The biggest news in the first two weeks of April 1945 was the death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12. He would be the first of the five major war leaders to die; Stalin, Hitler, Tojo and Churchill were the others.
Hedeki Tojo had the shortest term. The army general became prime minister in October 1941 shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japan’s pro-war leadership was responsible for as many an estimated 10,000,000 Chinese deaths, three-quarters of that number civilians. The fighting had been raging in China since the 1930s.
Tojo was forced to resign as Japan’s prime minister in July 1944, but his policies were still playing out. His leadership brought America into the war with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Tojo would attempt suicide during his arrest after the war and would be tried for war crimes. He took full responsibility for his actions in a speech and was executed by hanging in December 1948.
Adolph Hitler took comfort in the death of Roosevelt. Though German defenses were collapsing around Berlin, he fantasized that the Allies would fall into disarray with the loss of America’s leader.
Disarray would be fate of the Third Reich.
The rhetoric about ‘fighting to the death’ was for his followers. Hitler committed suicide as the Soviet Army closed in on his bunker. The Nazi leader was responsible for millions of deaths and destruction over a continent.
His Third Reich would be extinguished few days after his suicide.
Hitler and Roosevelt were in power for roughly the same time frame. The former ruled by fear; the latter said in his first inauguration “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Winston Churchill would be ousted as British prime minister shortly after Nazi surrender. He would return to power for another term from 1951 to 1955 and be the last of the major World War II leaders to die. He would famously coin the phrase “Iron Curtain,” referring to the Soviet Bloc at the dawn of the Cold War.
In the dark days of 1940 Churchill and Britain stood alone against Nazi aggression before Hitler betrayed and attacked Stalin. Joseph Stalin would be the only leader of the five still in power when Japan surrendered in 1945.
Stalin’s autocratic paranoia led him to order the deaths and imprisonments of millions of Soviet citizens before the war.
The Soviet Union suffered more staggering losses during the war. Ten million military and an additional 10 million civilians were estimated to have died in the conflict. By way of comparison, the United States suffered 400,000 military losses. Isoeb Dzhugashvili, or Stalin as he renamed himself, would die of a heart attack in March 1953.
The Soviet system of government did not survive. The Russian rule of Vladimir Putin is a shadow of the Soviet system under Stalin though still autocratic. The Axis systems that produced dictatorial power all would collapse.
Power tightly concentrated is not nimble.
The democracies, Britain and America, had the governments with flexibility to survive to this day.
At times the democratic election process has not always been easy, but the alternative — violent excesses of absolute power — carries seeds of self-destruction.
Roosevelt died April 12, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing at Warm Springs, Georgia. His health had been deteriorating.
Of the five leaders, Roosevelt’s legacy is clearly the most enduring.
For the first time, America assumed the role of world leadership under Roosevelt.
Roosevelt led the nation out of the debilitating Great Depression and built the arsenal of democracy that won the world’s greatest war. He almost survived to see war won. The able leadership he assembled would complete that task.
The Roosevelt administration would be the transition between eras.
The rules have been changed so other U.S. presidents cannot be elected to four terms.
Social Security and a strong military are enduring budget items absent before Roosevelt arrived and have continued since his death.
The Nuclear Age was set in motion.
Advances in jets, rockets and space-age technology were all accelerated by the war. The seeds of the Civil Rights movement planted in wartime would blossom in the postwar era.
The employer-funded healthcare system took root during the war.
The United Nations was created in an attempt to prevent World War III; Franklin’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, would be instrumental in establishing that organization.
Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Harry Truman, would win the war, be re-elected and establish the first navigation points in the uncharted shoals of the Cold War.
Later, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and George H.W. Bush were all veterans of World War II.
America’s rise had the post-war advantage of not having to rebuild a bombed-out homeland.
It also had the advantage of leaders who fought for freedom and not fear.