A strong case can be made that the two most important presidential elections in American history took place exactly 80 years apart, in 1860 and 1940. In both of those years the United States was being drawn into war — drawn very much against its will, but drawn all the same — and the underlying issue in each election was what sort of presidential leadership the people would choose for the hard times ahead. History tells us that they chose well — Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 — but those choices were not reached easily, and the outcome remained in doubt almost until the polls closed across the nation.
The race between Lincoln and John C. Breckinridge has been amply documented, and its details are familiar to most serious readers. By contrast, the literature about the 1940 election is comparatively scanty, in part no doubt because it involved the reelection of a sitting president rather than the installation of a new one, in part because our national fascination with the Civil War extends to events preceding it, in part because the differences between Lincoln and Breckinridge were vastly greater than those between Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. But Roosevelt was far more prepared than Willkie to be president during what turned out to be the most terrible war the world has known, and thus his reelection that year was of historic importance.
Susan Dunn, who teaches at Williams College, accurately describes what was at stake as American voters went to the polls on Nov. 5, 1940: “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” as Adolf Hitler’s massive army stormed across Europe, soon to be joined across the world by the forces of imperial Japan. Yet “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.”
Before that calm day, though, there was plenty of controversy and anger. Led by the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, the forces aligned against American involvement in what was widely seen as “Europe’s war” were large, well-organized and powerfully connected both in politics and in business. Opposition to a third term for Roosevelt was equally strong; though the constitutional amendment limiting the presidency to two terms was not ratified until 1951, many Americans believed that George Washington, in declining to seek a third term, had made two terms de facto law. There were also, needless to say, many Americans who roundly detested Roosevelt; his New Deal; his wife, Eleanor; even his little dog Fala.
The Republicans, having been routed by FDR in 1932 and ’36, were confident that their moment had arrived. The problem was that they didn’t have the right candidate to seize it. Robert Taft, the senator from Ohio, was regarded by many as too conservative to win a general election; former president Herbert Hoover wanted the nomination, but the party didn’t care to repeat his loss of 1932; Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, had many admirers but also detractors who saw him as callow and shy of experience. Then, gradually, people began to look seriously at Willkie, a very successful businessman (he was “head of the vast Commonwealth and Southern Utilities Corporation that controlled the power supply of millions of Americans”) who had a deep interest in national and international affairs and was not in the least reluctant to express his firm opinions about any and all of them. He was a Midwesterner with a rumpled manner, a friendly smile and a keen sense of humor. He was also a former Democrat who acknowledged that the New Deal couldn’t and wouldn’t be repealed, and an internationalist who believed that “America had a vital interest ‘in the continuation in this world of the English, French and Norwegian way of life.’ ”
He’d never been a politician, but he had a politician’s intuition and “was following George Washington’s carefully honed script.” He “presented himself not just as a successful businessman but as a former soldier in France, a man who had no taste for power but was willing to accept the people’s call to serve.”
Roosevelt, too, was following his own careful script. On “the third-term question, Roosevelt was cryptic, calm, and cool.” He talked longingly of retiring to his beloved Hyde Park and recovering from eight years of hard political battle, but meanwhile played a crafty, patient, behind-the-scenes game: “With infinite skill and subtle vulpine dissimulation, he would manipulate the process, ingeniously orchestrating the calls from politicians and party rank and file for a third term.” No one ever will know for certain precisely what his motives were, and surely a cold desire to remain in power ranked high among them, but he also knew that the country was going to be drawn into the war and honestly believed himself best qualified to lead it.
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.
FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler —
the Election Amid the Storm
By Susan Dunn
Yale Univ. 418 pp. $30