A grim warning to an ailing president
Lahey Clinic reveals memo of concern about FDR’s health
In the summer of 1944, with World War II raging on two fronts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside mounting health concerns to seek a fourth term in office.
Publicly, Roosevelt’s doctors maintained his health was good. But privately, one eminent Boston doctor who examined the ailing leader told his primary doctor he would not survive another four years and recorded his diagnosis in a confidential memo to protect his reputation in the eyes of history.
In a remarkable document just released by the Lahey Clinic, Frank Lahey, the clinic’s founder, wrote on July 10, 1944, that he “did not believe that, if Mr. Roosevelt were elected President again, he had the physical capacity to complete a term.’’
Lahey, of course, was right. Roosevelt died from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, just a few months into his new term.
Written days before Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination, Lahey’s unflinching diagnosis provides a fascinating footnote to a decisive point in American history, and rare insight into what Roosevelt’s doctors — and presumably Roosevelt himself — knew about his health as he began another presidential run.
For decades, the sealed note lay largely hidden from public view, its obscurity lending it a mythic status among the few who believed it existed. Lahey kept the note private before he died in the early 1950s, and it spent decades locked away before Harry S. Goldsmith, a surgeon and Roosevelt researcher, obtained a copy from Lahey’s former assistant.
In recent months, two top Lahey Clinic physicians who had long been fascinated by Lahey’s memo obtained a copy from Goldsmith, which they unveiled at a ceremony last weekend.
In the document, written about one month after D-Day, Lahey wrote that he described Roosevelt’s declining condition to his personal physician and stressed the magnitude of selecting a qualified vice president.
Ultimately, his blunt assessment of Roosevelt’s health may well have played some role in the choice of Harry Truman as Roosevelt’s running mate over incumbent vice president Henry Wallace.
“It changed the course of history,’’ said John Libertino, chairman of the Institute of Urology at Lahey Clinic, a hospital in Burlington. “Lahey made it clear that Roosevelt wasn’t going to make it, and that led Truman to be vice president.’’
Patrick Maney, a Boston College historian and Roosevelt biographer, said by 1944 it was clear FDR was in poor health, and party leaders recognized he would not finish his term.
“It was widely accepted he was a dying man,’’ he said. “Insiders knew that with Truman, they were choosing more than a vice president.’’
The public was also largely aware Roosevelt’s health was failing, Maney said, but continued to support him politically. Roosevelt’s famous “Fala’’ speech, a sharp rejoinder to Republican critics delivered in September 1944, helped reassure voters that Roosevelt remained up to the job, and he won reelection decisively.
“Anyone could look at a news reel and see he was in declining health,’’ Maney said. “But people wanted to believe.’’
Critics have long charged Roosevelt and his administration with misleading the public about his health and for running for a fourth term despite rapidly declining health.
“I think it was irresponsible of him,’’ Maney said. “He must have known.’’
Historians have also speculated on how sick Roosevelt was at Yalta in early 1945, and whether his physical condition weakened his negotiations with [Russian leader Joseph] Stalin.
Steven Lomazow, a medical historian who has written about Roosevelt’s health, said the memo underscored the secrecy around Roosevelt’s health, and how his doctors were a part of a concerted effort to keep information from the public.
“FDR went to extraordinary lengths to shield his disability and illnesses from the public,’’ he said. “And Lahey was part of the coverup.’’
Lahey did not speak publicly about Roosevelt’s health, Libertino said, but writes in the memo it is meant to protect his reputation should anyone criticize him for not making his diagnosis public.
“As I see my duty as a physician, I cannot violate my professional position nor possible professional confidence, but I do wish to be on record concerning possible later criticism,’’ he said.
Lahey wrote that Roosevelt had long had high blood pressure, and that on a recent trip to Russia he had experienced heart failure or something close to it. Another term as president, he wrote, would only worsen his condition.
“With this in mind it was my opinion that over the four years of another term with its burdens, he would again have heart failure and be unable to complete it,’’ he wrote.
Lahey said he conveyed this sentiment to Ross T. McIntire, Roosevelt’s personal physician. He also wrote that he felt “strongly that if he [Roosevelt] does accept another term, he had a very serious responsibility concerning who is the Vice President.’’
Lahey wrote that McIntire agreed and had expressed this to Roosevelt.
Lahey entrusted the note to his assistant, who safeguarded it for years and later battled her own lawyers for possession of it. In 1986, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Lahey’s assistant, Linda M. Strand, saying the evidence presented “suggests that Dr. Lahey was part of a conspiracy of silence regarding President Roosevelt’s ill health.’’
Goldsmith, who was involved in the case, later used that phrase for the title of his book about Roosevelt’s health: “A Conspiracy of Silence: The Health and Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.’’
“It was known at governmental levels,’’ he said. “But all these people were sworn to secrecy.’’
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.