he said, “I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day.”

Roosevelt’s death also prompted responses from America’s allies in WWII.  When the American ambassador to the Soviet Union informed Stalin about it the Soviet leader said “President Roosevelt has died but his cause must live on. We shall support President Truman with all our forces and all our will.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who reportedly sobbed like a baby upon hearing of Roosevelt’s passing, gave a long eulogy for Roosevelt in the House of Commons a few days after his death. It concluded with, “For us. it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.”

Churchill later wrote of Roosevelt:

“He altered decisively and permanently the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the Old. His life must therefore be regarded as one of the most commanding events in human destiny.”

Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Imperial Japanese Navy Flag
Imperial Japanese Navy Flag

On this date in 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against U.S. military bases on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This Attack on Pearl Harbor, as it came to be known, was a major turning point in WWII.

The following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and called for a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” Roosevelt famously proclaimed. In less than an hour Congress had declared war on Japan.

Four days later, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany unilaterally declared war on the U.S., ensuring that America would enter the war in Europe too. Many of the German dictator Adolf Hitler’s military leaders, along with a large portion of the German population, thought it was a fatal error. Hitler wasn’t obligated to help Japan because the Tripartite Pact he’d signed with Japan in 1940 said Germany only had to help the Japanese if they were attacked, not if they were the attackers. But Hitler hated Roosevelt and his eloquent anti-fascist rhetoric and was convinced that Japan would defeat the U.S.

Years later, in his diary, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote about how he felt when he heard the news that the U.S. had finally joined the war.

“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not fortell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! … Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.”

How Did the Germans Let it Happen?

nazi helmet
Nazi soldier’s helmet (Jeff Burgess)

Numerous events were held across the world this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the of the end of WWII. The commemorations of the  surrender of Nazi Germany in May, 1945, and the subsequent end to the Holocaust inevitably reignited the question of how the German people could have allowed it all to happen.

Like most Americans, I grew up believing that fascism could never succeed here, because our democracy is too strong. But I’m not sure I believe that anymore. Consider the following:

Starting Unjustified Wars
  • In 1939 the Nazis faked an attack by Poland on the German border and used it as an excuse to invade Poland, thereby starting WWII.
  • In 1964 the U.S. falsely claimed that North Vietnam fired on a U.S. Navy vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin and President Lyndon Johnson used it to convince Congress to let him go to war with North Vietnam.
  • The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were exploited by U.S. President George W. Bush to promote an invasion of Iraq, despite the fact that there was no evidence Iraq had cooperated with the Al-Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for the attacks. The result was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the start of the Iraq War.
Imprisoning Undesirables
  • In 1937 the Nazis began rounding up tens of thousands of German citizens deemed to be habitual criminals, asocial, chronically unemployed, beggars, and vagrants and put them in slave-labor camps.
  • In 2013 there were more than 2.2 million people imprisoned in the U.S., or about 698 people per 100,000 – the highest rate in the world. A large portion of them were non-violent offenders arrested for drug-related offenses, including the sale of marijuana.
Treating Propaganda as Real News
  • In the German elections of 1930 the right-wing newspaper mogul Alfred Hugenberg used his publications to help Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels conduct a propaganda campaign that helped the Nazis win enough seats to become the second biggest party in the German parliament.
  • In 1996 former Republican political strategist Roger Ailes launched the Fox News cable TV channel. Fox promotes right-wing political views under the guise of real news while using the  slogan “Fair and Balanced.”
Creating Scapegoats
“All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” – Herman Goering
  • The Nazis blamed Germany’s problems on Communists and Jews.
  • Modern Republicans blame America’s problems primarily on undocumented immigrants, but also on environmentalists, the urban poor and homosexuals.
Right-wing Radicals Allowed to Violate the Law
  • In 1924 Adolph Hitler led his Nazi party in a violent attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government. The Beer Hall Putsch, as it came to be called, failed and 16 Nazis and 4 policemen were killed. Hitler was arrested and convicted of treason, but due to right-wing sympathizers in the government he was only sentenced to five years in prison, and then served only nine months.
  • In 2013 Maricopa County  Sheriff Joe Arpaio was convicted of racial profiling in federal court in Phoenix, Arizona. Arpaio is still in office, despite the fact that the judge is also pursuing contempt of court charges against him.
  • in 2014 Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy incited his right-wing supporters to offer armed resistance against an attempt by federal government officials to carry out a court order to round up his cattle, which were illegally grazing on public land. A substantial number of well-armed people responded and the roundup was cancelled due to the threat of violence. Bundy has yet to be arrested for inciting violence, or for violating of the court order by continuing to graze his cattle on public land.
Pernicious Campaign Promises
  • The 1932 German elections gave the Nazis increased power because Hitler promised to restore Germany to greatness, overturn the Treaty of Versailles, revive the economy, and save Germany from communism.
  • Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election are promising to restore the U.S. to greatness, revoke the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, revive the economy, and save the country from illegal immigration.
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