AMAC Exclusive – By – Herald Boas
The two leading democratic figures of World War II, in separate incidents a year apart, came within inches of not surviving and coming to power to lead the Allies to victory in the critical global conflict only a few years later.
On December 13, 1931, Winston Churchill, then a backbench member of Parliament, was visiting New York City. He had just finished dinner and returned to his hotel when his friend New York financier Bernard Baruch, called to invite him to his nearby Manhattan townhouse for an evening meeting. On his way there, Churchill, accustomed to English automobile traffic going on the opposite side of the street, looked the wrong way while stepping off the curb, and was hit by a speeding car. Churchill was taken immediately to a hospital with very serious injuries, but he survived – barely.
Just over a year later, on February 15, 1933, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was visiting Miami, Florida, and had just made a short speech to a large crowd which had surrounded his open car. Seeing Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who had come to Miami specifically to see the incoming president and plead for federal aid for his debt-ridden city, Roosevelt invited the mayor to sit next to him in the back seat of the car. Just then, a deranged assassin stepped out of the crowd and fired several shots at Roosevelt. Heroically, a woman named Lillian Cross who was standing next to the assassin grabbed his arm, causing him to miss the president-elect. Tragically, four others were wounded, including Cermak, who died in a hospital three weeks later. The assassin was quickly tried and eventually executed in April of 1933.
On March 4, 1933, eighteen days after the shooting, Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, declaring “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
After recovering from his injuries, Churchill returned to England. (Ironically, the governor of New York the night when he was hurt was Franklin Roosevelt!) Soon after his return and Roosevelt’s inauguration, Churchill began to speak out against a growing and ominous threat from a rearming Germany whose new leader, Adolf Hitler, had come to power on January 30, 1933.
World War II broke out on September 30, 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland from the west while Soviet Russia invaded from the east. After 24 years, Churchill was reappointed first lord of the Admiralty. A year later, as Hitler overran Europe, he became prime minister, at age 61.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt would go on to preside over the United States at time when American public opinion was against U.S. involvement in the European war. Roosevelt detested Hitler but, as he intended to run for a third term in 1940, could only respond to Churchill’s repeated pleas for help with indirect aid such as the Lend-Lease program. Had a different individual been President, even that crucial assistance might have been withheld, and Britain might well have not withstood the Nazi onslaught.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S. a few days later, brought Churchill and Roosevelt together formally as allies for their epic partnership to win World War II.
This partnership, and possibly the favorable outcome of the war, would not have happened if the two men had not, by a few inches, survived their near-deaths a few years before.
Fifty years later, another leader—this time newly-inaugurated President Ronald Reagan –escaped death by inches before he went on to end the Cold War and grow the U.S. economy. Leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, the new president was shot in the chest by a crazed young man, and rushed to a nearby hospital close to death. Surgeons saved him, but reported that if the bullet had gone another inch, it would have been fatal.
Derided by his opponents for his Hollywood movie background, Ronald Reagan subsequently played a key role (with British Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II) in ending the Cold War, as well as reuniting Germany and reforming national economic policy.
Six weeks after Reagan was shot, on May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot three times by a would-be assassin in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in Rome. Although he lost much blood, he survived, but again, only narrowly. The Pope went on to be instrumental in freeing his native Poland and Eastern Europe from communism, and in ending, along with Ronald Reagan, the Cold War.
As with Churchill and Roosevelt half a century earlier, it was only an inch or so between life and death for Reagan and Pope John Paul II — yet an incalculable distance for how history played out.