Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pre-World War II Politics: FDR's Third Term

1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler---the Election Amid the Storm, by Susan Dunn

This is the third of three recent books to be published on the political landscape in the United States in the years just prior to the nation’s entry into World War II. (Two other titles have been previously reviewed in this blog: Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, by Lynne Olson, and Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and Into the World, by Michael Fullilove.) The first book took a broad view of the national debate and the involvement of citizen groups across the isolationist and internationalist divide. Rendezvous with Destiny looks primarily at the international connections Roosevelt was pursuing during these critical years. 

1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election Amid the Storm focuses on the Presidential election of 1940. The strength of Dunn’s book is her exposition of the political dynamic that existed among international events, policy initiatives of the Roosevelt administration, and the Presidential campaign of 1940. Of the three books, this book is the one that readers interested in campaign politics and electoral history will like the best. It begins with a mystery that Dunn never seems able to fully answer: Why and when did Roosevelt decide that he would seek an unprecedented third term? In retrospect this seems one of the most extraordinary gambles in American political history, for although the author gives us some background that suggests that the idea of a President refraining from seeking a third term was not really so hallowed a tradition as anti-Roosevelt partisans might claim--suggesting that two terms became common more out of exigency than choice--it was one of the major issues of the campaign, and might have proven decisive if the nation had not felt that it was on the brink of an extraordinary period of crisis.


Voters decided in the end that Roosevelt was the best person to lead the nation in this time of uncertainty and looming crisis. Ninety-one percent of Democrats polled before the election were in favor of a third term, but it was the support that Roosevelt won from independents and some Republicans on this issue that was critical to his reelection. In a Gallup poll taken shortly after the election, 53% of voters said they would have voted for Wendell Willkie if there had not been a war going on in Europe. 

Dunn gives us examples of the contradictory comments Roosevelt made about running again to insiders and to the press; some were playful and cryptic, teasing that he might run, other remarks seemed to indicate rather conclusively that he would not. He had a reputation for being coy and evasive, and some commentators referred to him as “the Sphinx.” Dunn recounts some of the exchanges at press conferences between Roosevelt and reporters, and they indicate a relationship of easy camaraderie and deft manipulation. Certainly there was calculation in his ambiguity, for it allowed him to, as we say these days, “float a trial balloon” on the subject as well as keep at bay any potential rivals for the Democratic nomination. We understand from Dunn’s book how Roosevelt successfully orchestrated the run for a third term, but it remains unclear why he sought it. Opponents would claim it was simply a reluctance to relinquish power. Roosevelt may have been concerned, at least in part, about preserving the legacy of the New Deal. His choice of Henry Wallace to be his running mate, although that decision too remains cryptic in Dunn’s account, may be some evidence of that. But ultimately his decision seems to have hinged on his own assessment of who could best lead the nation in a time of impending crisis. His reason to run again might have been based on a characteristically confident and egotistical conclusion, that he alone was the best person to lead America through the coming crisis. It was an assessment that also might very well have been true. It is unclear what other potential candidates in his party could have commanded such broad public trust and support, could have won the election, or had the political skills to lead the nation as successfully as he could at the time.

If there is a hero of Dunn’s story, it is Wendell Willkie. Willkie is one of the most interesting also-rans in the history of American Presidential politics, one of the people about whom you wonder what might have been. He was a popular and charismatic figure, a successful businessman from small-town Indiana who ended up running one of the largest corporations in America. Unlike the aristocratic Roosevelt, he came from humble beginnings, and his personal story seemed to many to embody the American dream. Willkie had never run for public office before. This was both an attraction and a liability, for rather than using caution and political wiles, he spoke with an integrity and forthrightness that often cost him political support. In the campaign his party tried to make the third term a major issue, but he had written in the June 4, 1940 issue of Look magazine that the number of years a President served was of “no importance, and what mattered was the attitude of the individual holding the office for whatever number of years.” Willkie supported most of the New Deal, and he was also a confirmed internationalist, arguing strongly for U.S. support of Great Britain, and maintaining that this was the best way to keep the United States out of the war in Europe.

Willkie’s nomination had been engineered largely by the progressive eastern establishment of the Republican Party, and Dunn does a fine job of showing how influential was the support of major publishers in creating a public profile for Willkie and in securing him the Republican nomination. Roosevelt was at odds on the war and America’s international role with a vocal isolationist faction of his own party, but the broad base of national isolationist sentiment was located in the ranks of the Republican Party. Willkie found himself at odds with a sizable portion of his own party, and he never really successfully mended fences with those voters. He was closer on issues to Roosevelt than any other potential nominee of his party would have been, something that gave him the best chance of defeating Roosevelt, but also made it difficult as a candidate for him to distinguish himself from Roosevelt. He was a newcomer with unknown qualities of leadership running against an experienced and trusted leader during a period of national crisis. Dunn’s analysis of the confusion and changing strategy of the Willkie campaign is some of the most interesting material in her book. She also gives Willkie high praise for his very public and influential role representing the “loyal opposition” after the campaign, his support of Lend-Lease, and his efforts to help present to the rest of world a united American political front in support of the Allies. 


The anti-heroes of 1940 are clearly Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy. They make appearances throughout the book, and Dunn’s critique of each is thorough and her contempt palpable---readers aren’t left to wonder about Dunn’s opinions, and this might make readers who prefer a more distanced narrator uncomfortable. Kennedy served as Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain, and was at odds with Roosevelt over the importance the President attached to supporting the British. He was certain that Britain would be defeated by the Nazis, and was opposed to offering American support. He gave Roosevelt a rather unenthusiastic endorsement for reelection, and was eased out of the ambassadorship shortly after the election. Roosevelt, after a 10-minute private meeting with Kennedy at Hyde Park, told his wife, “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live! Get him out of here!” Kennedy later referred to Roosevelt as “that crippled son of a bitch.” Dunn also quotes Kennedy’s frequent anti-Semitic remarks. She gives us a portrait of Lindbergh as an admirer of Hitler, an appeaser, and an anti-Semite. While some others have found Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s The Wave, published during the campaign season of 1940, a rather inchoate and confusing ramble, Dunn finds it to be an unabashedly pro-fascist tract. Throughout the 1940 campaign season the isolationists in America were embittered, and felt alienated from the system in that neither of the candidates represented their point of view.

1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler---the Election Amid the Storm is a book that shows us American politics at work during a time of crisis and passionate national division. If there is a lesson about the nature of the American political system to be learned here, perhaps it is that political rhetoric seems to reach extremes in times when one of the major political parties has sharp and unbridgeable divisions within its own ranks. The ability to reach an internal party consensus seems somehow to translate into a more civil discourse between opposing parties in our two-party system.

1 comment:

Becky said...

I was so excited to stumble across your blog. I think this book looks amazing! I am fascinated with political thrillers and in fact just finished one that centers around the JFK assassination... "No One Can Know" by Adrienne LaCava. Mystery stories surrounding our past Presidents are so fascinating to read about- they appeal to all ages, genders, and races- at least this is what I thought of as I read through "No One Can Know." I will have to check out "Pre-World War II Politics: FDR's Third Term" Thank you again for recommending it.