Polio Doesn’t Strike Franklin Roosevelt

What if polio doesn’t strike Franklin Roosevelt?


On August 10, 1921, Franklin Roosevelt awakens with his legs no different than the day before. He can walk. He can run. He can kick. He can jump. And over the weeks and months and years ahead, nothing changes about his legs. No massage therapy. No warm water treatments. No metal braces.

No polio.

So how might his life have different? Beyond that, how might the experience of the American nation have been different?

An interesting case of what-if.

We’ll take the easiest step first. Without polio, Roosevelt doesn’t launch a foundation that evolves into the March of Dimes. The March of Dimes is among the oldest and most active public/private efforts to rally behind the cure and treatment of a particular disease or condition. You’ve likely seen their advertisements. Well, without Roosevelt’s polio, you don’t.

That also means that someone else’s face is on the dime coin. Roosevelt’s face went on it in 1946, eight years after starting his polio foundation and one year after his death. A local chapter of the foundation had pushed for use of his image on the front of the coin.

So then, without polio, remove his image off and insert someone else’s. Whose would it have been? Maybe the continuance of the previous image from 1916, the Liberty Head.

The absence of polio wouldn’t likely have affected his short-term chances at winning elections. Roosevelt could have been elected New York governor or the American President. As a political candidate, he didn’t trade on his affliction with polio. None of his campaigns featured his condition; in fact, just the opposite was true. Thus, people didn’t vote for him out of sympathy, pity, or a vague sense of personal care and connection. Polio, by itself, didn’t shift votes.

From the perspective of campaigns and political officeholding, the greatest no-polio impact would have been on other people. The people who knew Roosevelt or who came to see him in public appearances would not have had a focusing object for their curiosity. In a similar way, the media—photographers, movie reel producers, newspaper reporters, and radio reporters—would not have needed to be urged not to publicize Roosevelt’s condition. Historians have called this effort “the splendid deception.” No such deception is necessary without the reason for deceiving. The effect is on the people around Roosevelt rather than Roosevelt himself.

Given his natural gregariousness, it’s likely we would have seen more images and recordings of Roosevelt mingling with people and chatting them up. You’d know even more convincingly than now that Roosevelt was a charmer, a people-person of the highest magnitude. Roosevelt managed to overcome the barrier that polio erected between others and himself. All the greater, then, would have been his interaction with others in the absence of polio.

Perhaps the person who would have been most affected by the absence of polio would have been his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. His affliction gave her a clear role in his life and their marriage, which as things turned out was often an unhappy one. As much for her as for him, Eleanor used the condition to define ways in which she could relate to her husband. Helping to care for him was a vital part of this relationship. Franklin was more willing to accept this role of caring than he would otherwise have been without his condition.

Not having polio would have greatly widened the opportunities for him to pursue extra-marital affairs. This almost certainly would have created even more problems for them than they actually had. Eleanor would have suffered greatly under the strain.  As it was, Franklin kept his attention focused on other women as well as his wife but the intensity of these relationships would have been far more volatile than they proved to be. Eleanor paid a heavy price emotionally for her marriage. The price would have been astronomical without the condition.

Franklin and Eleanor had come to the breakup point before, back in the 1910s. She found out about his extra-marital affairs and threatened to leave him. Franklin vowed to improve his ways if she agreed to stay; divorce would have ruined his political reputation in that period of American history. This was their mutual arrangement.

Their arrangement would have almost certainly snapped under the pressure of active, open, and raucous extra-marital affairs of Franklin without polio. If the affairs were to have worsened, something would had to have adjusted—either Franklin restrains himself or Eleanor suffers in silence in a state almost beyond comprehension. The latter would have been the likely path.

This probability takes us a step further. With a better than not chance that he still becomes President, Franklin Roosevelt without polio would have been less effective in one aspect of his office. Among the public’s actual beliefs of Roosevelt’s handling of the Great Depression was that his wife Eleanor kept him connected to the plight of impoverished people, with folks who faced despair on a daily basis. Her ability to do so was aided by her position at his side and his willingness to listen to her input. Without polio to strengthen her perception of a tie and bond to him, Franklin would have been less willing to hear her input. And thus his sympathy for and awareness of those in direst need would have been substantially reduced.

Without the polio, Eleanor’s ability to identify herself as her husband’s meaningful partner weakens. Without Eleanor, the public’s assumption about her husband’s compassion wanes. It becomes a tougher case to make that this rich man from the American aristocracy actually had any concerns for working-class people.

Another effect of the what-if of Roosevelt’s polio is for the future. Let’s use the term “history” in a particular way. History is the partial construction of a total past. For the people who construct history from the past—researchers, writers, film-makers and so on—and those who consume it—readers, listeners, viewers—Roosevelt will have a different image without the polio. Having polio was the only part of his life to which one can point and say that Roosevelt overcame something fundamentally negative and potentially destructive. Nothing else qualifies.

So, without the polio, we lose the ability to show that Roosevelt had an obstacle to struggle against and defeat through personal strength. There’s nothing to put in its place unless you take the what-if into the direction of what if he has an automobile accident, what if he falls out of an airplane, what if the economic crash wipes out his family fortune, and so on. The polio is the only, frankly, humanizing event in his life.

This is the clearest case to be made that he possibly either doesn’t win the Presidency or doesn’t hold on to the Presidency for four terms.

Part of the reality of a thing that injures us is the tendency that to compensate for what is lost. A person who loses the ability to see will strengthen their other physical senses. We might assume that Roosevelt did the same—compensating for his loss of leg movement with an emphasis on strengthening his arms, back, and so forth.

True as far it goes but not quite in the way you’d expect. While he continued to enjoy swimming and sailing, his compensation came in personality. In real life, Roosevelt with polio became deeply interested in having cheerful, optimistic people around him. He didn’t want people nearby who fretted or frowned at the state of his physicality. And as President, this preference for sunny dispositions edged him toward avoiding conflict, dissension, and criticism. This is an interesting trait for him to have when you think about all the problems and difficulties swirling around him in the Great Depression and World War II.

But if polio doesn’t afflict him, Roosevelt might have been open—ever so slightly perhaps—to friction among those around him. Here’s a call I’d like you to make, dear reader: what does being more tolerant of such friction gain him as a leader? Good question, I think.

The what-if of Franklin Roosevelt’s polio is worthy of our consideration.