Joe Zangara Interview - Attempted Assassination of FDR

Less than a month before he was sworn-in as America's 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was visiting Miami.  A man named Giuseppe ("Joe") Zangara fired five shots in an attempted assassination of the President-Elect. 

Lillian Cross, a woman who was near Zangara at the time he fired his .32 revolver, said she grabbed the gunman's arm which likely caused the shooter to miss his intended target.  (Thomas Armour, also at the scene, made the same claim.)  Despite the attempted intervention, four people received gunshot wounds and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was seriously injured.

Although FDR's driver was immediately ordered to leave Bayfront Park, where the shooting occurred, Roosevelt refused to go.  Wanting to help his friend, FDR cradled Cermak's head on his shoulder all the way to the hospital, encouraging him not to move and to remain quiet.  Doctors later said that FDR's actions likely kept Cermak from going into shock.

Roosevelt remained at the hospital four hours, trying to be a continuing source of encouragement to Cermak.  His actions in the face of an attempt on his life were closely watched and reported-on.

Seventeen days later, FDR delivered his first inaugural address, reminding Americans that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself." 

Those are bold words of encouragement, but it's fair to ask whether FDR seemed fearful when Zangara attempted to kill him.  In The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara: The Man Who Would Assassinate FDR, Blaise Picchi—in the only book devoted exclusively to the event—answers that question, assessing the significance of FDR's actions in the face of the attempt on his own life:

The people around FDR were watching him to see how this man who was about to lead a troubled nation would react to the attempt on his life. That February evening [the day of the shooting] he was still an unknown quantity.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt, virtually every word and action of the president-elect was reported to the nation ... Was he frightened?  Nervous?  Relieved that he had escaped unhurt?  Was he rattled or petulant?  He was none of those things. He appeared unfazed, calm, deliberate, cheerful - throughout the shooting itself as well as during its aftermath.

He said and did all the right things at the right times:  He stopped the car twice to pick up the wounded; he assured the crowd that he was all right; he calmly talked Cermak out of shock, and he visited the victims that night and returned to the hospital the next day with flowers, cards, and baskets of fruit.

He had met his first test under fire, and he had impressed not only his associates, but the press and the nation.  It was on this note of personal courage, graciousness, and self-confidence that he was to assume the reins of government seventeen days later.

Cermak died on March 6, 1933, two days after FDR was sworn-in as President for the first time.   Although his Zangara-inflicted wound had healed, Chicago’s mayor died because of complications.  His personal doctor told the press:

... The mayor would have recovered from the bullet wound had it not been for the complication of colitis. The autopsy disclosed the wound had healed ... the other complications were not directly due to the bullet wound.

Although the assassination attempt on FDR's life is not talked about much today, it was a defining moment in his career as America's President.  If he could remain calm in the face of personal trauma, perhaps FDR could help his country get through the Great Depression.

As for Zangara ... justice was unbelievably swift.  He'd fired his shots on February 15, 1933.   By March 20th - the following month - he was dead.  In between he'd been through a trial, refused an appeal and was electrocuted in Florida.

This historic footage includes an interview of Zangara by Raymond Moley.  Writer of most of FDR’s first inaugural - except, reportedly, for the famous line about "fear itself" - Moley eventually came to believe that FDR's policies were wrong. 

Dr. John F. McHugh - a noted Roosevelt historian and collector of FDR archival materials - tells the story which incorporates historical footage.  The clip includes an interview with Lillian Cross. 

In his interview with Moley, Zangara seems to confess that he wanted to shoot the President-Elect because he doesn’t like national leaders.  Zangara apparently had no problem with FDR as an individual; he just didn’t want him to become president.

Media Credits

Clip with Dr. John McHugh explaining historical footage and other materials from his FDR collection, online courtesy U.S. National Archives via its YouTube Channel.




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"Joe Zangara Interview - Attempted Assassination of FDR" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 19, 2020.
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