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What Mackenzie King's diaries reveal about the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt died

Neville Thompson: Churchill and Roosevelt not only respected King as a 'highly-skilled and dependable head of a vital country but enjoyed his company and confided frankly in him. They had no idea that he was recording it all in his diary.'

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Georgia on the afternoon of Thursday, April 12, 1945, Mackenzie King was having a massage. With parliament in its final days and an election in two months, the Prime Minister needed all the relief from tension he could get. His first response was that “there are apt to be all kinds of rumours at any time.” King was well aware of how feeble the president’s health was; but on a visit to the White House a month earlier had found him in better form than he had expected. Also, just two days ago, he had received a letter from Leighton McCarthy, the wealthy lawyer who had been the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. to the end of 1944, saying that Roosevelt was benefitting from his holiday at Warm Springs, the place he enjoyed best after his home at Hyde Park, north of New York City. McCarthy, a great friend of the president since the 1920s and a fellow investor in the treatment and research for polio (from which his son suffered), had gone with Roosevelt to a cottage near the Little White House.

READ: How Mackenzie King convinced Canada to go to war in 1939

A few minutes later, however, when one of King’s secretaries telephoned, he had a good sense of what it portended. The only other heads of government to whom the American Secretary of State cabled announcements of the death were Churchill and Stalin. It came as no shock to King, who was himself too exhausted for strong emotion: “It all seemed like part of the heavy day’s work.” He grieved the loss of the president as a friend and for his effect on world events but as a spiritualist who believed in the survival of personality and the ability to communicate with the living, he was confident that he and the world would continue to benefit from Roosevelt’s influence on the Other Side.

King immediately ordered the flag on the parliament building lowered to half-mast and the same the next day for federal government buildings throughout the country. He wrote a message by hand to the widowed Eleanor Roosevelt and hastily cobbled together a brief tribute for the House of Commons when it resumed after dinner. He told the subdued assembly that the president was “so great and true a friend of the Canadian people, that the word, when received, was as if one of our own had passed away.” But far more than that, his death was a “loss to the whole of mankind.” Other party leaders echoed the sentiments, the house adjourned as a mark of respect, and MPs from all quarters expressed their personal sympathy to King. In his heart, he was grateful for the privilege of having known Roosevelt so well, “particularly for the last happy days that we had together.” He judged it fitting that the president had died at Warm Springs and would be buried at Hyde Park, “which was dearest of all places to his heart.” Both Roosevelt and his wife disliked large funerals and lyings-in-state but a president could not pass from the scene without some state ceremony. It was immediately announced that the funeral would be at the White House two days hence, followed by burial the next morning at Hyde Park. He himself had been at all three places as an intimate of the president, “both in the days of his great powers and when it was clear his strength was failing.”

Mackenzie King had known Roosevelt from the moment he had returned as prime minister in 1935 following five years of Conservative government under R. B. Bennett. He was immediately invited to stay at the White House to conclude a trade agreement with the United States. King (who was proud of his Harvard Ph.D in economics) made no secret of his disapproval of the president’s New Deal, considering it bad economics, worse morality and sure to ruin the country. Roosevelt urbanely ignored this quibble and by the second day was telling the company at dinner that King was “an old personal friend.” As a prophecy at least this was the truth. In the next 10 years the two met 20 times, in addition to telephone calls, cables and letters. Five of these occasions included Winston Churchill, with whom King had to that point met about the same number of times since their first encounter in Ottawa at Christmas 1900. The lengthiest gatherings of the three were the week-long 1943 and 1944 Quebec conferences. King was not part of the Big Two’s strategy discussions but he had many important talks with the leaders and senior members of their entourages. His deeply-rooted friendship with Roosevelt and Churchill was a crucial element in the effectiveness of the Atlantic alliance during the Second World War. They not only respected him as the highly-skilled and dependable head of a vital country but enjoyed his company and confided frankly in him. They had no idea that he was recording it all in his diary.

What turned out to be King’s last visit to Roosevelt was prompted by alarm as he heard the radio broadcast of president’s report to Congress on the Yalta conference on March first. This was the first time that Roosevelt had addressed the legislature sitting down and publicly acknowledged the paralysis of his legs. (Most people thought he was just lame.) As King listened to the hour-long rambling address, he was “quite sad to notice the change that has come over him. The loss of poise, of consecutive, constructive thought, of natural emphasis and of convincing appeal.” At the end, King told his secretary, Jack Pickersgill: “He is a brave fellow, but he is breaking up.”

Hastening to see Roosevelt while he could, a week later King spent most of three days at the White House interspersed by a two-day holiday at Williamsburg, Virginia. Though the president looked “much older; face much thinner, particularly the lower part,” King was relieved that he was as vigorous as he was. At meals and late into one night he talked with his usual candour about Yalta, Churchill and Stalin, the imminence of the atomic bomb, his high hopes for the United Nations to preserve peace and his determination to go to Britain in June when the European war would be over. (The one against Japan was expected to last another year and a half.) King also attended one of Roosevelt’s breezy press conferences. Their final dinner was more intimate than he realized. With Eleanor away, one of the five people present was Lucy (Mercer) Rutherford, the president’s great love who had come back into his life in a major, clandestine way after the death of her husband a year earlier. King was so smitten that he had a drink, which he had sworn off for the war. At end of the visit he was confident that he and Roosevelt would meet again many times. But no surprise when he suddenly died.

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Since it would be extremely difficult for King to leave parliamentary business for the funeral, he decided that the governor-general, the Earl of Athlone, would fly to Washington to represent the country. King, after securing Eleanor Roosevelt’s consent through McCarthy, would attend the relatively private burial as a friend of the family. Lord Athlone (the King’s “Uncle Alge”) was not impressed by the 20-minute funeral service in the East Room of the White House, attended by 200 domestic and foreign dignitaries. There were many flowers and Roosevelt’s wooden wheelchair in front of the coffin but no music, no singing and no speeches. The Bishop of Washington, who had himself lost a leg to polio, read the spare Episcopalian (Anglican) liturgy to which he inserted, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s request, the words from her husband’s first inaugural address:: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

READ: Why Wiliam Lyon Mackenzie King was as great a leader as FDR

On the Saturday evening Mackenzie King set off in his railway car, which at Montreal was attached to the New York train and shunted onto a siding at Poughkeepsie, the station closest to Hyde Park. He took along some of his staff, work, and a niece and namesake of the president’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt Elliott, who lived in Ottawa and appealed to him for transportation. Looking at the early spring vegetation, King thought it a “nice time of the year for an earthly body to be placed in the ground after the day’s work was done.” Roosevelt’s death had so moved the world because his greatness lay in “his love of his fellow men. Love of the oppressed classes and the gallant fight he made for them regardless of classes and the bitterest kind of enmity and hatreds.” King thought it astonishing that Roosevelt had escaped assassination and been spared to carry on the struggle to the end.

Next morning secret servicemen urged King to go to the Roosevelt estate as soon as possible, probably because there were hardly enough cars to convey those arriving by train. King, his secretary Walter Turnbull and Eleanor Elliott were practically the first to arrive. As they walked in the spring sunshine and the crowd of notables, neighbours and friends thickened, King stood out as the only one wearing a top hat. This had been insisted on by his strong-willed valet, “though I kept telling him I felt sure that that the other was correct.” Lacking time to retrieve his homburg from the railway car, King appropriated Turnbull’s hat while he carried the silk one.

The gravesite was in the rose garden beside the presidential library, which Roosevelt had built close to the main house as a sign that he intended to retire at the end of the customary second term as president in 1941. King waited with the Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius and the financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch (who had been dining in London with Churchill just before the news of Roosevelt’s death arrived). Stettinius insisted that King, the only member of a foreign government, stand in the front row, between himself and Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, who at 77 was none too well himself.

Roosevelt’s coffin arrived on a horse-drawn caisson accompanied by military bands. The brief committal service was read by the elderly rector of the local Episcopal Church. King was deeply moved by the simple ritual and the lack of class distinction in dress between the notables and neighbours: “When clothes come to be a barrier rather than a bond, they have lost part of their usefulness.” Eleanor Roosevelt was supported by her daughter, Anna Boettiger and Elliott Roosevelt who had been brought by air from Britain by Baruch. (The other three sons, serving in the Pacific, did not arrive in time.) Eleanor was veiled but King thought her ashen grey, however self-controlled. Behind the family stood the new President Harry Truman. After the coffin was lowered into the grave, cadets from the nearby West Point Military Academy fired three rifle volleys, Roosevelt’s dog Fala barking each time. Eleanor Roosevelt stood alone at the grave for a few minutes, then joined relatives in the house There was no reception and the crowd quickly dispersed, the president, cabinet and others returning to Washington by train.

Leighton McCarthy, who had come the whole way from Warm Springs in the funeral train and was going back to Canada with King, went with the prime minister and Eleanor Elliott to express their condolences to the family. Eleanor Roosevelt said how happy she was to see King: “That she knew that Franklin would be so glad that I had been there” and that bringing her niece was the sweetest thing he could have done. King told her: “you have both fought the good fight to the very end and have kept the faith to the very end.” He assured her: “There is no such thing as separation. Life goes on. He will be nearer than ever at your side.” King also expressed his sympathy to other members of the family. As the group drove back to the train, it seemed to him that all nature spoke not of loss but of reward and God’s providence. It was as though Roosevelt himself had been in charge of arrangements, from his death at Warm Springs, to the funeral in the capital and the burial in the garden at Hyde Park, “and sunshine all the way.”

As they steamed north to Ottawa, Leighton McCarthy talked about his late friend. He told King of Roosevelt’s stroke as he was signing letters and his death two hours later; their long lunch together two days earlier and the president reproaching McCarthy for not going to church with him on Easter Sunday; and how he was looking forward to a barbeque on the afternoon of his death. He did not mention that Lucy Rutherfurd had been there for the last three days, driving over to stay from her winter estate in South Carolina with a photographer and an artist to paint a portrait of Roosevelt for her daughter. As soon as the president collapsed they hurried away and learned of his death on the road. When King told McCarthy what was no more than the truth, that Roosevelt loved him very much, McCarthy burst into tears, as he had at the funeral. In Ottawa, King dropped McCarthy at the Chateau Laurier hotel, drove Eleanor Elliott home, and at Laurier House fell to his knees in prayer for the great friend that God had given him in Roosevelt and for strength to continue with others the work that he had left.

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Roosevelt’s death was a great blow to Winston Churchill, though no more unexpected than it was to Mackenzie King. Why he decided not to go to the funeral, though a plane was standing by, remains a mystery. Six years later he said that it was his biggest mistake in the war. He was instead the most prominent figure in the local tribute to the American leader who had in many ways been Britain’s saviour. The morning after his burial, unconstrained by any wishes of his widow, there was a memorial service in St Paul’s cathedral of a magnificence that would have satisfied even Lord Athlone. The surrounding streets that only three weeks before had been bombed by V-2 rocket attacks were decorated with British and American flags and packed with people observing the great and good, including the British and continental royal families. There was plenty of music, singing and the reverberation of trumpets in the marble dome.

In the afternoon Churchill in parliament delivered a memorable eulogy to “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.” In terms that he must have hoped would be applied to himself if he fell at the same stage, he said that Roosevelt “died in harness, and we may say in battle harness. . . What an enviable death was his. He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him.” Mackenzie King read the speech the next morning (it was not broadcast). Apart from annoyance that there was no mention of Canada’s contribution to the war, he thought it impossible to say too much about Roosevelt’s part in helping to save the world: “It is only now that he is gone that the people can realize what a tremendous part he has played.”

At least Churchill, who after many ups and downs since the days since when they were both rising young Liberals King now regarded as an even greater figure than Roosevelt, still survived to guide the world into the path of peace. Three months later, however, he was also gone, in a massive election defeat. Mackenzie King who had so feared his own prospects that Churchill at the 1944 Quebec conference had offered to come to Canada to give speeches on his behalf, alone of three survived. So by great good fortune did his detailed diary that endures as a unique record of the close Atlantic alliance and friendships.

This is an excerpt from Neville Thompson’s upcoming book The Third Man: Churchill and Roosevelt as Revealed by Their Ally and Confidant, Mackenzie King. Published by Sutherland House, the book will be released in September and can be pre-ordered here.

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