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The Truth About "The Sick Man At Yalta"

The four years of research involved in writing my recent book with journalist Eric Fettmann, FDR’s Deadly Secret, has brought to light a new degree of insight into the mental status of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the last year of his life and takes the understanding of his thought processes at Yalta to an entirely new level.

Unequivocally, Roosevelt was suffering from frequent episodic lapses of consciousness known to neurologists as complex partial seizures.  They were witnessed and reported by dozens of observers, and our book includes graphic descriptions by the likes of Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, New York Times editor Turner Catledge and Senator Frank Maloney of Connecticut.  Perhaps the most dramatic and historically important of all was only recently discovered in the Walter Trohan papers at the Herbert Hoover Library in Iowa.

A January 5, 1948 memo to the editor of the ChicagoTribune by reporter Orville “Doc” Dwyer reports his interview with a Doctor Louis E. Schmidt, a very close friend and confidante of Roosevelt’s daughter Anna (then in her second marriage to reporter John Boettinger):

The doctor told me that from what Anna has outlined to him Franklin D. Roosevelt was for a long time before he died—and particularly when he went to Yalta and Tehran (sic)—suffering from hemorrhages of the brain.  The doctor said he died “from a big hemorrhage” but for several years before his death he had a lot of “little hemorrhages,” small blood vessels bursting in his brain.  When these burstings occurred—and they were frequent during his last years—he would be unconscious (completely out) although sitting up and apparently functioning for periods of from a few seconds to several minutes.  Dr Schmidt said he has no doubt from his conversations with Anna that these were occurring regularly at the time he was meeting with Churchill and Stalin and holding other momentous conferences of the utmost importance to the United States.  He said the effect would be that he would be cognizant of what was going on, then suddenly lose the thread completely for anywhere from a few seconds to two or three minutes—and that he could not possibly have known what was going on in between.

Through the eyes of a neurologist, this remarkable account tells a dramatic story.  First, it is clear that Anna, who was kept in the dark about the whole truth of her father’s health, misinterpreted the seizures as “burstings,” what today we would call transient ischemic attacks or TIAs.  This misinterpretation was compounded by Trohan when he reported them to Dr. Karl Wold, who created a firestorm by reporting them in a long article in Look Magazine in 1948.

Even more importantly, the Dwyer memorandum accurately reflects the historical importance and true impact of President Roosevelt’s neurological behavior at the end of his life.  The report is by no means unique, but it does reflect the observations of one closest of all to “the boss.”  Perkins describes the seizures (which she also did not recognize as such) as “frequent” and occurring for “a few years.”

Aside from these frank lapses of consciousness, it is highly probable that less severe episodes had a noticeable yet tangible transitory effect on Roosevelt’s mental performance.  This, combined with the panoply of other medical problems he had, explains quite well how certain observers found him lucid and competent while others met with a quite different state of affairs.  It also explains a globally diminished ability to multitask, quite significant in a man who prided himself as the ultimate “hub of the wheel” in virtually every important matter of policy.  Also to be factored into the equation is a greatly diminished ability to read due to a rapidly expanding malignant brain tumor.

With the preceding in mind, the proceedings and aftermath of Yalta can be considered in an entirely new context.  It is unlikely that FDR gave away very much at all with respect to Western Europe at Yalta.  The Curzon Line had been established as the eastern border of Poland at Teheran, and, by the time of Yalta, Stalin had already recognized the Lublin puppet government.  Churchill had been talking to Stalin for months about “spheres of influence” in the Balkans and his report to Parliament upon his return from the Crimea was equally or more optimistic than that of Roosevelt’s address to congress on March 1.  Roosevelt’s blind spot for the (non-cancerous) malignancy of “Uncle Joe” far predated any mental compromise.

Where Roosevelt’s health did have a significant impact at Yalta was with respect to China.  On February 8, 1945 at 3:30 pm, Joseph Stalin walked into a private meeting with Roosevelt and in thirty minutes, without the knowledge or consent of its leader, took everything that China had spent fourteen years and over twenty million lives fighting for.  It is unlikely that a mentally intact president would have agreed to such an accommodation.  The implications with respect to future American/Chinese/Soviet relations were monumental.

In October 1943, Stalin informed Secretary of State Cordell Hull that the Soviets would enter the war against Japan as soon as Germany was defeated and asked for nothing in return, reaffirming this promise at Teheran a few weeks later.  Despite this, a secret agreement, specifically excluded from the final communiqué, was drafted and signed by the heads of the three Yalta participants, with the consent of American General George Marshall, Admirals King and Leahy, but over the objection of British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden:

In return for the Soviets entering the war against Japan: 

  1. The status quo in Outer Mongolia shall be preserved:
  2. The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 shall be restored, viz:  (a) the southern portion of Sakhalin as well as all the islands adjacent to it be returned to the Soviet Union, (b) the commercial port of Dairen shall be internationalized, the pre-eminent interests of the Soviet Union in this port being safeguarded and the lease of Port Arthur as a naval base of the U.S.S.R. restored, (c) the Chinese-Eastern Railroad and Southern Manchurian Railroad which provides an outlet to Dairen shall be jointly operated by the establishment of a joint Soviet-Chinese Company it being understood that the pre-eminent interests of the Soviet Union shall be safeguarded and that China shall retain full sovereignty in Manchuria
  3. The Kurile Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.

It is understood, that the agreement concerning Outer Mongolia and the ports and railroads referred to above will require concurrence (emphasis added) of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. The President [sic] will take measures in order to obtain this concurrence on advice from Marshall [sic] Stalin.

The heads of the Three Great Powers have agreed that these claims of the Soviet Union shall be unquestionably fulfilled after Japan has been defeated.

For its part the Soviet Union expresses readiness to conclude with the National Government of China a pact of friendship and alliance between the U.S.S.R. and China in order to render assistance to China with its armed forces for the purpose of liberating China from the Japanese yoke.

As Don Lohbeck succinctly underscores:

By this agreement “Roosevelt and Churchill signed to the Soviet Union not only “pre-eminent interests” in the great Manchurian port of Dairen and full control of the naval base which protects it, but also “pre-eminent interests” in the railroads which lead from the Soviet Union to Dairen and split Manchuria from the northwest to the south.

Stalin’s intentions about Manchuria were quite clear, evidenced by the statement “the President [sic] will take measures in order to obtain this concurrence on advice from Marshall [sic] Stalin,” that refers directly to a delay, agreed to by Roosevelt (on the pretense of a possible security leak in the Chiang Government), in even informing Chiang of the agreement until after the Soviets had transferred twenty-five divisions to the Manchurian border.  These troops would ultimately serve to secure the surrender of Japanese war materiel to Communist forces, directly contrary to the American policy that only the Nationalists should receive them.

The China agreement was excluded from the final official protocol of the conference.  Likewise, no mention of it, or China whatsoever, was made by Roosevelt in his March 1 report to Congress, despite its having the most radical and long-standing influence upon the future of the world of any decision made at Yalta. Roosevelt instead cryptically announced:

I think the Crimean Conference … ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action the exclusive alliances the spheres of influence, the balances of power and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries – and have always failed.

The exact opposite was the case.  Worse yet, the two Americans with the greatest understanding of the long-term consequences of the agreement, Ambassador to China Patrick Hurley and Chiang’s chief of staff, General Albert C. Wedemeyer, were not present or previously consulted!  It was also withheld from Douglas MacArthur, the military commander of the Pacific theatre.

Aware of it were Averill Harriman, who facilitated the negotiations, translator and future Ambassador Charles “Chip” Bohlen, State Department advisor (and later convicted Soviet spy) Alger Hiss, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including George Marshall, who had demanded Soviet entry into the Pacific war at any price.  It was also soon known to pro-communist and pro-imperialist members of the State Department.  Roosevelt’s close advisor at Yalta and future secretary of state in the Truman administration, James F. “Jimmy” Byrnes, was kept completely in the dark.

After getting wind of the agreement, Hurley set out for Washington.  The State Department “told him that no such agreement had been made” (emphasis in text).  With his characteristic Oklahoma cowboy panache, “with my ears back and my teeth skinned, to have a fight about what had been done,” he went to the White House.  He had not seen Roosevelt for over six months and was taken aback by the president’s physical condition.  “When the President [sic] reached up that fine, firm, strong hand of his to shake hands with me, what I found in my hand was a very loose bag of bones… the skin seemed to be pasted down on his cheek-bones; and you know, all the fight I had in me went out.”

At first, Roosevelt flatly denied that any agreement had been made.  Hurley refused to blame his leader for the blunder:

The sickness of death was already upon President Roosevelt when he attended the Yalta Conference…  I am certain that he believed he was telling the truth when he said that no secret agreement such as I described had been entered into at Yalta.

Afterwards, he met with continued resistance from the pro-communist elements in the State Department, claiming that by accepting British and Soviet spheres of influence, FDR had repudiated the principles of the Atlantic Charter and being “taken advantage of [in] (his) physical and mental condition, just as he had been imposed at Yalta (emphasis in text).”

On into March, Hurley continued to press the issue, finally prevailing upon Roosevelt to allow him to examine the records from Yalta, in turn discovering the secret “Agreement Regarding Japan” that he perceived as “secretly sabotaging, setting aside and cancelling every principle and objective for which the United States professed to be fighting World War II.  He questioned the right of America to give away portions of territory of another sovereign nation.”

The president admitted that Hurley’s fears appeared justified and gave him a special directive to go to London and Moscow to speak with Churchill and Stalin to “ameliorate the betrayal of China and return to the traditional American policy in the Far East.”

In a letter to Atlantic Monthly on September 28, 1950, Hurley wrote:

There is a tendency now to charge the Yalta Secret Agreement to President Roosevelt. President Roosevelt is dead, but I can say that he is not guilty.  He was a very sick man at Yalta,* and the surrender of China to the Communists in the Secret Agreement of Yalta was engineered by the officials of the American State Department under the brilliant leadership of a young American, Alger Hiss.

Wedemeyer had a similar experience.  Accompanying Hurley on his return from China in February, after stopping en route to meet with MacArthur in Manila, he arrived in Washington in March to meet with his commander-in-chief.  Like Hurley, he was “shocked” at Roosevelt’s physical appearance and demeanor.  Catching the president in the midst of one of his frequent seizures:

His color was ashen, his face drawn and his jaw drooping.  I had difficulty in conveying information to him because he seemed in a daze.  Several times I repeated the same idea because his mind did not seem to retain or register.

As Roosevelt’s mind began to clear, conversation turned to active support of independence of Indochina from the French, then to China itself.  The president mentioned that Chiang had sent communications in praise of Wedemeyer’s efforts and Wedemeyer, in turn, expressed confidence that Chiang had been most cooperative in supporting Chinese participation in the war effort.  When he raised the issue that the Communists would undoubtedly cause problems as soon as the war ended, he noted “(Roosevelt) did not seem to understand what I was talking about.”

Shortly afterwards, Wedemeyer met over lunch with Secretary of War Stimson, reassuring him of Chiang’s sincerity in restoring order to China despite a less than optimal knowledge of modern military techniques.  He also signed off on Ambassador Hurley’s efforts to remove certain (pro-communist) members of his staff at the embassy.  The secretary then pressed him for his opinion on Roosevelt’s health, to which he replied that he was “shocked to find that the President [sic] seemed to be in Never-Never land” most of the time he spent with him, picking nervously at his food and going off on tangents.  Then, “the Secretary admonished me not to mention the President’s [sic] physical condition to anyone.”

Even the staunch Roosevelt supporter Robert Sherwood, while unabashedly defending Roosevelt’s decisions at Yalta concerning Poland and the United Nations, admitted:

Only at the end of seven days of long meetings, covering a wide range of tremendous subjects, did he make a concession which, in my belief, he would not have made if he had not been tired out and anxious to the negotiations relative to Russia’s entry into the war with Japan.

He further sustained the objection of diplomat Sumner Welles, quoting him directly:

[T]he restoration to Russia of the right formerly possessed by the Imperial Russian Govermnents to dominate Manchuria through control of the Chinese Eastern and Southern Manchurian railroads, and the lease of Port Arthur as a naval base….make it altogether impossible for a new unified China to exercise full sovereignty within Manchuria, all the more objectionable in view of China’s absence from the conference table where they were decided.

Sherwood cited the statement “the heads of the Three Great Powers have agreed that these claims of the Soviet Union shall be unquestionably fulfilled after Japan has been defeated,” as “the most assailable point in the entire Yalta record,” noting “if China had refused to agree to any of the Soviet claims, presumably the U.S. and Britain would have been compelled to join in enforcing them.”

An enhanced knowledge of Franklin Roosevelt’s health is essential to the understanding of the processes of his decision making.  Nowhere is this more evident than with the events that occurred at and following Yalta.

*This is the first use of the term “Sick Man at Yalta”, which Hurley later publicly reiterated in his 1951 testimony before a committed of the House of Representatives. Hurley deserves full credit for coining this ignominious term.

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