His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt

His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt

by Joseph Lelyveld

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“By far the most enigmatic leading figure” of World War II. That’s how the British military historian John Keegan described Franklin D. Roosevelt, who frequently left his contemporaries guessing, never more so than at the end of his life. Here, in a hugely insightful account, a prizewinning author and journalist untangles the narrative threads of


“By far the most enigmatic leading figure” of World War II. That’s how the British military historian John Keegan described Franklin D. Roosevelt, who frequently left his contemporaries guessing, never more so than at the end of his life. Here, in a hugely insightful account, a prizewinning author and journalist untangles the narrative threads of Roosevelt’s final months, showing how he juggled the strategic, political, and personal choices he faced as the war, his presidency, and his life raced in tandem to their climax.

The story has been told piecemeal but never like this, with a close focus on Roosevelt himself and his hopes for a stable international order after the war, and how these led him into a prolonged courtship of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, involving secret, arduous journeys to Tehran and the Crimea. In between, as the war entered its final phase, came the thunderbolt of a dire medical diagnosis, raising urgent questions about the ability of the longest-serving president to stand for a fourth term at a time when he had little choice. Neither his family nor top figures in his administration were informed of his diagnosis, let alone the public or his closest ally, Winston Churchill. With D-Day looming, Roosevelt took a month off on a plantation in the south where he was examined daily by a navy cardiologist, then waited two more months before finally announcing, on the eve of his party’s convention, that he’d be a candidate. A political grand master still, he manipulated the selection of a new running mate, with an eye to a possible succession, displaying some of his old vigor and wit in a winning campaign.

With precision and compassion, Joseph Lelyveld examines the choices Roosevelt faced, shining new light on his state of mind, preoccupations, and motives, both as leader of the wartime alliance and in his personal life. Confronting his own mortality, Roosevelt operated in the belief that he had a duty to see the war through to the end, telling himself he could always resign if he found he couldn’t carry on.

Lelyveld delivers an incisive portrait of this deliberately inscrutable man, a consummate leader to the very last. 

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Lynne Olson
In His Final Battle, Joseph Lelyveld…has written a gripping, deeply human account of the last 16 months of Roosevelt's life, focusing on his struggle to cement the final great achievement of his presidency…In reading Lelyveld's moving, elegiac portrait of Roosevelt's last months, one comes away with conflicting emotions about the man and his final mission.
Publishers Weekly
Lelyveld (Great Soul), winner of a 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Move Your Shadow, shows that there is much left to say about F.D.R. even though there is little left to learn of the main elements of his biography. Lelyveld’s approach is to focus on the last months of F.D.R.’s life and the influence of his declining health, always kept under wraps, on his decisions. The result is a gripping look into Roosevelt’s efforts to keep from both himself and the American people his severe hypertension and congestive heart failure during his successful fourth run for the presidency, as well as during the critical closing months of WWII. Lelyveld shows how others—national figures, family members, and the women who surrounded him—conspired to keep F.D.R.’s poor health a secret, and demonstrates that his doctors lacked either competence or candor. Yet those who saw him close up knew that his life was in danger. It didn’t help, as Lelyveld emphasizes, that F.D.R. was characteristically teasing and unrevealing about his thinking and intentions as well as his ailments. Though the consequences of the president’s illness might have been graver for the nation had he died even a few months prior, the U.S. survived while F.D.R. remained, as always, a sphinx, as he does to Lelyveld. This is a solid work of narrative history. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Beginning with the summit conference in which Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Tehran in late 1943, and ending with Roosevelt's death in Warm Springs, GA, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lelyveld (Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India) goes deep into the last year and a half of the longest-serving U.S. president's already transformative tenure. An overworked Roosevelt acceded to a fourth term, while also managing the demands of the escalating war effort and "feeling his way" through personal and geopolitical affairs. The specter of Woodrow Wilson's failures loomed large over Roosevelt, who sought to better his predecessor's failed League of Nations with the new UN and a tenuous partnership with Stalin. Concise yet richly detailed, this account avoids stuffiness and spares no criticism when warranted (Lelyveld's judgment of Roosevelt's personal physician is especially incriminating), depicting a savvy and "cagey by nature" figure's struggle-filled finale. VERDICT A worthy addition to the already abundant body of Roosevelt scholarship. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/16.]—Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-06-12
Eloquently exposing the open secret of Franklin Roosevelt's advanced heart disease.Was FDR's decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term while in a state of such disastrous health foolhardy or inevitable? In this meticulous psychological study delineating FDR's crucial final acts as president—e.g., meeting Joseph Stalin for the first time in Tehran in November 1943, articulating the Four Freedoms, framing the United Nations, advocating for a democratic government in Poland, and winning the war—former New York Times executive editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lelyveld (Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, 2011, etc.) portrays a melancholy, ailing president contemplating a fourth term as if "cornered" and resigned to seeing no alternative. The author asserts that FDR allowed himself to dream of resigning in his fourth term, yet there was simply too much at stake: the country would not let him go. The weight of the stress, however, was literally killing him, and despite the "roseate prognoses and testimonials" by his longtime physician, Ross McIntire, Lelyveld asserts that FDR "knew more than he let on" about the state of his heart, citing confidante Daisy Suckley's frank acknowledgements in her long-hidden diary. The truth would be confirmed by Navy cardiologist Howard G. Bruenn, who was finally summoned by FDR's worried daughter, Anna, in 1944. The author expertly puts together a string of poignant clues to FDR's last acts, as if he were acknowledging the need for a proper successor in choosing Harry Truman for a running mate, thereby jettisoning the problematic Henry Wallace, and contemplating his own mortality by seeking out his former flame, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, in several tender elegiac meetings, particularly his last dying day. In the end, Roosevelt was pondering the example of his hero, Woodrow Wilson. An elegant, affecting work that offers fresh insights on a much-mythologized president.
From the Publisher
"A gripping, deeply human account... Moving, elegiac." —The New York Times Book Review

"Splendid and richly detailed... President Roosevelt won reelection in November, was inaugurated in January, and died in April, three months into his fourth term. After that came the cold war and atomic weapons and a new diplomatic policy called 'mutual assured destruction.' Lelyveld shows with clarity and shrewd judgment how it came about." —The New York Review of Books

"Psychologically intense... Pinning down FDR’s innermost thoughts is always an elusive goal for a scholar, but Lelyveld... has the fortitude and skill to properly analyze FDR’s decision-making process. What makes His Final Battle so exceptional is Lelyveld’s admirable ability to write nonfiction with highly stylized lyrical beauty." —The Washington Post

“Gripping… Masterfully told… Lelyveld brings to this project a complex mind (but approachable language) equal to Roosevelt’s complex character (but comforting rhetoric)… A heroic and poignant picture.” —The Boston Globe

"A compellingly nuanced, almost day-by-day account of the great man’s final year of life."Time

“A careful, somber and sometimes harrowing account of FDR’s last 16 months… [Lelyveld’s] full and disciplined investigation of an important theme makes a significant contribution to FDR scholarship.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A gripping book that will substantially deepen readers’ understanding of a critical time in U.S. history.” —Foreign Affairs
“Joseph Lelyveld combines his long-honed reporting experience with a historian’s eye firmly fixed on this important story… Chock full of illuminating revelations… If you are faintly nauseated by the current state of American politics, turn off the cable channel that appeals to your prejudices, and let Mr. Lelyveld take you to a vastly more enlightening time when the main characters had plenty of flaws but also vastly compensating bravery and vision.” —The Washington Times
“Rarely has Franklin Delano Roosevelt been portrayed with such steely-eyed insight… A deeply revealing look at a famously enigmatic president… A masterful study of a masterful politician, a fresh look at one of the most beloved and complex of presidents.” —BookPage

“Meticulous… The author expertly puts together a string of poignant clues to FDR's last acts… An elegant, affecting work that offers fresh insights on a much-mythologized president.” —Kirkus, starred review

“Joseph Lelyveld traces the last, challenging months of FDR’s life with a pitch-perfect blend of meticulous reporting, careful analysis, and deep humanity. For all that has been written about Roosevelt, this deeply-moving book adds significantly to our understanding of that remarkable man.” —Gay Talese

“With a seasoned journalist’s built-in skepticism and a gifted historian’s scrupulous respect for evidence, Joseph Lelyveld leads us deeper into Franklin Roosevelt’s  'thickly forested interior’ at the end of his life than anyone has ever gone before. His Final Battle is now required reading for anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century’s most consequential—and most mysterious—president.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, author, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

"A spellbinding example of the biographer’s craft, His Final Battle by Joseph Lelyveld paints a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt as president, statesman, and commander in chief, frail and dying, but heroic in his resolve to win the war and preserve the peace that would follow. Deftly interweaving the public and the private, the political and the personal, making use of documents and details others had neglected, Lelyveld offers us an unparalleled historical narrative of the last year of the war and the dramatic story of a singular man and the unthinkable challenges he confronted in the final months of his presidency and his life." —David Nasaw, author, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

“A masterpiece, in dramatic prose, combining deep research, subtle imagination, and ingenious speculation, as well as a vivid analysis of ‘The Great Tantalizer,’ the ‘devout utilitarian.’ His Final Battle is the work of a seasoned reporter/historian, elegantly written, hard to put down and impossible to forget.” —Fritz Stern, author, Five Germanys I Have Known

“Powerful, clear-eyed, and briskly-told, Lelyveld’s account of the last months of a 20th century colossus is great history. It’s a wonder Franklin Roosevelt was ever able to get out of bed, let alone guide the Allies through the most perilous period the world had ever known. If you think you knew FDR, think again—Joe Lelyveld brings him to fresh life, in all his human dimensions.” —Timothy Egan, author, The Immortal Irishman

“At once human and analytical, His Final Battle illuminates the perplexing zone where personal fate and large historical processes intertwine. The book offers a beautifully-realized, impossible to put down chronicle making fresh connections that deepen understanding of FDR's closing confrontations with crises of health and global leadership.” —Ira I. Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time 

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 2.00(d)

Meet the Author

JOSEPH LELYVELD spent nearly four decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times, and served as executive editor from 1994 to 2001. This is his third book since then, following Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India and Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop. An earlier book on apartheid, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, won the Pulitzer Prize.

From the Hardcover edition.

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