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FDR and the Need for Truth

Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, November 1943.

Photo U.S. Navy - U.S. Defense Visual Information Center photo HD-SN-99-03001

In the mid afternoon of Tuesday, December 28, 1943, Life magazine correspondent Robert ‘Bob’ Sherrod arrived at the White House’s West Wing in preparation for a scheduled 4.00 p.m. presidential radio and press conference.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been conducting several media briefings a month since America entered the war with Japan two years earlier. Sometimes, those conferences were filled with juicy material for the media, but Sherrod wasn’t expecting much to come out of this particular press conference. Just days after the Christmas break, which the president had spent at his private residence, Hyde Park, on the Hudson River, this was traditionally a quiet time of year for news.

As invited press and radio men were gathering in the West Wing’s lobby and four o’clock approached, Sherrod was surprised when Steve Early, the president’s long-time press secretary, came to him and took him aside.

“FDR would like a private word,” Early confided.

Sherrod had met the president one-on-one just once before, and briefly at that. Today, since he had only recently gained White House correspondent accreditation, he’d expected to be merely one of many reporters in the room throwing questions at Roosevelt. After serving as a war correspondent for Life in Australia and New Guinea, Sherrod had returned to the States that August, before a stint reporting the US Marines’ Pacific campaign. He had not long been back from covering the American landing at Tarawa Atoll in November.

Steve Early led Sherrod across the West Wing to its southeast corner, and, after knocking, opened the door to the Oval Office, then ushered the reporter inside. A tired-looking Roosevelt, reading papers behind the maple and walnut Hoover desk, looked up, and smiled.

“Ah, Bob,” said the president. He always called pressmen by their first name. Gesturing Sherrod forward, he said, “You were on Tarawa, so I hear.”

“Yes, Mr. President,” the pressman replied.

Roosevelt went on to tell a surprised Sherrod that he wanted his opinion on something. He revealed that, not long before, he had sat through several reels of harrowing 35m.m. film shot by Marine Corps cameramen attached to the Second Marine Division during the bloody taking of Tarawa.

“They’re pretty gory,” FDR remarked. “They show a lot of dead.” He meant American dead as well as Japanese dead.

“Yes, sir.” Sherrod had been there, had seen it firsthand. The battle, which American commanders had originally expected to bring easy victory, had in reality been like a visit to Hell, and Sherrod would never forget scenes he witnessed on Tarawa over several harrowing days.

Two recollections in particular lodged permanently in the reporter’s mind. Sitting on the beach with his back to the seawall, and with a US marine at his side, Sherrod had looked up as another young American walked briskly across the sands toward them, grinning at the man beside Sherrod, apparently a pal. And then the walking man had done a pirouette, to fall at Sherrod’s feet, looking up at him with a frozen look of surprise in his eyes and a sniper’s bullet in his brain.

An exasperated major had subsequently detailed men to find and eliminate that sniper, who turned out to be hiding in a Japanese coconut-log pillbox that had previously been cleared. Sherrod went with them, and watched as one marine nonchalantly tossed blocks of fused TNT into the pillbox. The detonating high explosive sent the sniper running out the side entrance. Another American marine, armed with a twin-cylindered flame thrower, was waiting for him.

The Japanese, caught in a withering stream of flame, flared up like celluloid. He was dead in an instant, but the bullets in his cartridge belt continued to pop for a good minute after the man had been charred beyond recognition. An eye for an eye? A life for a life? It all seemed so senseless to Sherrod.                 

Short clips from the Tarawa film footage had been released to American newsreel companies, none of it showing American dead. Now, as Roosevelt told Sherrod, he was contemplating releasing all the footage, uncensored, to allow it to be shown in movie theatres the length and breadth of the United States. But, he wondered aloud, were the American people ready for the graphic scenes of young Americans floating lifelessly in the surf, of American troops taking ID tags from dead comrades lying on the island sands?

“That’s the way the war is out there, Mr. President,” Sherrod unhesitatingly replied, “and I think the people are going to have to get used to the idea.”

The President nodded thoughtfully. “Good, good.”

Before consulting Sherrod, Roosevelt had been uncertain whether he should release the footage. He had taken a step in that direction in September, when he authorized the publication of a still photograph by Life magazine combat cameraman George Strock that showed three dead GI’s lying on Buna Beach in New Guinea, their bodies covered with maggots. Prior to that time, the War Department had banned the publication of pictures of seriously wounded or dead American service personnel.

Ironically, Strock had taken the picture on captured Japanese film, after his own had been destroyed. Run full-page by Life, the graphic Buna Beach photo had shocked the nation, as Roosevelt had hoped. It had also brought criticism and censure down on the president.

A lesser man would have shied away from giving his critics more ammunition, but Strock’s Buna Beach photo had opened the door to exposing America to the grim realities of this war, and FDR knew that he had to capitalise on Buna Beach’s effect and wed the nation to an uncompromising win-the-war mindset.

Apart from fighting the Axis powers overseas, at home the president was fighting trenchant labor unions, an obstructive Republican-dominated Congress, and alarmingly high absenteeism at factories producing America’s arms and ammunition. Many Americans just didn’t seem to be taking the war seriously enough, thinking a US victory was going to be a walk in the park.     

As Roosevelt instructed Steve Early to usher the remainder of the press corps into the Oval Office, Bob Sherrod suspected that his support had helped the president make the decision to release the Tarawa footage.

At that time, there was a Press Room in the West Wing’s northwest corner – the modern-day Press Briefing Room in the White House sits over what in 1943 was FDR’s private swimming pool. However, for these personal briefings with a select few print and radio journalists, some parts of which were off the record, Roosevelt remained in the Oval Office and had the pressmen brought into him. That way, he was neither seen nor photographed in the wheelchair to which his declining health had confined him.

At 4.07 p.m., following the delay caused by the private Tarawa conversation between Sherrod and the president, the press conference got underway. Questions from the White House correspondents that afternoon covered a range of areas, but the subject of a looming national railroad union strike loomed above all others.

Before Christmas, acting decisively, Roosevelt had appointed nine railroad presidents to the rank of colonel in the US Army, and then made them and their employees answerable to the War Department. At a stroke, FDR had nationalized the railroads, making all railroad workers government employees. This had driven all but three railroad related unions to arbitration, and as Roosevelt now told the press conference, he was confident the three holdouts would also soon come around to his way of thinking and the strike would be averted.

The president was next asked whether he was planning to continue with his New Deal program in the light of the war’s austerity measures. Roosevelt had introduced the New Deal in 1933 in response to the Wall Street Crash and resultant Great Depression. That program had saved the banking system, revolutionized pensions and social services, and slowly righted the economy.

This New Deal question offered the opening that FDR was looking for. Having now decided to release all the Tarawa footage, he knew that he had to further prepare the nation for the new mindset he expected of it. So, Roosevelt now gave the reporters a folksy analogy.

“The United States of America is like a sick man. Two years ago, he had a very bad accident. Not an internal trouble. Two years ago, on the 7th of December, he was in a pretty bad smash-up.”

Everyone in the room knew that he was referring to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

“Old Dr. New Deal didn’t know nothing about legs and arms,” FDR went on. “He knew a great deal about internal medicine, but nothing about surgery. So he got his partner, who was an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Win-the-War, to take care of this fellow who had been in this bad accident. And the result is that the patient is back on his feet. He has given up his crutches. He isn’t wholly well yet, and won’t be until he wins the war.” In case his audience hadn’t got the message, he concluded with: “The overwhelming first emphasis should be on winning the war.”

The reporters left the press conference itching to share FDR’s sick man analogy with their readers and listeners. None, apart from Bob Sherrod, realized its significance, or appreciated that it represented the core of the president’s changing propaganda strategy, in which truth was to replace triumphalism.

Roosevelt had said nothing to the pressmen about the Tarawa footage, but that had dictated his thinking at the press conference. Once his office was cleared, he called Office of War Information director Elmer Davis and instructed him to have the footage put together in a form that would make the greatest impact on the American public.  

Davis had all the rolls of film from Tarawa edited over January and February, 1944 at Warner Brothers Studios in Hollywood, creating a twenty-minute documentary. The film’s writer and director was Richard Brooks. Then a young member of the Marine Corps, Brooks would go on in post-war years to become a successful screenwriter and feature film director whose credits would include Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Looking for Mr Goodbar.

Taking the compile of rough color and black and white footage shot by fifteen different Marine Corps cameramen—two of whom had been killed on Tarawa—under the command of Captain Louis Hayward, a South African-born former movie actor, Brooks added a soundtrack with sound effects, dramatic music and a gritty narration. Brooks personally wrote the narration, as if from the point of view of a marine on Tarawa. As specified by Davis, that narration included a pithy explanation for the sight of American dead: “This is the price we had to pay for a war we didn’t want.”

The resulting documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa, was released to movie houses across the country by Universal Studios on behalf of the OWI on March 2, 1944, and shocked and electrified the nation. It went on to win the 1944 National Board of Review Award for best documentary and the 1945 Academy Award for best documentary, short subject.

And so it was that, with the help of two Life magazine men, George Strock and Robert Sherrod, employees of Roosevelt’s ardent Republican critic, publisher Henry Luce, the president was able to loosen censorship in the United States and cement the public behind him in his bid to harden attitudes and strengthen the war effort.

Following the Buna Beach and Tarawa breakthroughs, the US Government permitted the publication of images of dead American service personnel, as long as they were not gratuitous and individual personnel or their units could not be identified.

Scholars today credit George Strock’s Buna Beach photograph with turning the tide in wartime public opinion in the US and stiffening the American resolve to win. In 2014, Time magazine went so far as to describe it as “the photograph that won the war.”

To the frustration of Roosevelt’s Republican opponents, the Buna Beach and Tarawa images probably also contributed to Roosevelt being returned to office in the November 1944 presidential election. Even so, his defeat of the Republican governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, was the closest of all his presidential victories. It was a victory that earned FDR an historic fourth term in the White House. Five months later, he would be dead.

Sadly, Roosevelt’s unvarnished truth approach to war news would not be adopted by future US administrations. By the time of the Vietnam War, inflated enemy body counts, glossy US military situation reports and unrealistic predictions had become the norm, and played a role in the shock experienced by the American nation when the US actually lost that war.

The Trump era has shown that there has never been a greater need for truth in American affairs. As Andrei Sakharov, father of the hydrogen bomb, dissident Soviet scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was to say: “The most powerful weapon in the world is not the bomb... it is truth.”