Blogs > Cliopatria > FDR--Polio and the Truth

Apr 25, 2005 8:40 pm

FDR--Polio and the Truth

A letter writer in the Wa Post says it's a myth that FDR's physical limits were covered up:

The myth that Franklin D. Roosevelt's partial paralysis from polio was kept secret from the public that elected him president four times will apparently never die. It has been given a new lease on life by the History Channel's documentary about FDR as well as by media coverage of the film in The Post and elsewhere.

In reality, the basic facts about his condition were known to anyone who read the press closely. For example, in the course of a long, sympathetic 1932 profile of the prospective presidential candidate, Time magazine detailed his being stricken with polio, his partial recovery and his subsequent creation of the Warm Springs Foundation."Swimming at Warm Springs several months each year and special exercises at Albany have made it possible for the Governor to walk 100 feet or so with braces and canes," Time explained."When standing at crowded public functions, he still clings precariously to a friend's arm." In November of the same year, Time reported,"At Worcester, Mass., Governor Roosevelt picked Catherine Murphy, 9, also a cripple from infantile paralysis, to send at his own expense to Warm Springs, Ga., for treatment." While the White House understandably did not emphasize his disability, pictures of the president showing his leg braces frequently appeared in the press.

What purpose does it serve to repeat the easily disproved claim that Americans of the 1930s and '40s were deceived? Could it be that we have a powerful need to feel more tolerant than our grandparents, not only in matters of race and sex but also disability? Accepting the fact that voters 70 years ago knowingly chose a president who couldn't walk, something today's health-obsessed electorate would never do, might simply be too humiliating.

I am afraid this letter writer is misinformed.

People knew FDR had polio. But they did not realize how incapacitated he was.

He could not walk at all by himself. He always needed to lean on someone else.

There's no myth here.

If FDR were known to have been a cripple his enemies would have used this against him. ("He's crippling the country's economy" they might have said, in a none-too-subtle reference to his physical impairment." That they did not suggests that the public remained largely in the dark about his condition and wouldn't have made the connection.

If people knew about his condition and the extent of his physical limitations, why on earth would FDR have gone to such lengths to conceal it? He forbid pictures of himself getting in and out of cars. He allowed just 2 or 3 pictures to be taken of him in his wheelchair. He delivered speeches from his car so as to avoid having to get out in and climb a public platform.

I love American myths. They speak to our humanity and fears and are revealing. But there's no myth here. Debunker, take two aspirin and go to bed. When you awake forget that you ever wrote that letter to the Post.

THANKS to Jonathan Dresner for drawing my attention to the letter.

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