Fear is a basic human emotion we all experience, and the great leaders of the past were no exception. These historical figures had strange and specific fears in their lifetimes that often conflict with the air of fearlessness with which they’re portrayed in history books.
10 Franklin D. Roosevelt – Fire
Though he said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt had an intense personal fear of fire. His fear was likely to stem from his childhood, when he had several frightening experiences. As a young child, he witnessed his young, screaming aunt Laura running down the stairs with her dress ablaze from a spilled alcohol lamp.
In 1899, he helped to tear up part of a parlor floor to put out a cellar blaze and participated in a bucket brigade to put out a stable fire at the nearby Groton School. Speaking of the incident later to his parents, he described the “horrible scene [. . .] the poor horses lying under the debris with their hide entirely burned off and fearfully charred [because] there was no back door.”
His phobia increased after he lost the use of his legs in the 1920s; he feared being immobilized in a burning building, unable to escape. During his presidency, his fear of fire even outweighed his fear of assassination. He refused to lock the door to the presidential bedroom at night in case of fire, forcing the Secret Service to maintain regular patrols in the hallway each night.
His wife is said to have commissioned an architect to design a special fire escape chute for him to use. It is unknown if it was ever built, but the plans are filed with the Secret Service Archives in the FDR Library. Despite his fear, Roosevelt still insisted his family Christmas tree be decorated with candles rather than electric lights.
9 Genghis Khan – Dogs
According to legend and some passages of the biographical Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan feared only three things: his mother, his wife, and dogs. When Genghis Khan was still an eight-year-old boy named Temujin, his father Yesugei met a man on the steppe named Dei-Tsetsen. Dei-Tsetsen had a daughter named Borte who was a year older than the future Khan. The two fathers agreed to a marriage between their children. Yesugei left his son with his future in-laws to work off the cost of the future dowry, warning them that “my son is afraid of dogs. My kinsman, don’t let my boy be frightened by dogs!”
Some have criticized Genghis Khan for his cowardice around dogs, but the fear was probably a wise precaution. Mongolian dogs were bred to be large and vicious, notorious for attacking and ripping apart unwary travelers. The Mongols referred to them as “big and bony brutes, long-haired and shaggy, loud-voiced and vicious, they are to be feared and avoided” and added that “they will jump at you even if you are on a horse or camel, and they are sometimes too much to handle if you are on foot.”
8 Kim Jong Il – Flying
Former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was known for a morbid fear of flying, almost always choosing to travel by armored train—even during long visits to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. His father, Kim Il Sung, once flew regularly on trips to the Soviet Union, but both father and son developed a severe distrust for air travel due to a number of incidents.
According to Ingolf Kiesow, former Swedish ambassador to North Korea, Kim Jong Il had a scar running from his forehead to the top of his head, visible when meeting in person. This was allegedly from a 1976 helicopter crash that caused serious physical injury, psychological trauma, and flashbacks later in life.
In 1982, North Korea purchased five IL-62 passenger planes from the Soviet Union to use as Kim Il Sung’s exclusive aircraft. While watching a test flight, Kim Il Sung saw the plane suddenly explode in midair and kill 17 people, including his personal pilot. It is said that neither of the Kims would consent to riding in an aircraft with a North Korean pilot after that, largely sticking to the rails, though Kim Il Sung was willing to fly with a Russian pilot to visit Gorbachev in 1986.
The new leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t appear to share the fears of his father or grandfather, frequently pictured disembarking planes and even riding in the cockpit.