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The Birthday Balls and the Fight Against Infantile Paralysis

FDR pictured receiving a birthday cake decorated with checks for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. January, 1942

FDR pictured receiving a birthday cake decorated with checks for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. January, 1942

FDR contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39, and was paralyzed from the waist down. For the rest of his life, FDR was committed to finding a way to rehabilitate himself as well as others afflicted with infantile paralysis.

In 1924, FDR visited a rundown spa in Warm Springs, Georgia where it was said that the buoyant mineral waters had therapeutic powers. After six weeks, he was convinced that he had made more progress in his rehabilitation than at any time in the previous three years. He built a home for himself at Warm Springs.

In 1926 when the spa faced hardship, he purchased the facility for $200,000, creating a therapeutic center called the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. It opened its doors to patients from all over the country, providing medical treatment and an opportunity to spend time with others suffering the effects of polio.

FDR returned to politics, serving as Governor of New York from 1929-1932, and elected President in 1933. Even with the burdens of office, he regularly visited Warm Springs for treatment and rest, becoming known to the patients as “Dr. Roosevelt.” But the growing demands on the facility, and the increasing number of patients being treated there, required more money than FDR alone or a small number of contributors could provide.

At the suggestion of a public relations consultant, business magnate and FDR political ally Henry L. Doherty launched the National Committee for Birthday Balls that sponsored a dance in every town across the nation, both to celebrate the President’s birthday but also to raise money for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.

The first Birthday Ball was held in 1934, with 4,376 communities joining in 600 separate celebrations that raised over one million dollars for Warm Springs. Future Birthday Balls continued to raise about a million dollars per year, with contributions split between Warm Springs and the local communities where the balls were held.

In 1938, FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, not only to help Warm Springs but also the victims of polio throughout the country. To increase awareness of the campaign, radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor took to the air waves and urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”

Soon, millions of dimes flooded the White House. In 1945, the annual March of Dimes campaign raised 18.9 million dollars for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Ultimately, the March of Dimes (as the National Foundation became known) financially supported the research and development of a polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955, eradicating the disease throughout most of the world by the 1960s.

Franklin Roosevelt’s dedication to finding a cure for polio benefited millions of children worldwide. But it was the participation of Americans across the nation in Birthday Balls that made the campaign a success. Their hard work and financial support supported the development of new methods of treatment to improve the lives of those stricken with polio and the creation of a vaccine to protect future generations from its devastation. Although the Birthday Balls ended in 1945 with the death of President Roosevelt, both of their legacies live on in the March of Dimes.

Eleanor at FDR Birthday Ball at the Statler Hotel in Washington DC, with Red Skelton, William O. Douglas, Lucille Ball, John Garfield, and Maria Montez. January, 1944.

Eleanor at a FDR Birthday Ball at the Statler Hotel in Washington DC, with Red Skelton, William O. Douglas, Lucille Ball, John Garfield, and Maria Montez. January, 1944.

70th Anniversary of the Casablanca Conference – January 14-24, 1943

Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Press Conference, January 24, 1943, the last day of the summit meeting. NPx 48-22:244

Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Press Conference, January 24, 1943, the last day of the summit meeting. NPx 48-22:244

From 1942 to 1944 one subject dominated Allied strategic debate—the creation of a Second Front in Europe. This thorny issue caused friction between America, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. It topped the agenda of the January 1943 summit meeting between FDR and Winston Churchill at Casablanca, Morocco, held shortly after the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Though Soviet leader Stalin didn’t attend this meeting, his feelings were clear. For 18 months, the Soviets had single-handedly resisted a massive German invasion. Stalin demanded that his allies strike quickly at the heart of Hitler’s empire in northwest Europe, establishing a “second from” to draw off some German forces from the USSR.

FDR’s military advisers favored the earliest possible assault on northwest Europe. But Churchill argued that a large buildup of forces was necessary to ensure a successful invasion. Because this was unlikely in 1943, he pushed for a more limited, “peripheral” strategy of attack along the edges of the Axis empire, starting with an assault on Sicily. Meanwhile, a buildup of forces in Britain for an invasion of northwest Europe would begin. Roosevelt, eager to keep the American public focused on the fighting in Europe, agreed.

To ease Stalin’s disappointment, FDR offered a signal of Anglo-American resolve: he announced the Allies would only accept an “unconditional surrender” from the Axis Powers.

Below is a series of objects, photographs, and documents from the FDR Library’s collection related to the Casablanca Conference.

MO 1943-190-2

This flag of the President of the United States was handmade on board the U.S.S. Memphis by five sailors at FDR’s request and flown from that ship while at anchor in Bathurst, Gambia, West Africa, in January 1943. The Memphis had been ordered to anchor off Bathurst in order to provide safe quarters for FDR and his party en route to and from the Casablanca Conference. This was the first time the President’s flag had ever been flown from an American warship in an African Port. Upon seeing the flag for the first time, President Roosevelt stated that “No ship has ever made a President’s flag is such record time, and it is a darn good flag.”

guestbook

These pages from the guestbook at the Casablanca Conference include the signatures of Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco, Churchill, Roosevelt, advisor to the President Harry Hopkins, Minister to French North Africa Robert D. Murphy, General George S. Patton, naval aide to the President Admiral John L. McCrea, Elliott Roosevelt, and co-President of the Free French Forces General Henri Giraud. From the Roosevelt Family, Business & Personal Papers.

MO 1943-190-6&7

FDR used this U.S. Army mess kit and canteen at a field luncheon during his visit to Rabat, Morocco, to review American troops on January 21, 1943.

NPx 66-104(20)

Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill with their Chiefs of Staff, January 22, 1943. NPx 66-104(20)

MO 1943-190-1

MO 1943-191-1to3

On the evening of January 22, the Sultan of Morocco hosted Roosevelt and Churchill to dinner. During the dinner he presented these gifts to the President. The dagger is fitted with a gold hilt and sheath and is encased in a teakwood box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The gold tiara encrusted with semi-precious stones from the Atlas Mountains and a pair of gold bracelets from the Sultan’s collection of family jewels were presented as gifts for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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