Monday, January 18, 2010

Is this important?

There is a feeling around, which I share, that we know far too much about politicians’ and other vacuous celebrities’ private lives. Do I really want to know that the wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister had an affair and, feeling depressed, thought about suicide, even if she is a politician herself? Oh how I don’t. Then again, if there is a matter of public finance being misappropriated the or, at the very least, money being acquired without any indication of a clash of interests, story becomes justifiably public

Do I care which schools politicians choose for their children? Certainly not, unless they also ensure through their votes that the rest of this country’s population has no similar choices.

In other words, it is sometimes difficult to work out where private ends and public begins. Each case has to be regarded individually and the assumption ought to be that privacy applies to politicians as much as anyone else, particularly if it is a matter of health. Unless …..

Unless important events are happening and a political leader’s health is of vital importance. This relates to a review in the Wall Street Journal of a few days ago of a book about President Roosevelt and his health, particularly in the last few months of his life that just happened to include the Yalta Conference.

As the article points out:
There is a familiar, almost immutable narrative to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life: A vigorous young patrician politician is struck down by polio at age 39, struggles to recover his mobility and his career, is elected governor of New York and eventually president by virtue of his grit and the press's willingness to play down his infirmity and, finally—in facing down the Depression and then Hitler and Tojo—works himself to death even as he gives life to a liberated world.
A quick look at the photographs of the three leaders at Yalta in early 1945 show that Roosevelt, the youngest of them, was looking considerably more tired and unwell than the other two. (Stalin was looking particularly pleased with himself, as well he might.)

At the time people did not want to believe that one of the war leaders should be mortally ill but since then there has been a great deal of discussion about the possibility that Roosevelt had, for some time, been suffering from cancer.
Why does it all matter? According to the authors, "it is inexplicable that FDR, given his grim prognosis, made no effort to ensure that, should the worst occur, he would be succeeded by a strong and capable vice president." Roosevelt's third-term vice president, Henry Wallace, was "dangerously naïve about Stalin and the Soviet Union; had he become president during the war, it is inconceivable that the conflict and the postwar world would have taken the same

As for the inexperienced Harry Truman, the slowly declining Roosevelt got
lucky with the selection of his fourth-term running mate. "FDR's Deadly Secret"
doesn't assign a nefarious design to FDR's behavior; he was, though, making "one
of the greatest gambles in world history," hoping to stay alive long enough to
achieve his goals.
Indeed, America and the western world were lucky in that it was not Henry Wallace, the man known to be one of the Soviets’ useful idiots, who took over in 1945 and the worries about Truman (who was not actually as inexperienced as people sometimes make out) proved to be unfounded.

There is another aspect to Roosevelt’s obvious health problems. What was it he really wanted to achieve beyond victory over Germany and Japan? Had he even formulated it to himself? Roosevelt’s inability to stand up to Stalin was notorious. Did this have anything to do with his health and the heavy medication he would have been taking? Or did it have more to do with the fact that he was surrounded by people like Alger Hiss, a very close presidential adviser at Yalta, throughout the negotiations and between them? One can go beyond that and ask how many people around Churchill may have been taking orders and reporting back to one of the organizations in Moscow? British investigations into that issue have lagged behind the American ones.

Interestingly enough, the December issue of Standpoint carried a long article on that very theme but dealing with British politicians. “Should we know about our leaders’ health?” asked Jeremy Hugh Baron who has had a seemingly distinguished career in medicine though not, I suspect, as an ordinary physician.

The article goes through the many problems Churchill and Eden had with their health, as well as the ones Attlee did. To us it seems quite extraordinary that it was not just the public who were not told about Churchill’s heart attack during the war, he did not himself. Moran, his physician, took a lot upon himself.

So how much of Churchill’s inability to stand up to Stalin, how many of his numerous mistakes were due to his ill health and how much of it would have happened anyway, given the complexity of the situation? Should the public have realized that the country was being governed by people who were seriously ill or their substitutes?

The most shocking tale is of Churchill’s second premiership, which, many would argue, ought not to have happened, anyway, as Sir Winston was past the time, because of his age and the condition of his health, when he could have taken on something as difficult as that.
In June 1953, Churchill had his fifth and most severe stroke, which caused him to stagger and speak with a slur. But the Cabinet noticed nothing amiss. His left side became paralysed and he was driven to Chartwell. He ordered Colville to tell no one. Moran warned that Churchill might die that weekend, so Colville sent for the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rab Butler and Salisbury and told the Palace.

Ordinarily, Churchill should have resigned, as his wife wished, and the Queen sent for Eden. However, that day Eden was being operated on in Boston. It was held to be unfair to Eden if Butler was appointed PM. Butler could have asserted himself, but as on two later occasions when he might have claimed the post, he loyally held back. There was no way a peer, such as Lord Salisbury, could have been made a caretaker premier, so a conspiracy was hatched.

The first problem was the bulletin. Moran had prepared, and he and Brain signed, a tactful but honest bulletin: "For a long time, the Prime Minister has had no respite from his arduous duties and a disturbance of the cerebral circulation has developed, resulting in attacks of giddiness. We have therefore advised him to abandon his journey to Bermuda and to take at least a month's rest."

Butler and Salisbury vetoed this because medical correspondents would correctly tell the public that their PM had suffered a stroke. When King George VI had his chest operation, a bulletin talked loosely about "structural changes in the lung", and while doctors assumed correctly that this meant cancer, this was not widely discussed in the press

Butler and Salisbury therefore prepared their own bulletin, which the two physicians agreed to sign: "The Prime Minister has had no respite for a long time from his very arduous duties and is in need of a complete rest. We have therefore advised him to abandon his journey to Bermuda and to lighten his duties for at least a month."

Colville sent for the three press lords, Beaverbrook, Bracken and Camrose, who agreed to a total gag. Butler took the Cabinet and told them of Churchill's stroke, although this was not minuted, while the business of the state was conducted by Colville and Churchill's son-in-law, Christopher Soames.

However, surprisingly, Churchill made a remarkable recovery, chaired the Cabinet, again refused his family's advice to resign and, helped by Moran's stimulant tablets, made successful speeches to the House of Commons and the party conference: "If I stay on for the time being, bearing the burden at my age, it is not because of love for power or office.
The idea that matters of state could have been conducted by the Prime Minister’s secretary and his son-in-law, whose political abilities were never of the highest order or even half-way good defies one’s imagination. The fact that RAB Butler did not insist that, in the circumstances, the Queens should have sent for him shows that he was not cut out to be Prime Minister.

There is, however, no doubt that, as a consequence of all this shenanigans he country and the Conservative Party suffered.


  1. Christopher Soames does not come out of The Great Deception well.

  2. Steven Lomazow, M.D.January 23, 2010 at 6:46 PM

    The implications of the photograph you post are addressed in detail in our book. I would also direct you to our blog for a rather specific treatment of the implications of FDR's health upon history.


  3. Steven, welcome. I am very glad you managed to read this blog. Your book is on my list of ones to read and hope it will be true for others.

    Clarence, Soames does not come out of anything well. It is one reason why that story of Churchill delegating state matters to him and his secretary (who, at least, was competent) is so appalling.

    Chris, I hate to say this but I really wouldn't believe anything Churchill wrote. What exactly do you mean by his diaries? The published accounts or something else.