President Franklin D. Roosevelt had planned to deliver a radio address on April 13, 1945, from his curative getaway in Warm Springs, Ga. On that date two years earlier, Roosevelt had spoken at the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial, lauding the third U.S. president as "an apostle of freedom." The 1945 speech was going to be an impassioned plea for postwar cooperation.
On Tuesday, April 10, FDR went for a drive with cousins Laura "Polly" Delano and Margaret "Daisy" Suckley. Lucy Mercer, a woman with whom Roosevelt had a more intricate relationship, accompanied them, as did Lucy's friend Elizabeth Shoumatoff. His health and spirits seemed to revive as he drove the rolling hills of middle Georgia in his open coupe as the peach trees began to show their fruit. It was the Happy Warrior's last such outing. On Wednesday, April 11, Roosevelt worked on his Jefferson Day speech, writing most of it in his own hand. In it, he harked back to the famous sentiment in his first inaugural address. "The only limit to our realization tomorrow will be our doubts of today," Roosevelt wrote. "Let us move forward with strong and active faith."
The following day, however, he was gone.
News of Franklin Roosevelt's death rocketed around the world. In a speech in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill struggled to keep his composure while eulogizing "the greatest American friend we have ever known." Churchill had learned about Roosevelt's death the night before. "I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow," he recalled later. "I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irreparable loss."
FDR's countrymen felt at sea, too. "I am too shocked to talk," Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley told reporters. "It is one of the worst tragedies that ever happened."
Left-leaning journalist I.F. Stone wondered if this was how citizens in ancient Rome felt when Caesar Augustus died. Studs Terkel left the Stevens Hotel bar when he heard the news and walked down Michigan Avenue weeping openly along with many of his fellow Chicagoans.
"Large crowds came and stood in front of the White House," presidential aide Dean Acheson wrote to his son. "They merely stood in a lost sort of way."
An estimated 2 million Americans lined the railroad tracks from Warm Springs to Union Station. Local church choirs showed up seemingly without prompting, leading crowds in solemn hymns: "Abide with Me" and "Nearer My God to Thee" -- as well as a song that worked on a secular level, "Rock of Ages."
"The recent death of President Roosevelt provoked a popular emotional reaction seldom paralleled in the nation's history," Yale professor Harold Orlansky wrote later. "Incredulity, anxiety, grief, and dismay were aroused on the widest scale." Orlansky wasn't immune from those feelings. His scholarly paper appeared in The Journal of Social Psychology two years later and in the preface the author acknowledged that he was still coming to terms with the grief he'd experienced in the spring of 1945.
Part of it was the uncertainty. Although FDR's fading health was apparent to those around him, to the rest of the country, contemplating his mortality while World War II still raged was unthinkable. My father, who would turn 12 later that spring, recalls going to his father the day Roosevelt died and asking him who could possibly lead the country now. FDR had been president for my dad's entire young life; for him, the words "president" and "Roosevelt" were synonymous. Tens of million of Americans felt the same way.
Adding to the sense of disorientation, Americans scarcely knew Harry Truman. The same was true of Roosevelt -- he didn't know Truman well, either. FDR had accepted the decision of Democratic Party bosses to replace Henry Wallace with Truman on the 1944 ticket, but the former Missouri senator wasn't part of Roosevelt's inner circle or his war councils. Vice president for all of three months, Truman had no idea what Roosevelt had promised Stalin at Yalta, hadn't been briefed on the Manhattan Project, and had spent little time alone with the president. On April 12, 1945 he was idling away his time on Capitol Hill with his old friends without a single Secret Service agent present when he got word that Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to see him.
After telephoning her four sons, all of whom were in military service, the first lady turned her attention to Harry Truman. She told him the news personally when he entered the White House.
"Is there anything I can do for you," Truman said.
"Is there anything I can do for you," she replied. "For you are the one in trouble now."
America is a much different place these days than it was in 1945; having a common enemy, as we do now, is not unifying the country the way it did then. A sudden change at the top wouldn't change that dynamic much. It certainly wouldn't engender mass mourning. Half the country seemingly would welcome such grim news, while many Trump loyalists would be bitter more than sad. Conspiracy theories would abound on social media.
I'd like to think the mainstream media wouldn't behave abominably, although there's little evidence for that hope. My guess, however, is that Melania Trump and Mike Pence would show the same solicitude for each other that Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman did. But if I'm sure of anything, it's that the awesome weight of the office would weigh heavily on the new president.
"Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now," harry Truman told White House reporters on this date in 1945. "I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.