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FDR in 1944: A Diminished President by Matthew B. Wills Ivy House Publishing Group, Raleigh, N.C., 2003, $22.95.

“WHY, I SAW FRANKLIN Roosevelt when he was running in 1944, and he had one foot in the grave!” growled a banker of my acquaintance some years ago. I wrote it off to his rock-ribbed Republicanism, but Matthew B. Wills’ slim but important book, FDR in 1944: A Diminished President, demonstrates he had perceived the truth. It is a truth that, in affecting the course of World War II, had an impact on military history overall.

First, the medical background. The official reason Franklin D. Roosevelt did not deliver the January 1944 State of the Union message to Congress was because of the flu. From then on, his personal physician, surgeon general of the Navy Admiral Ross McIntyre, a self-confessed “ eye, ear, nose and throat” doctor, held on to the theme of a mild respiratory illness. But when a cardiologist associate of McIntyre’s, Lt. Cmdr. Howard G. Bruenn, found signs of congestive heart failure in March 1944, he and other physicians were ordered to keep quiet. Admiral McIntyre would keep the truth from the public, and from FDR. In fact, in his 1946 reminiscence of his time as the White House doctor, McIntyre maintained the coverup of his coverup. And the official records with the real diagnoses— well, they disappeared…from a safe. But Dr. Bruenn kept his own copies, as revealed here.

What was the impact of having a president whom friends would occasionally find gray-faced, staring into space? It is well known how offhand he was about the selection of Harry Truman as a running mate. But Wills bores into several policy areas of interest to military historians, such as the final withdrawal of support from General Joseph Stilwell in his contest for military command with Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek— the Japanese seized six American air bases in China soon after the presidential election. Another consequence was the seduction of both FDR and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, by Josef Stalin— good old Uncle Joe— with the result that the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising was allowed to wither away under German counterattacks, virtually unhindered by the Soviet army. Wills denounces the failure of U.S. policy toward the whole of Eastern Europe— after all, letting Poland fall to Stalin subverted the entire reason for which World War II started. Military historians know what happened toward the end of World War II. Matthew Wills has made an important contribution to understanding why.

Roderick S. Speer

Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.