Under The Influence

In one of the stranger, side-stories about Pearl Harbor and the immediate aftermath is the story that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his speech to Congress on December 8, 1941, after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, that he quite possibly was under the influence of cocaine. 

The issue was raised during the History Channel’s outstanding documentary, “Pearl Harbor 24 Hours After” which showed among other things that, the attack completely shook the USA to its core. Panic was rampant in Washington and the country as a whole. 

In the era before cable news television, President Roosevelt was completely in the dark for several hours as to the exact damage that was done to the Pacific fleet as he couldn’t get detailed information from the Pentagon, or government officials in Hawaii.

The country was woefully unprepared for war as the U.S. had one (1) combat-ready division and the army at the time of the Japanese attack was the 17th largest in the world (behind Rumania) but in less than four years would field 12.2 million men under arms at its peak.

The battleship USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. US Archives photo

 

 

Roosevelt showed a master’s touch on political leadership. Even with scant details, he released even less to his Cabinet, knowing that the word would leak out. He needed to galvanize the country with his speech and that his message needed to be brief and to the point. It wasn’t perfect, (he signed the order for interring Japanese-Americans, which was unconscionable), but other than that, his actions were exactly what was needed for the country. 

But the most intriguing part of the documentary was that while the president was meeting with his cabinet members on Sunday evening in Washington D.C. preparing for his speech to Congress, he spent over an hour with his physician in the White House and was probably given cocaine. 

During the frenzy going on in Washington D.C. and the White House was running rampant on the early evening of December 7, Roosevelt met with his physician and friend, Dr. Ross McIntyre, who was a prominent ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. McIntyre had been a part of the president’s staff for about four years. 

Roosevelt suffered from chronic sinus infections. And on that fateful day, he was suffering from another one. The president, according to White House files spent over an hour (from 5:30 p.m. – 6:40 p.m.) with his physician. 

It is important to note two important details from that time. One is that President Roosevelt’s medical records were missing or deleted after his death. So, an exact copy of his treatments with McIntyre is not exactly known. 

We do know that the antibiotics that we take (literally) for granted today in the treatment for sinus infections, didn’t exist in 1941. So, McIntyre’s goal on December 7, was to shrink the president’s mucous membrane in his nasal cavity, without causing his nose to crust, and improve Roosevelt’s ability to breathe.

Dr. Ross T. McIntyre, physician to FDR. Wikipedia photo

Cocaine Was a Commonly Used Drug In The 1940s, And By Addicts

One treatment during the day was to irrigate or flush the sinuses where a needle pumped saline solution into the president’s sinus cavity and then a machine would suck out the saline and mucous, improving the breathing. The doctor would then use cotton swabs to clean out any residue. This was witnessed many times and was noted by Cabinet members right after Pearl Harbor.  It would have to be conducted daily during the 1940s. 

However, another method during the era was to shrink the sinuses employing Cocaine. While Cocaine was illegal in the United States without a prescription in the 1940s, it was still used by doctors for a variety of maladies as anesthesia and for vasoconstriction. McIntyre would have likely applied cocaine directly to the sinuses using cotton swabs. The cocaine would shrink the sinus tissue, which would bring the First Patient immediate relief, while also numbing the sinus cavity. This would be followed by flushing it all out with the saline solution. 

Back then, the cocaine solution was diluted to 1-4% so that it may have been doubtful that it impacted FDR’s behavior on that fateful night. But it is known that he worked late into the night tweaking his speech, ignoring the urging of Secretary of State Cordell Hull that he make it a marathon speech.

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The sun. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 15 Feb. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
One question many people have is that “Did FDR know he was using cocaine?” and the answer to that is that it is very doubtful. Back then, doctors already knew about the highly addictive nature of the drug, so they often didn’t tell their patients exactly what they were being treated with. And by not telling FDR that was being treated with cocaine, it was believed that possibility that the chances of addiction would be less.  Or at least they believed so at the time.  This was nothing to sneeze at(pardon the pun), as you see above the scourge of drug addiction was a real problem even in the early 20th century.  In 1914 this feature story below from the New York Sun titled, “The Drug Terror” claimed that the U.S. was the most drugged-up country on earth with 4.45% of our population using Cocaine.

 

Regardless of whether FDR was under the influence of cocaine …or not. His speech was one of the great moments for a president facing a huge crisis. Watch it in its entirety here: 

 

 

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