(Oct. 16, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the 1940 presidential campaign was in the “home stretch.” Franklin Roosevelt, in 1940, had served the traditional two terms which every President, since George Washington set the tradition, in 1797, had honored. Beginning with his landslide victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932, he had led the country through the worst depression in its history.
Now, however, even though the Depression was easing somewhat, (unemployment was still more than 17 percent), the world was in turmoil. The tyranny of Nazi Germany was predominant throughout Europe, and Imperial Japan was dominating the Asian-Pacific region. England, in early spring, was hoping to avoid the fall of France. If not, it would be in danger of standing alone against total European domination by Adolf Hitler.
Roosevelt, however had two problems. Even the majority of Democrats, at first, opposed a third term and the fear of involvement in the European war was prevalent. Therefore, being the masterful politician that he was, FDR stayed silent. There was even a political cartoon that depicted Roosevelt as the Sphinx, with a cigarette poised jauntily in his mouth, with the smoke rising to form a question mark. Still, he held his counsel.
One of the strong indicators of his real intention was the simple fact that he was not grooming a successor. While several old “New Dealers” were still advisors to the President, some of them, indeed, had ambitions to be the anointed one.
Roosevelt’s closest and most astute advisor, Louis Howe, had died in 1936, and Postmaster-General James Farley and Vice-President John Nance Garner (“Cactus Jack”), opposed the third term possibility and both were covetous of the nomination. Other “New Dealers” who were interested were Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Attorney General Robert Jackson and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. Harry Hopkins, now the closest man to FDR, was suffering an increasingly debilitating illness, which disqualified him, although he would remain one of the most important advisors and counselors to FDR all through World War II.
It should be noted that, in the early and mid-20th Century, presidential campaigns bore little or no resemblance to the marathon campaigns of today. Conventions happened in early summer, which chose the candidates, as state primaries were held in the Democrat delegate selection only from March 12 to June 27, 1940. The Republicans held theirs from March 17 to May 17.
Only a few of the Republican candidates entered the primaries, including Thomas E. Dewey, the “Boy Wonder” Governor of New York, and Senators Robert A. Taft, (“Mr. Republican”), and Arthur Vandenburg. Delegates were elected, but the actual party candidate was chosen at the respective conventions. Those who were committed to a candidate (most were not) were so committed only upon the first ballot. Any early or earnest campaigning was thought unseemly and unacceptable.
In the meantime, however, international events intervened. On May 10, 1940, what had been labeled the “Phony War” in Western Europe ended, with a new and frightening warfare called “Blitzkrieg” (Lightning War) overrunning Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and encroaching into the north of France. Britain sent the British Expeditionary Force to the Continent and the war was now raging.
Thus, the stage was set for the conventions in one of the most significant elections in history.
On June 24, in Philadelphia, the Republican Convention got under way. Leading up to that day, the potential candidates arrived in Philadelphia, most by train. One arrived at the 30th Street Station literally penniless, as Wendell Willkie had left his wallet behind in New York and only the generosity of the newspaper correspondents allowed him to purchase his ticket.
Willkie, however, was no pauper. Although raised poor in Indiana, he was a lawyer by profession, and had ascended to the presidency of a significant utility company, Commonwealth and Southern Corporation. He was a longtime Democrat but he had split with FDR over the construction of the dams in the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought cheap electricity to numerous families throughout the region.
He had switched parties and gained national prominence in opposing that creation, as being an unfair intrusion of the government into the business of privately owned utilities. That was the breaking point and he now sought the nomination against much better-known Republicans. He prevailed, however, being nominated on the sixth ballot over Sen. Taft, after a remarkable “We Want Willkie” movement erupted.
But, where was the President? With the Republican convention in the books, all eyes turned to Chicago. Still, with only five days to go before the convention convened there was no word from the White House. History now reports that since the untoward events in Europe, FDR wanted the nomination very badly, except, aware of the shattering of tradition, he wanted to be drafted, not seen as an active candidate for the nomination.
So, on the very eve of the convention after sending Harry Hopkins to Chicago to work his wonders, the president went cruising on the presidential yacht (while on the yacht, Sam Rosenman, his speech writer, polished up his acceptance speech!). Therefore, when in Chicago, Hopkins let it be known that the president would accept a convention draft, the delegates erupted in the old chant, “We want Roosevelt!” and the deal was done.
The convention was not without controversy, however, as Roosevelt decided to dump “Cactus Jack,” and to engineer the nomination of Henry Wallace, an unpopular figure due to his liberalism and, somewhat cult-viewing ideas.
Many political operatives did not know Wallace and other rejected candidates such as Postmaster-General Farley were grumbling. Roosevelt risked an outright revolt, so he sent Eleanor to the convention floor to give a speech and rally the faithful with at least a live Roosevelt present.
When the roll call for the vice-presidential nomination began, the outcome was not certain. Roosevelt listened carefully by radio at the White House, and the mood was tense. Roosevelt instructed Rosenman to draft a speech where, if his choice were rejected, he, also, would decline the nomination! One must pause to consider whether this was done in a fit of pique, or just as an egotistic statement of having it totally his way.
Wallace was opposed by Speaker of the House William Bankhead, a seasoned and well-known politician. As the voting progressed, Roosevelt’s White House Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Edwin (“Pa”) Watson was near tears as he recognized the risk in losing the Wallace bid.
In the end Wallace prevailed, but only by a majority of 77 votes out of 1,100. Back in Washington, Roosevelt prepared to give his acceptance speech, the first for a third-term candidate in history. It was a barn burner, and he emphasized that even though, “I yearn to go back to Hyde Park,” as Commander-in-Chief, he could not shirk his duty at this time of portending crisis. Further, by knowing Willkie’s pro-British sentiment, he was free to advocate aid to that besieged ally, recognizing that Britain’s struggle was, indeed, that of the U.S.
“We face one of the great choices of history. It is the continuance of civilization as we know it versus the ultimate destruction of all that we hold dear-religion against Godlessness; the ideal of justice against the practice of force; moral decency versus the firing squad; courage to speak out and to act versus the false lullaby of appeasement.”
Cheers echoed through the Convention Hall. Then, it was over. The gauntlet was thrown down.
Roosevelt announced that he would not campaign, but he faced two hurdles. He wanted to reinstate the draft, and he wanted to respond to Winston Churchill’s desperate plea for 50 destroyers to bolster the Royal Navy. In those matters, which became critical to both Britain’s survival and America’s readiness for World War II, history smiled — as Willkie opposed neither. He chose not to make those issues campaign issues which would have divided the electorate, and Congress.
During the summer, the destroyer deal had morphed into a “Ships for Caribbean Bases” deal, which gave America the appearance of not engaging in a giveaway, but Roosevelt needed Willkie’s help. He enlisted William Allen White, the influential editor of the Emporia Kansas Gazette who became the intermediary and again Willkie responded to the challenge, and the deal eventually passed Congress.
As the election campaign was heated up, hundreds of “Willkie for President “clubs rose throughout the country. His Midwestern style of a “good ol’ boy” was a marked contrast to the president and appealed to many, perhaps weary of the patrician nature of the chief executive. A vigorous campaigner, Willkie spoke of the need to create jobs, using private business investments, while carefully avoiding criticism of popular New Deal reforms.
Roosevelt, however, was well aware that Willkie supported aid to the Allies, as the war increased in intensity in western Europe, and this allowed the President to avoid the strident accusation of the “America First” organization claim, best echoed by Sen. Burton K. Wheeler that, if elected, Roosevelt would, “plow under every fourth American boy.”
Nevertheless, the campaigns wore on through the summer with Willkie tirelessly campaigning on the “Willkie Special” train, while the president kept the aura of Commander-in-Chief foremost in the country’s view. Willkie revived Republican strength in the Midwest through his energetic campaign and was not a pushover. He relentlessly criticized “New Deal” incompetence and railed against the break in the two-term tradition. As the polls came in, he also began to accuse FDR of “secretly” taking America into war.
Many Americans, however, still stung by the Great Depression, blamed Big Business for their misfortunes, and Willkie was a product of Wall Street, notwithstanding his Midwest roots. It was an image he could not shake, and it cost him significantly, not to mention FDR’s tremendous popularity.
Near the end of the campaign, he had “speeched” himself hoarse leaving two iconic images of him. In one, he is motoring, a bit disheveled, in an open car through his hometown of Elmhurst, Indiana, on Election Day. In the other he recorded a speech where he, frog-voiced and weary, implored voters to get out the vote.
Election day, November 5, 1940, saw yet again, a Roosevelt victory. With a voter turnout of 62.5 percent, FDR got 54.7 percent of the vote to Willkie’s 44 percent, with 449 electoral votes from 38 States,to Willkie’s 82 Electoral votes from 10 States.
Footnote; Willkie became an important ally of the president in aiding in the War effort as an emissary to Great Britain among other matters. He died October 8, 1944
For further reading: Five Days in Philadelphia; the Convention of 1940; Charles Peters Together We Cannot Fail; FDR and the American Presidency; Terry Go/way
No Ordinary Time; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in World War II; Doris Kearns Goodwin The Borrowed Years; 1938-1941 America On The Way To War; Richard Ketchum
Next week: Hitler’s Visit With Franco - Worse Than A Visit To The Dentist!
Mr. Moore writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he is a partner in the law firm of Williams, Moore, Shockley and Harrison, LLC. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org