The Near Assassination of FDR

Regular readers know that I enjoy occasionally indulging in a historic “What if … ?”  That is, how would history have been different if such-and-such an event had occurred, or had produced a different outcome.

A classic “What if … ?” occurred this week (Feb. 15) in 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had recently defeated Herbert Hoover for president, was attending a large rally in Miami, Florida.  Although the rally attendees were mostly enthusiastic and hopeful that this president-elect might reverse the economic stagnation and hopelessness that had gripped the nation since the beginning of the Great Depression, one man at the rally did not share those sentiments.  Giuseppe Zangara was a self-described anarchist who blamed all politicians, including FDR, for his inability to find steady work, which is why he intended to assassinate Roosevelt that day.

But there were two impediments to Zangara’s plan. First, because FDR had polio, which he did not like to advertise, he addressed the rally from inside the car he was riding in, making him a difficult target.  Second, Zangara was short, barely five feet tall, which made it hard for him to see his target over the crowd.  As a result, Zangara grabbed a nearby wooden chair and climbed on top of it, which caught the attention of one of the crowd members, Lillian Cross, who, seeing Zangara take out a gun, tried to push him off the chair.

Off balance, Zangara fired wildly, hitting five people in the crowd, including the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, who later died of his wounds.  But Roosevelt was spared.  While Zangara later would be convicted of murder and executed, Roosevelt — as history records — would be elected president four times, enabling him to lead America to victory in World War II, which laid the groundwork for ending the Great Depression.

But what if Zangara had succeeded?

Had Roosevelt died that day, John Nance Garner, the vice-president-elect, would have become president.  Unlike FDR, Garner was neither charismatic nor a gifted public speaker — his strength was back-room political dealing — meaning he would never have connected to the American people the way Roosevelt did.  Thus Garner would have been unable to restore the public’s confidence in government, in the country, or its future — something that was critical to FDR’s leadership.

Worse, Garner had little interest in foreign policy except for a belief that America should remain isolationist and other nations should solve their own problems.  Again, unlike FDR, it is highly doubtful that Garner would have been interested in, let alone alarmed by, the growing menace of Adolf Hitler until it was far too late for American to effectively act.

How different the country, the outcome of WWII, and history might have been.