1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler--the Election amid the Stormby Susan Dunn
The spellbinding story of the Roosevelt-Willkie election season, when bitterly divided Americans debated the fate of the nation and the world See more details below
The spellbinding story of the Roosevelt-Willkie election season, when bitterly divided Americans debated the fate of the nation and the world
"Susan Dunn's gripping book shows us that the further we get from 1940, the more obvious it is that this moment was a turning point for Western civilization. With fresh research and original insights, Dunn allows us to watch and assess such figures as FDR, Hitler and Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Wendell Willkie, Henry Wallace, Joseph Kennedy and others as they play out their roles, large and small, in the horrifying, onrushing drama. Anyone today who believes that U.S. involvement and the ultimate Allied triumph in World War II was inevitable must read this important history."—Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage
"A brilliant portrait of an America in transition. . . . Captivating. . . . Few years turn out to be as perilous as 1940, or as portentous."—David M. Shribman, Wall Street Journal
“Dunn superbly depicts the 1940 election between Roosevelt, who was seeking an unprecedented third term, and his internationalist Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie.”—Jacob Heilbrunn, New York Times Book Review (cover review, Editor's Choice selection)
“Some elections really are watersheds. A gripping narrative of the dramatic 1940 contest for the White House.”—Harvard magazine
“Indeed, in subtle but sophisticated fashion, Dunn offers a celebratory account of the triumph of American democracy, showing the importance of moderation and compromise to the successful functioning of politics in the country. Her book is required reading for political historians of modern America.”—Nancy Beck Younger, University of Houston
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FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitlerthe Election amid the Storm
By SUSAN DUNN
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Susan Dunn
All rights reserved.
Mystery in the White House
On the mild November morning of election day, November 5, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, and his mother, Sara, cast their votes in Hyde Park's little town hall. "Your name, please," said the young chairwoman of the election board. "Franklin D. Roosevelt," came the hearty reply. She nodded but did not ask his occupation, as she had four years ago when Mr. Roosevelt replied, "Farmer." This time the question was unnecessary, she said, "because everybody knows who he is."
Outside, a jovial Roosevelt posed patiently for photographers. "Will you wave to the trees, Mr. President?" asked one of them. "Go climb a tree!" Roosevelt said with a laugh before obediently waving at the trees for the cameras. Dutchess County, with its majestic elms and maples, its farms and tranquil estates along the Hudson River, was Franklin Roosevelt's boyhood home, the place to which he always returned—yet he could be sure that this year, as in 1932 and 1936, he would fail to carry the county.
That morning, Roosevelt's Republican opponent, Wendell L. Willkie, and his wife, Edith, accompanied by their 20-year-old son, Philip, a student at Prince ton, voted at Public School 6 on Madison Avenue and Eighty-Fifth Street in New York City, a few blocks from their apartment on Fifth Avenue. During the campaign, the thoughtful, pro-business Willkie had attacked Roosevelt's economic policies, arguing that they stifled growth. But Willkie was also an internationalist who repeatedly stressed to voters that "our way of life is in competition with Hitler's way of life." He adamantly ruled out any compromise with fascist aggression or with "religious and racial persecution or the destruction of human lives and liberty." As the Willkies entered the school, people on the sidewalk cheered, "We want Willkie!" Surrounded by flashing news cameras, the boyishly handsome candidate smiled broadly and waved to the crowd. Before returning home, he drove through Central Park and then along Riverside Drive. Afterward he rested and then left for his headquarters at the Commodore Hotel.
Ten miles away, in Englewood, New Jersey, Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, lunched at the home of Anne's mother, Elizabeth Morrow, before going to the polls. Lindbergh hoped that Willkie would win the presidency. "I do not believe he is a great leader," he confided to his diary that day, "and I doubt that he has much understanding of the problems in Europe, but regardless of these failings, I think he would be far preferable to Roosevelt." The fearless young aviator with a disarming smile, whose unprecedented thirty-three-hour, trans-Atlantic flight in the single-engine, single-seat Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927 had thrilled the world, was now the principal spokesman for American isolationism. Intoxicated with admiration for Nazi Germany's advances in aviation, he had hammered Roosevelt for failing to appease Hitler, sourly blaming him for having "alienated the most powerful military nations of both Europe and Asia." Lindbergh's wife pitched in, too. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's eloquent, best-selling book The Wave of the Future, published just that October, predicted a new dynamic and dazzling age of fascism in the United States.
No candidate ever felt secure until the votes were counted, commented Roosevelt's attorney general Robert Jackson. FDR, too, Jackson said, "never overlooked or discounted the possibilities of defeat." In 1932, Roosevelt had easily triumphed over incumbent Herbert Hoover, carrying forty-two states to Hoover's six. Four years later, at Hyde Park on election night, as the astonishing results trickled in, FDR leaned back in his chair, blew a ring of cigarette smoke at the ceiling, and exclaimed, "Wow!" He had beaten the moderate Republican Alf Landon of Kansas by a vote of 27,752,309 to 16,682,524 and by 523 electoral votes to 8. Only the states of Maine and Vermont had gone for Landon. "ROOSEVELT ELECTED BY LANDSLIDE," announced newspapers all over the country on November 4, 1936. It was a "Democratic tidal wave," marveled the Washington Post. The confetti and ticker tape that rained down on the crowd in New York's Times Square on election eve "reached blizzard proportions," according to the New York Times.
But this time was different. Now the president had good reason to be nervous. He had a strong and intelligent opponent in Wendell Willkie, who for months had been pounding away at the "third-term candidate." In addition, Lindbergh and the powerful isolationist movement had mounted a virulent offensive against Roosevelt, and the GOP had made a striking comeback in the 1938 midterm elections. Though Democrats kept their majorities in both chambers of Congress, Republicans picked up eight Senate seats, nearly doubled their strength in the House, and even gained a dozen new governorships. Two days after that election, syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that it was "not too rash" to predict a total Republican victory in 1940.
In November 1940, voters all over the country were once again judging their president. They could think back to the abyss of the Great Depression and the avalanche of legislation during FDR's first and second hundred days, new programs that gave Americans new economic security, protection for their homes and farms, labor rights, a minimum wage, and even electricity. But in the last six months, a shift had taken place as the international crisis eclipsed the New Deal. This year, the election was taking place against a background of world catastrophe as Japanese warplanes attacked China and as European democracies from Norway to France yielded to the shocking speed of Hitler's army of fire and steel, his relentlessly advancing troops, tanks, and screaming dive-bombers. While politicians on all sides of the political spectrum spoke about the importance of preparedness and a strong defense, American boys registered not for Civilian Conservation Corps camps or for Works Progress Administration jobs but instead for the country's first peacetime draft, and tens of thousands of workers flocked to new jobs in defense plants that were turning out planes, ships, and weapons.
The weekend before Election Day, the Gallup poll reported that Roosevelt still held the lead but that there appeared to be a strong trend toward Willkie. George Gallup, the head of the American Institute of Public Opinion, a Republican and a Willkie supporter, judged that it would be the closest election in a quarter century. The competing Dunn survey of indicators of public opinion was less circumspect, confidently predicting that Willkie would win with 364 electoral votes. "This fellow Willkie is about to beat the Boss," said a worried Harry Hopkins, FDR's close advisor.
And all around the country, Willkie received enthusiastic endorsements from the largely Republican national press. A rare editorial voice in Roosevelt's corner was the Chicago Defender, the nation's largest African American newspaper. "No administration in our history," the Defender reminded its readers, "has done more than the New Deal to achieve economic and social democracy.... It would be suicidal for the masses to place their faith in Wendell Willkie who promises everything from a bag of peanuts to a shooting star." But almost every major newspaper in America favored Willkie. "His election as President would be most likely to preserve the traditional restraints and balances of the American system of government," wrote the New York Times as it condemned Roosevelt's "impatience" with the two other branches of government. "The indispensable man in this time of national crisis is Wendell Willkie," editorialized the Los Angeles Times. Papers like the Hartford Courant and the Washington Post concurred. If Willkie is elected, the Post wrote, "we are willing to predict that he will make a truly great President of the United States." William Allen White, the famous editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette and Theodore Roosevelt's old friend, also came out for Willkie. Whereas FDR had always lived on inherited wealth, White wrote, Willkie had risen from modest origins in Indiana to the pinnacle of success as the head of the Commonwealth and Southern Corporation, the nation's largest electric utility holding company. The GOP candidate "has what it takes," White concluded. "And best of all he is fighting for the old hard way of American life. We are for Willkie."
Also rooting for Willkie were the Nazis. "Despite Willkie's almost outdoing the President in his promises to work for Britain's victory," wrote CBS's sharp foreign correspondent William Shirer from Berlin, "the Nazis ardently wished the Republican candidate to win." Shirer surmised that the Germans believed that even if Willkie turned out to be their enemy, they would at least have several months of indecision before he could hit his stride, a period of delay from which they could profit.
It was a bleak autumn. Across the Atlantic, the hooked-cross Nazi flag fluttered atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and German soldiers goose-stepped in frightening precision up the Champs-Elysées with a brass band every day at noon. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe planes barreled out of the sky over Britain, carpeting London, Liverpool, and Midland industrial centers with thousands of tons of high-explosive bombs and tens of thousands of incendiary devices. In late October, Pierre Laval, the blatantly anti-British vice premier of unoccupied Vichy France, approvingly declared that democracy was dead all over the world. His evidence: the almost unopposed Nazi victories in Europe. The future of France, Laval asserted confidently, lay in collaboration with Germany.
The humanism of Western civilization and the essence of Christian morality, the peerless legacy of the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson's immortal affirmation of the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all stood on the brink of annihilation. On November 5, 1940, a front-page story in the New York Times reported that British planes were bombing Italy's Adriatic ports to help Greece fend off an Italian assault.
On that day, while much of the world reeled from violence and chaos, an orderly, free election was calmly taking place in the United States at its regular, constitutionally appointed time. Millions of American men and women woke up in their peaceful towns and cities. They had breakfast, walked or drove to the polls, cast their votes, and then, as usual on a late-autumn Tuesday, went to work. In those democratic rituals and ordinary routines of everyday life lay certitude, safety, and happiness.
"Hold on to your hats, boys, I'm going to run for a third term!" cried a sprightly, tap-dancing Franklin Roosevelt in the fall of 1937. Cheers from the balcony and a chorus of boos from the expensive orchestra seats loudly commingled in the Music Box Theatre in New York. Every evening, Broadway star George M. Cohan transformed himself into a nimble FDR in the sparkling Kaufman, Rodgers, and Hart musical spoof I'd Rather Be Right. The president had not seen the show, but he enjoyed what he had heard about it. "Grace—take a law," Roosevelt would often say to his secretary Grace Tully when he wanted to dictate something, happily borrowing a line from the show.
While Cohan's president buoyantly sang out his political intentions, the real Franklin Roosevelt played a cautious and even mystifying game. Indeed, for three more years, the president, with his usual finesse, would tap-dance around the possibility of running for an unprecedented third term.
In another more political theater known as the White House, Roosevelt performed at his twice-weekly press conferences. On Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings, reporters filed into his office, eager to pepper him with questions. Sitting behind his desk, a cigarette in a holder jutting rakishly from his mouth, the president smiled in welcome. He excelled at cultivating friendly relations with journalists—if not with their typically Republican publishers. Usually in a genial mood and often quite candid—"I cannot tell a lie—like George Washington," he occasionally said—Roosevelt was ready for a laugh, even if only at his own jokes.
Would the president care to comment on suggestions that he run for a third term? a reporter asked in June 1937, just eight months after Roosevelt's reelection victory. Mr. Roosevelt listened to the question and replied that the weather was very hot. The New York Times's reporter Robert Post tried again. "Mr. President, would you tell us now if you would accept a third term?" "Put on a dunce cap and go stand in the corner," the president said to Post with a laugh.
But over the next two years, speculation naturally mounted as reporters persisted in trying to glean some insight about his intentions. By June 1939, the president showed his impatience. When another intrepid reporter asked once more if he would be a candidate in 1940, for a few seconds, the president did not answer. Then, dropping his customary amiable façade, he admonished him to go stand in a corner—this time without a laugh. But reporters still drooled for news, and the president finally realized that showing irritation at third-term questions got him nowhere. Humor and deft evasion were not only more effective but also, as the New York Times wrote as 1939 drew to a close, "infinitely more puzzling."
For Europe, the year of 1939 was cataclysmic, climaxing in the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, the Nazi invasion of Poland, and British and French declarations of war against Germany. But in the United States, for Americans seeking relief from crises abroad, 1939 was the year of the Riddle.
In offices and living rooms, on railroad trains and buses, in city luncheonettes, small-town corner drugstores, and farm kitchens—all over the nation, wherever politics was discussed—people debated the president's intentions. "All-Absorbing Political Riddle," proclaimed one headline in the New York Times. A Washington columnist noted with satisfaction that the third-term mystery "is good for several million words of conversation daily."
By not talking about his intentions, Walter Lippmann observed, FDR had indeed bestowed upon the nation a timely and welcome "diversion from the grim realities of the world." And the president's game was becoming "subtler and subtler," Lippmann wrote. With little more to go by than a few skillfully planted clues, some true and some false, Americans, like Agatha Christie's popular fictional detective, the elegant Hercule Poirot, had to resort to "imagination, intuition, and brain-power" to figure out how FDR's mind worked and solve the third-term puzzle.
In December 1939 in the ballroom of the Willard Hotel in Washington, the riddle in the White House provided fodder for a musical skit at the all-male winter dinner of the Gridiron Club, the prestigious organization of American journalists. While the president and a crowd of tuxedoed foreign ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and other Washington insiders watched, a group of reporters, dressed as Democratic Bedouins, gathered around an eight-foot-tall papier-mâché Sphinx that wore an engaging Roosevelt smile and sported a long cigarette holder at a jaunty angle. The Bedouins crooned:
One alone can make it known You, alone, what is your decision? Will you run? Or are you done? Will you be, eternally, the one To hold our party's nomination? We come to you, the way we always do. It rests with you alone.
The flesh-and-blood president, marvelously beguiled, asked that the Sphinx be donated to the presidential library and museum he was planning in Hyde Park.
Skits were also performed that night at the competing Gridiron Widows dinner, hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. A Gridiron wife, playing the role of Mrs. Roosevelt, suggested staging a roundup to look over possible 1940 first ladies and see how they "will carry on the splendid work begun by Franklin and myself. That is," she added significantly, "if there is to be a change in first ladies."
Excerpted from 1940 by SUSAN DUNN. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Susan Dunn is the Third Century Professor of Humanities at Williams College. She is the author of a dozen books, including The Three Roosevelts, cowritten with James MacGregor Burns, and Roosevelt’s Purge, winner of the Henry Adams Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history. She lives in Williamstown, MA.
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With all of the endless prattle about the greatest generation one may be excused if in doubt about the eagerness and resolve of the American people to enter World War 2. Dunn shows with a deft and illuminating touch that isolationist and pacifist sentiment ran very high in 1940, and that both political parties had to make obesiance at the shrine of non-intervention. The description of the political conventions in that summer was a reminder of a day when those gathering were more than week-long television commercials, and when the nominees were in doubt. The denouement, with Wilkie travelling to Britain after his defeat, to act as FDR's representative was a bit of a letdown, but the dismissal of Joe Kennedy, one of the least effective American ambassadors to the Court of St. James in the history of the Republic, made up for it.