Thus it was that, after much maneuvering, the GOP nominated Willkie at its convention in Philadelphia in June, and the Democrats renominated Roosevelt a month later in Chicago. Dunn writes: “The unimaginable had happened. The Democrats had broken with the 150-year-old two-term tradition and renominated a president who, with guile and steel, had bent his party to his will. The GOP had nominated a party newcomer who had never held office and never participated in party affairs. One candidate had been born to wealth and privilege but embraced the interests of the poor; the other was a self-made utilities magnate with ties to Wall Street. What they both had in common was a commitment to social justice and equality and a lucid understanding of the grave crisis abroad. They both knew that 1940 was not a year to fight the election of 1936 all over again and debate the New Deal. On the contrary, the one central issue of the campaign had been decided in Germany.”
Probably it is difficult for many if not most Americans today to understand, accustomed as they are to living in the world’s greatest power with a vast string of international connections and obligations, but in 1940 Americans remembered the mindless bloodshed of World War I all too vividly and hated the thought of being immersed in it once more. There was also more than a little sympathy for Hitler’s fascist regime. Lindbergh was infatuated with “German dynamism, technology, and military might,” and his wife, the talented writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was no less smitten. In the late 1930s she wrote in her diary that Hitler “is a very great man, like an inspired religious leader — and as such rather fanatical — but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power, but a mystic, a visionary who really wants the best for his country and on the whole has rather a broad view.”
The Lindberghs’ astonishing credulousness about Hitler was accompanied, alas, by a strong streak of anti-Semitism. Eventually Anne Morrow Lindbergh came to regret and repent this, but in September 1940, in a speech in Des Moines, her husband said: “The British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” Plenty of Americans agreed with him, even if many of them were less vocal about making known their sentiments.
As the campaign intensified, Willkie made a few gestures to the isolationists, but he quickly regretted them and left no doubt about how deeply he loathed fascism. This may not have helped him when the country voted — he lost to FDR by 449 electoral votes to 82, though the popular vote was somewhat less decisive — but afterward he proved an effective supporter of Roosevelt’s policies, especially the Lend-Lease arrangement that enabled the United States to give England about 50 used destroyers, and the two men established a genuine if wary friendship. Few losing candidates have acquitted themselves as honorably as he did.
“1940” is a useful account of an important time in American history, though to my taste it is rather diminished by Dunn’s tendency to wear her heart, and her political sentiments, on her sleeve. Almost every nuance of her language underscores her identification with FDR and the internationalist cause. She’s entitled, needless to say, but history written straight is almost always more reliable than history written with a slant, and “1940” underscores the point.