The 1932 Presidential elections may have been the most consequential in recent American history. But the results were almost overturned by a man with a gun.
In 1932, President Herbert Hoover’s chances of being re-elected were virtually zero. After the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression tore the American economy apart. Within a few years, US industrial output declined by nearly half, and some 13 million workers—about 25% of the workforce—were unemployed. Thousands of banks had failed, and many people lost their life savings even as the remaining banks were foreclosing on thousands of homes and farmsteads. In DC, Hoover clung stubbornly to his laissez-faire economic ideology and campaigned on the promise that the free market would, by itself, bring about dramatic improvements. That message fell flat, though, and he became one of the most hated Presidents in history. Even the makeshift homeless camps that proliferated in every town were mockingly known as “Hoovervilles”, and when Hoover received the Republican Party nomination to run again, several prominent Republicans either refused to endorse him or actively opposed his re-election.
So when New York Governor Franklin D Roosevelt announced that he would make a run for the White House, he instantly became the frontrunner in poll after poll. As Governor, Roosevelt had already started a state-funded jobs program as well as aid to the unemployed. Now, in presenting his sweeping vision of a massive government effort to help those who needed it–a “New Deal for the American people”–FDR promised to do the same as President. He pledged a number of social programs and legal reforms, all designed, he said, with the aim of “adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people.”
Roosevelt also skillfully used the media of his day to spread his message. Radio stations had been broadcasting for years already, but it wasn’t until the late 1920s that large numbers of American families had their own sets. Unlike the plodding and timid Hoover, FDR’s speeches were uplifting and inspiring. Even his campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again”, projected an air of hope and optimism.
Radio also gave him the advantage of allowing people to focus on his words instead of on his paralyzing disability brought on by polio, projecting an image of strength and confidence. Most Americans were probably unaware of FDR’s physical condition.
The election was, then, virtually a foregone conclusion. Roosevelt won with 58% of the vote.
Afterwards, the new President-Elect retreated to his home near Albany NY to begin the process of forming his Administration. But in mid-February 1933, just a month before his scheduled inauguration, FDR decided to take an impromptu vacation with his friend, the New York millionaire Vincent Astor. The two planned to sail from Jacksonville FL to the Caribbean for two weeks in Astor’s yacht. On February 15, they made a stop in Miami, where FDR met with a number of Democratic politicians.
At the last minute, it was decided that the President-Elect should take a tour through Miami in a motorcade, which would allow him to greet well-wishers. By 9:30pm, the makeshift parade had stopped in front of the bandstand at Miami’s Bayfront Park, and Roosevelt decided to make an impromptu speech to the crowd of around 25,000 which had gathered there to see him. Hoisting himself onto the back of the car, he thanked the crowd for coming, told them he enjoyed the fishing in Miami, and said that he hoped to be able to come back soon. The speech lasted less than five minutes.
As Roosevelt settled back into his seat, he turned to say something to his friend Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was standing in the crowd next to the car. Suddenly a series of gunshots rang out. About thirty feet away from FDR’s Buick limo, a man named Giuseppe Zangara was standing on a folding chair with a .32-calibre pistol. His first shot missed. As bystanders grabbed his arm, Zangara pumped out five more shots. None of them hit Roosevelt, but Cermak was struck in the chest by one bullet, and four people in the crowd were also wounded.
As a group of people wrestled Zangara to the ground, the limo driver started to speed off towards the hospital, but FDR ordered him to stop. He had seen people in the crowd beating Zangara, and now he gave a short talk asking them not to hurt the would-be assassin and to allow the gunman to have his day in court. Roosevelt also made sure that policemen were giving first aid to those in the crowd who had been hit, and made room in the car for those who had been seriously wounded. Only then did the car set out for the hospital, with Roosevelt cradling the wounded Cermak in his lap. As the Mayor was carried into the hospital, he told FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.”
At the police station, meanwhile, Zangara freely confessed. An unemployed bricklayer and a self-described anarchist, he felt that the rich were running roughshod over the poor and needed to be stopped. “I have the gun in my hand,” he told the police. “I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.”
Just days after the shooting, Zangara appeared in the Dade County Courthouse, without a lawyer, and pleaded “guilty” to four counts of attempted murder. When the judge sentenced him to four consecutive sentences of 20 years each, Zangara exclaimed, “Oh, judge—don’t be stingy. Give me a hundred years.” The judge, knowing that Zangara had not yet been charged with the shooting of Mayor Cermak, shot back, “Maybe there will be more later.”
After Cermak died on March 6, Zangara was brought back before a judge to be charged with murder. Once again Zangara offered no defense, but a death penalty case required a trial, so a jury was brought in, a few witnesses were called, and the assassin was duly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. “You give me electric chair,” Zangara shouted. “I no afraid of that chair! You one of capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair. I no care!”
Zangara was defiant to the end. He refused any appeals, and was scheduled to die in Florida’s electric chair on March 20, barely a month after the shootings. As he was taken by a priest into the death chamber at the appointed time, he yelled, “Get the hell out of here, you son of a bitch. I go sit down all by myself.” As the prison officials placed the hood over his head, Zangara shouted, “Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere!” Then, turning towards the place where the executioner was waiting, he said his final words: “Push the button! Push the button!”
Franklin Roosevelt went on to win an unprecedented four terms in office, and lead the United States through what were arguably its greatest threats of the 20th century—the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Today, there is only a small plaque marking the site in Bayfront Park where history was almost changed.