Friday, January 20, 2012

Franklin D.Roosevelt (1882-1945)

Who was the greatest ever American president? A good case could be made for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is undoubtedly one of the top three people to have held that office. In his first administration from 1933, he helped drag USA out of the Great Depression. He went on to became the only US president ever to serve for three terms. He brought America into the war against significant domestic opposition, and was instrumental in the final Allied victory. All this, from a man who had become paralysed as a result of polio, contracted in 1921. What a hero!

Born into a privileged old American family - President Theodore Roosevelt was a distant cousin - Roosevelt attended Harvard and became a lawyer. His marriage to Eleanor (a fifth cousin) produced six children, but ended up as an expedient political partnership rather than a loving relationship. The major factor in the breakdown was FDR’s long standing affair with Lucy Mercer (codenamed “Mrs Johnson” by the Secret Service).

Roosevelt’s career began in the New York Senate. After he supported Woodrow Wilson’s bid for the Presidency, he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Navy in 1913. His rise to power was not plain sailing: he failed in a bid to win election to the Senate in 1914, and was the vice-presidential candidate when James Cox were beaten by Warren Harding in the 1920 presidential election. However, in 1929, he was elected Governor of New York, and his career went from strength to strength.

FDR, however, had lost the use of his legs after contracting polio – or possibly another virus such as Guilllaume BarrĂ© - during a vacation in August 1921. He was 39. He did not accept that he was permanently disabled, trying a whole range of therapies, in particular swimming. He spent time at the Warm Springs resort, and subsequently bought the centre and turned it into a polio rehabilitation institute. Nor was FDR willing to be known as disabled. He judged, probably rightly, that the public would not be willing to accept a political leader who had a major impairment. So FDR made strenuous efforts, detailed in Hugh Gallagher’s book FDR’s Splendid Deception, to conceal the truth about his disability. For example, out of 35,000 photographs of FDR, only two show him in his wheelchair. Nor is there any newsreel footage, or even political cartoons depicting him as disabled. He did not use the wheelchair in public, nor even crutches. He wore callipers, lent on his aides, and laboriously swung his legs to make it appear that he was walking. His determination to conceal the truth, according to Gallagher, took a severe physical and emotional toll on him over the next twenty years.

However, FDR’s relationship with disability was not simply about denial. He bought the Warm Springs resort and turned it into a polio rehabilitation centre. FDR built “the Little White House”, an accessible holiday home in Warm Springs: he also drove a hand-controlled car. He loved to drive around his Georgia neighbourhood, meeting ordinary men and women. As a person, he was intuitive, not rationalist – no Thomas Jefferson – and had simple tastes, according to Gallagher, who argues that “His paralysis softened the handsome patrician, made him approachable, more human. His physical weakness was something people of every class could understand. At some level of consciousness, perhaps, FDR’s paralysis served him a link with ordinary men and women.” Famous for his dog, Fala, and his broadcast “Fireside chats”, FDR was able to develop the common touch.

Roosevelt also set up the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and helped raise huge amounts of money, particularly with the development of the March of Dimes campaign from 1937. Among the beneficiaries of research funds was Jonas Salk, who went on to develop the polio vaccine.

It was the depths of the Depression – with 25% unemployment and a 50% fall in industrial output since 1929 - when in 1932, disabled FDR won the Democratic nomination and subsequently the Presidency of the United States. In his acceptance speech, he said “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people... This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.” He had succeeded by bringing together trades unions, poor whites, Jews, Italians, Poles, African-Americans and Southerners together with the traditional Democrat supporters. As he famously said, in the middle of the banking crisis which heralded his inauguration, “All we have to fear is fear itself”.

As President, Roosevelt was extraordinarily interventionist by American standards past and present. For example, he regulated the banks and other parts of the private sector, and used government money to pay the unemployed construct dams and buildings for the Public Works Administration. Vast government enterprises were created and gold was bought back from citizens by the US Treasury. FDR also repealed Prohibition. No wonder he was so easily re-elected for a second term, with unemployment having fallen from 25% to 14%, and the creation of Social Security payments – such as pensions – and Federal rights to belong to a union, to take strike action, and undertake collective bargaining. In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR argued that economic rights were like a second Bill of Rights: by today’s standards, he resembles a European social democrat, rather than any conventional American politician.

At the beginning of the war, FDR gave Britain moral and economic support, and began a covert correspondence with Winston Churchill. From 1940, he rapidly built up the US armed forces. First, 50 older destroyers were given to Britain, followed by the 1941 Lend Lease agreement, contributing $50 billion to the Allies, to be repaid after the war. He told the American people that he wanted USA to be the Arsenal for Democracy, using his charisma to counter the strong isolationist tendency in US politics. He was elected to a third term – against all previous tradition – promising to do all he could to keep USA out of the conflict.

After Pearl Harbor, war was unavoidable. FDR left the administration of the war to his generals. From 1943, he played the key diplomatic role, at the conferences with Churchill in Cairo, and with Churchill and Stalin in Tehran and finally Yalta. Although Stalin backed FDR’s plan for the United Nations, FDR failed to understand his true ambitions to create Soviet-backed authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe.

FDR’s health had been in decline since 1940. Part of the problem was that he gave up his daily exercise routine during the war: he stopped standing up, and was wheeled around everywhere. After years of struggle, physical and political, he was also depressed and lonely. By 1944 he was very ill. Stress and smoking, added to his neurological problems, resulted in heart disease. Nevertheless, he was elected President for a fourth time, with Harry Truman as his Vice-President. On March 29, just before the founding conference of the United Nations, FDR died from a stroke.

Barely a month later came the declaration of Victory in Europe. As the New York Times wrote at the time: "Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House". But FDR should not be seen as a superhuman leader. He was an ordinary human being, struggling with a disability which perhaps taught him compassion and humility, who achieved remarkable things.


Further reading

Hugh Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception, 1985.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

Never having received appropriate recognition in life, after death, Harriet Tubman became an African American icon and a hero to later generations of Civil Rights activists. Her concrete achievements in war and peace, and her struggles on behalf of African Americans and women in particular, surely make her someone that disabled people can also call a role model.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, and was originally named Araminta Ross. Her grandmother, Modesty, had been brought from Africa – according to the family legend, she was of Ashanti origin, from what is modern day Ghana. Tubman’s father managed the timber on a plantation; her mother was a cook. She herself was hired out as a nursemaid aged five or six, and was brutally whipped by her employers. As a teenager, she was in a store when a white man asked her to help restrain another slave. She refused, and when the slave ran away, the white man threw a two pound weight. The iron lump missed the other slave but hit Tubman in the head. She survived the resulting injury, but it caused her siezures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Perhaps as a result of the epilepsy, she became very deeply religious, and regularly thereafter had visions and premonitions.

In 1844, Tubman married a freed slave, John Tubman, and changed her name, although remaining enslaved. In 1849, when her owner died, she and her brothers escaped from slavery, only to return. Tubman then escaped again, using the Underground Railway network of abolitionists (including Quakers) to travel north, mainly by night. She later described her feelings on reaching Pennsylvania: "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

Although she was safe in Philadelphia, she said "I was a stranger in a strange land," because her relatives were enslaved in Maryland, “But I was free, and they should be free." Tubman returned to Maryland to help members of her family escape slavery, then other African Americans, including eventually her own parents. In total, she made 13 expeditions, rescuing 70 slaves, and advising many more on how to make their escape. Often disguised, she became known as “Moses”. On one trip, she was able to meet up with her husband, only to find that he had remarried and did not want to come North with her. She reflected later "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."

Harriet Tubman was in touch with other abolitionists, such as John Brown, Thomas Garrett and William SewardIn 1859, Seward sold her land in Auburn, which became a haven for freed slaves and other African Americans.

Tubman was also in touch with African American activists, such as Frederick Douglass. In 1868, Douglass wrote to Tubman to honor her practical achievements and contrast it with his more public advocacy: “You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”

For obvious reasons, Harriet Tubman was a strong supporter of the Union side during the Civil War, although she was frustrated by Abraham Lincoln’s unwillingness to enforce emanacipation in conquered Confederate territory. She went to offer her support in Port Royal, South Carolina, serving as a nurse. More unusually, for the time, she also conducted reconnaissance missions for the Union forces, for example providing information which helped in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida. She became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War during the Combahee River Raid which led to the release of 700 slaves. Despite these efforts, she never received any acknowledgement or pension from the United States government for her service during the conflict.

After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn. More injustice followed when, on a trip to New York, she was roughly handled by a train guard and other white passengers, resulting in her arm being broken. Happily, she also ended up marrying a veteran, Nelson Davis, who was more than twenty years younger than her. They were together for twenty years and adopted a daughter together. But Tubman remained poor and struggled for money, particularly after falling victim to two fraudsters. In her later years, she was an active supporter of women’s suffrage, and in the process of speaking and advocating, her own story became more widely known.

Harriet Tubman suffered increasing symptoms from her head injury in the last decades of her life, undergoing brain surgery to relieve her suffering. In 1903, she donated land to her church to open a home for poor African Americans. It was there that in 1913 she died of pneumonia, being buried with full military honours in Auburn. Booker T.Washington spoke at the inauguration of her memorial.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)


“Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason, and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940” (Anthony Storr)

Winston Churchill was born prematurely and looked after by a wet-nurse, as was the aristocratic way in 1874. Throughout his childhood, he endured a continuing lack of unconditional love and affection from both his parents which, according to the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, left Churchill psychologically ill-equipped. His salvation was his nanny, Mrs Everest, on whose death he described as “my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived”. However, it seems likely that Churchill also had an underlying genetic disposition towards depression which, interacting with inadequate parenting, resulted in his mental health vulnerabilities. Indeed, his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough shared his depressive tendencies, as did his own father, Randolph Churchill.

As a child, Churchill was not very impressive: small, thin and with a slight speech impediment, he was bullied at school. In 1893, he wrote from Sandhurst “I am cursed with so feeble a body that I can scarcely support the fatigues of the day; but I suppose I shall get stronger during my stay here.” However, he was determined to be tough, and had no lack of physical courage, having exerted willpower to overcome his fears. He was positively reckless in combat during the Boer War and the First World War.

Churchill was also hugely ambitious: writing from India in 1899, he said “What an awful thing it will be if I don’t come off. It will break my heart for I have nothing else but ambition to cling to…” Storr suggests that he sought recognition as a way of staving off despair. As Churchill said later “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glow worm”. He had a strong sense that he was being kept for some higher purpose, the cause that finally presented itself when he was sixty-five and his country and the world was in such danger from fascism.

CP Snow described him as having a strong sense of insight, or intuition, rather than relying on insight. This approach sometimes led him astray, as with the disastrous Dardenelles campaign in the First World War (in which my grandfather fought, and nearly died). But his instincts about Hitler and about Stalin eventually proved to be correct. His brilliance was not that of a thorough or rigorous thinker. Famously, he preferred to have ideas presented to him on half a side of paper, because that was how he himself worked. He could also be very insensitive to the feelings of others.

Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, records the Prime Minister in 1944, talking about his depressive tendencies: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible to get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” Yet after the Dardenelles, and in his wilderness years, he may have been deeply depressed, but he was not suicidal. He devised ways of keeping himself going – writing, painting, even bricklaying at his country house at Chartwell.

In his final years, Churchill suffered a recurrence of despair and a sense of his life having been futility, despite all he had achieved for himself and for his country. Hardening of the arteries and possibly Alzheimer’s disease may have contributed. His daughter records him as saying late in life “I have achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end”. Storr suggests that, as a result of a lack of parental affection, “he had a void at the heart of his being which no achievement or honour could ever completely fill”.

I am not sure how much I like, as opposed to admire, Churchill. His achievements in diverse fields were extraordinary, even though he hardly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature: I have an early memory of my grandfather, who was in government with him from 1939-1942, reading to me out of his History of the English Speaking Peoples. Churchill started his career as a liberal, but was more right wing than this might imply. He was a vigorous advocate of eugenics in the first decades of the twentieth century; he was a supporter of Edward VIII (and Mussolini, at the beginning); he opposed Indian Home Rule and should be assigned some of the blame for the Bengal famine of 1943; he was ultimately responsible for the saturation bombing of German cities in the first half of 1945; his post war term as prime minister was not distinguished. Yet despite this and other failures, he was a larger than life man, of ferocious appetites, powerful personality and immense inner drive. Small wonder that he topped a BBC Poll of “One Hundred Greatest Britons” in 2002: to many people, he was not only correct in describing the Second World War as “our finest hour”, he was also the architect of Allied victory. With his recurrent depression, his speech impediment, not to mention the physical and mental decline of his last years, Winston Churchill can also be counted, unquestionably, as a person with disability.

Further reading

Anthony Storr, Churchill’s Black Dog