Jan. 20, 2023

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fourth Inauguration

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fourth Inauguration

January 20, 1945. Franklin D. Roosevelt is sworn in for an unprecedented and never to be repeated fourth term as US President.


Cold Open

It’s noon on January 20th, 1945 on the South Portico of the White House in Washington, DC.

Harry Truman lowers his right hand and steps away from a lectern set up before a small crowd. Pride burns in his heart because he’s just been sworn in as Vice-President of the United States.

Truman glances over at President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only person seated on the portico. Roosevelt lifts his arms slightly as his son and a Secret Service agent grasp him underneath his shoulders… and hoist him from his wheelchair.

Roosevelt then himself places his hand on a Bible and takes his oath of office.

As he finishes, cheers erupt below. The president waits for them to subside. Then gripping the lectern with both hands, he begins to deliver a prepared speech. But Harry Truman, the new vice president, barely listens to the commander-in-chief’s fourth inaugural address. He’s too distracted by the sight of Roosevelt’s arms trembling with the effort of holding himself upright.

Roosevelt keeps his speech short, and a military band begins to play while Roosevelt’s son and the Secret Service agent help him back to his wheelchair. As the president mops his sweaty brow with a handkerchief, Truman wonders whether Roosevelt told him the truth about his health and ability to serve an unprecedented fourth term in office. His stomach knots as he considers a sobering possibility; that if Roosevelt dies within the next four years, it's Truman who will have to succeed him as the next President of the United States.

After winning a fourth presidential election in November 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided on a subdued inauguration held at the White House rather than the Capitol building. Publicly, Roosevelt said the usual extravagant festivities were inappropriate when America was at war. Privately, he hoped that the restrained inauguration would disguise his ill health and prevent gossip about his capability to govern.

Before he became president, Roosevelt contracted polio as a 39-year-old and became largely paralyzed from the waist down. Throughout his twelve years in office, the extent of his illness has been hidden to the American public. But concealing his poor health is getting harder. During his last presidential term, things took a turn for the worse. The President now suffers from high blood pressure and heart disease. 

Vice-President Harry Truman is right to be worried about Roosevelt’s fate. The nation is already in crisis. America is still at war and complex diplomatic negotiations are ongoing. But the president's last term in office will be dominated with his health problems, and the President will die less than three months after his unprecedented fourth inauguration on January 20th, 1945.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 20th, 1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fourth Inauguration.

Act One

It’s 3:30 PM on February 8th, 1945 in a hotel in Yalta in the USSR, seventeen days after President Roosevelt’s fourth term began.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt winces as he tries to make himself comfortable in an armchair. He leans forward and moves his legs, placing his feet flat on the floor and shifting them to a natural-looking angle. Since Roosevelt has little feeling below his waist, he must manipulate his lower body by hand. But just as he sinks back in the armchair, the door opens. Roosevelt forces a smile as the man he is here to meet strides into the room: Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR.

Two days after his inauguration at the White House, President Roosevelt boarded a warship and set sail for Europe. His destination was Yalta, a seaside resort town on the Crimean Peninsula. Here, the leaders of the USA, USSR, and the United Kingdom are holding talks to shape the postwar world after Germany’s imminent defeat.

The countries are the three major allies in the war against Nazi Germany. But although the USA and UK enjoy friendly relations, the relationship between the US and the communist USSR is strained. Now, Roosevelt must call on all his diplomatic experience to maintain peace with the Soviets and ensure they declare war on another Axis power, Japan.

Stalin shakes Roosevelt’s hand and drops into the chair opposite the President. Before Roosevelt can say a word, Stalin begins speaking in Russian. Roosevelt glances at his interpreter, who furrows his brow in concentration as he tries to keep up with the Soviet leader’s torrent. In a rapid-fire speech, Stalin reminds Roosevelt that the Soviets have borne the brunt of the war for nearly four years, ever since Hitler launched his invasion of the USSR.

Roosevelt tries to interrupt Stalin’s monologue, wanting to welcome the Soviet leader and take control of the meeting, but Stalin does not let up. He rises from his chair and stalks around the room, telling Roosevelt how many Russian lives were lost during the Battle of Stalingrad. Then he says that the long Soviet counterattack that pushed the Germans back came at a great cost and drained the USSR of money and resources.

Stalin stands in front of Roosevelt’s chair, looking down at him. Roosevelt suspects that Stalin is trying to intimidate him, but won't let that happen. He boldly returns the Soviet leader's piercing stare and remains stonefaced as Stalin says the USSR deserves to be generously compensated in the postwar settlement.

Roosevelt is willing to concede to some of Stalin’s demands. But he knows that his political opponents in Washington DC will be quick to criticize him if he gives away too much. So over the next hour or so, Roosevelt and Stalin thrash out an agreement. The USSR will be granted territory in Asia, including Mongolia from China and South Sakhalin from Japan. More importantly, the future of Eastern Europe is settled. Stalin promises to hold free elections in Poland, and Roosevelt does little to dispel Stalin’s notion that Eastern Europe will be a Soviet sphere of influence after 1945.

An hour after the talks began, Roosevelt and Stalin conclude their meeting with a handshake. When Stalin leaves, Roosevelt allows his head to flop back onto the chair’s headrest. He rubs his temple as US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and Major General Edwin Watson enter the room.

Roosevelt smiles weakly and asks them to bring his wheelchair. He holds out his arms, and Stettinius and Watson pull him to his feet. Roosevelt clings to them as he awkwardly hobbles to his wheelchair, summarizing the meeting as he eases himself into the seat.

Roosevelt explains that Stalin has agreed to declare war on Japan as soon as Germany surrenders. But he says that Stalin has attached conditions. And at this, Stettinius’s smile fades. Roosevelt goes on to describes the concessions he has made in Asia and Europe. Stettinius pauses before he responds. After a considerate moment, he says that Stalin previously promised to fight Japan without conditions. Roosevelt shrugs and replies that he hasn’t given away any land that Stalin does not already have a good claim to.

But Roosevelt knows that his critics will not view this deal that way. He worries too that his physical condition will be interpreted as a weakness by his opponents who want to portray him as a pushover in these tough diplomatic negotiations. But Roosevelt will decide to act before his authority can crumble and ruin his fourth term. After the Yalta conference, he will journey back to Washington DC, ready to confront his opponents head-on.

Act Two

It’s March 1st, 1945 in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington DC, a month and a half after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration.

A United States Congressman peers over the heads of his colleagues to see what is happening at the front of the chamber. Normally, a presidential address to Congress is delivered from a lectern in front of the Speaker’s rostrum. But today, a table and chair have been set out on the floor of the chamber. The whispers going around the room suggest that the Congressman is about to see something unusual during today’s speech.

After the Yalta Conference three weeks ago, President Roosevelt began the long journey back to the United States. During the perilous voyage across the Atlantic, he wrote a speech for the special session of Congress upon his return. But Roosevelt’s plans quickly changed after Major General Edwin Watson, one of his closest military advisers, suffered a stroke and died at sea.

The death of his colleague and friend made Roosevelt question whether he should continue his charade of pretending he was in good health. If Watson could die while serving his country, Roosevelt reasoned, the President should not pretend that he was incapable of dying in office too. So now, Congress is about to witness Roosevelt’s extraordinary admission of his ailing health.

There is a ripple of applause as President Roosevelt is pushed into the chamber in his wheelchair. Two aides help Roosevelt up and into the seat in front of the table on the floor of the chamber. The President looks pale and fragile, far older than his actual age of 63.

Then the Speaker of the House stands to introduce the President of the United States, and Roosevelt begins to speak.

"ROOSEVELT: I hope that you will pardon me for an unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me in not having to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs; and also because of the fact that I have just completed a fourteen-thousand-mile trip."

Roosevelt has never before referred to his disability in public. He has always hidden his leg braces and use of a wheelchair. But today, when Roosevelt pauses for breath, the assembled Representatives and Senators burst into applause.

It's then the young Congressman realizes that Roosevelt’s speech today is a stroke of genius. By pointing out his inability to stand and walk, Roosevelt is emphasizing the physical sacrifice he must make on behalf of his nation. He has transformed the weakness of his body into the strength of his character.

The Congressman glances around at his colleagues, all of whom are listening intently as the president describes the talks at Yalta. Roosevelt explains how the Allies will take the war to Germany, and then to Japan. He outlines the principles behind the postwar settlement, including the decision to grant the Soviets a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Then, Roosevelt candidly admits that not every person will be happy with the agreement. But he leans into the idea that war will only be averted in the future if compromises are agreed to now. 

"ROOSEVELT: The beginnings of a permanent structure of peace upon which we can begin to build, under God, that better world in which our children and grandchildren—yours and mine, the children and grandchildren of the whole world–must live, and can live."

As Roosevelt concludes his speech, the young Congressman leaps to his feet. The whole of Congress joins in the standing ovation. The President remains in his wheelchair and smiles.

Roosevelt’s impressive speech to Congress will ensure that the agreement made at the Yalta Conference is largely accepted. There will be pushback and criticism of the concessions Roosevelt has made to Stalin but the honesty and openness with which Roosevelt accepted his ill health will move members of Congress and inspire them to back the President’s deal. But Roosevelt’s speech to Congress will be one of his final acts as President. In just a month’s time, his declining health will finally give out, and Roosevelt’s historic 12-year presidency will end with his death.

Act Three

It’s the early afternoon of April 12th, 1945 at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s summer house in Warm Springs, Georgia, almost three months after his fourth inauguration.

Inside, Elizabeth Shoumatoff stares intently at the face of President Roosevelt as she paints his portrait. Roosevelt sits patiently and smiles as he listens to two female cousins chat amicably with a friend in the next room. He occasionally interjects and looks through the door before muttering an apology to Elizabeth and resuming a still posture.

Four weeks after delivering his speech to Congress, Roosevelt left Washington to rest at his summer residence in Georgia. But the stresses of his job followed him. The Japanese continued to put up stubborn resistance in the Pacific, and military aides relayed news that Joseph Stalin was already breaking the terms of their agreement by imposing Soviet-style regimes in Eastern Europe.

But from Elizabeth's point of view, the president seems to be enjoying his break. She dabs paint onto her canvas, taking care to get the color right around Roosevelt’s tired-looking eyes. And after a few minutes of intense concentration, she notices that the President has not said anything for a while. She looks up to see Roosevelt massaging his temples. He catches her eye and says, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” Before Elizabeth can respond, the President’s eyes roll back and he slumps forward.

Elizabeth shouts and Roosevelt’s cousins run into the room. They push the unconscious president back into his chair and call for help. Within seconds, the President’s staff run into the parlor, and his doctor is summoned, but the diagnosis is not good. The president has suffered a stroke. He is carried to bed, where he dies two hours later.

The death of Roosevelt will ascend Vice-President Harry Truman into the White House and bring an end to the longest American presidency in history. Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 limited future presidents to only two four-year terms, nobody is likely to beat Roosevelt’s 12 years in office. But although his tenure in the White House was the longest in history, Roosevelt’s fourth term was among the shortest, ending just 82 days after his fourth and final inauguration on January 20th, 1945.


Next on History Daily. January 23rd, 1849. British physician Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.