Benjamin C. Waterhouse is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of “Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA” and “The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States.”
For Americans who even know the name, Wendell Willkie is the answer to a trivia question — the third of four Republicans who lost presidential elections to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The election of 1940, when recalled at all, invokes the norm-shattering third term Roosevelt won. Willkie hardly merits a mention.
Yet to ignore that election and the man who lost it is to miss a vision of American politics that might have been. So argues David Levering Lewis, a history professor emeritus at New York University and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, in “The Improbable Wendell Willkie.” With meticulous attention to detail, Lewis recounts the life story of an intriguing character: a longtime Democrat who retained his Midwestern affect as he scaled the heights of corporate and political power — thus mocked by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes as a “simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer.”
This biography is one part political yarn, one part love letter to an extinct creature: the liberal Republican. Willkie himself lost the White House in a blowout and died, unexpectedly at age 52, shortly before Roosevelt’s final reelection in 1944. Nonetheless, the author argues, Willkie’s embrace of internationalism and acceptance of the New Deal recalibrated the Republican Party and reshaped postwar American politics.
Those who long for a Republican Party committed to international engagement, civil and human rights, and a reasonable debate about the role of government in economic life will find much to cheer in Lewis’s portrait. Willkie was an anti-racist candidate who cultivated support from African American voters and, in 1942, persuaded the Republican National Committee to support racial integration — years before most national politicians. Willkie the policy pragmatist backed a regulated market economy, collective bargaining rights and Social Security — “virtually a point-for-point endorsement of the New Deal,” his conservative critics fumed. And most important, Willkie the internationalist bucked his party’s isolationists in the lead-up to World War II, cementing American support for besieged Britain.
Deeply researched and engagingly paced, the book weaves Willkie’s life into the fabric of U.S. history. With attention that borders on reverence, Lewis introduces the young populist raised in the Democratic traditions of both William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. As the 1920s roared, the young lawyer established himself in Democratic politics in Akron, Ohio, attending, in 1924, the first of four nominating conventions for the party he would eventually run against.
Meanwhile, he made his fortune. A heavy smoker whose only exercise involved slowly sauntering outside for a few minutes each day, Willkie found that “recreation was directorships and multiple board memberships.” On the eve of the Great Crash in 1929, Wall Street beckoned, and Willkie moved to Manhattan as legal counsel to a utility holding company. He soon became its president.
As the public face of the utilities industry, Willkie began his slow transformation from corporate Democrat to Republican challenger. The government-run Tennessee Valley Authority threatened to out-compete local monopolies like Willkie’s. Faced with anti-TVA activism, Roosevelt pushed for “the abolition of the evil of holding companies” in 1935, and Willkie gained national fame as a leader of the opposition over the next several years. Moderate Republicans saw potential and nominated him to take on the president.
To the chagrin of many Republicans, candidate Willkie explained that his opposition to government economic programs was limited, and that he agreed that Wall Street malfeasance had caused the Depression. The challenge, as he saw it, was to preserve democracy from the threat of a third-term presidency. “The creed of liberalism he embraced opposed equally unregulated wealth and unlimited government power,” Lewis writes.
What really defined Willkie’s legacy, however, was his opposition to isolationism. Accepting the nomination as Adolf Hitler’s armies swept across Western Europe, Willkie passionately championed the Anglo-American alliance. On the campaign trail, he refused to attack Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program or the draft. His repudiation of anti-Semitic right-wing isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee diluted their political potency. Any other Republican candidate, Lewis concludes, would have obstructed the president, strengthened the already-strong isolationist factions on the right, and left Britain to its fate.
For years after the campaign, when he learned of Willkie’s death, Roosevelt affirmed the candidate’s importance, giving him credit for Lend-Lease and the draft. “He was a godsend to this country when we needed him most,” Roosevelt declared.
In 1942, as a private citizen but titular head of the “loyal opposition,” Willkie undertook a seven-week airplane journey around the world. He visited nine countries and met with world leaders including Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The trip cemented his devotion to liberal internationalism and Roosevelt’s fledgling plans for what would become the United Nations. His travel report, published as “One World” in 1943, offered a new vision of anti-imperialist and democratic global order.
In the end, though, Lewis’s subtitle — “The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order” — promises more than Willkie’s too-short life delivered. Certainly, old-fashioned isolationism declined after the United States entered the war, and for a brief moment in the mid-1940s, a new global order rooted in national self-determination and Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” seemed in the offing. Yet Lewis’s claim that Willkie saved the Republican Party from corrosive illiberalism of isolationists, racists and imperialists goes too far. In hindsight, his was at best a stopgap measure. In the postwar period, Lewis admits, the GOP embraced “a more belligerent anti-communism that became indistinguishable from imperialism in all but name.” The very term “one world,” coined by Willkie, became an epithet of illiberal politics, the precursor to today’s anti-Semitic slur “globalists.”
In the same vein, Willkie did not ensure a permanent accord between the GOP and New Deal liberalism. Some corporate liberals accepted economic regulation in the public interest, but a growing and well-funded subset of executives, lobbyists and activists did not. Eventually, they would recapture the party in the name of “free enterprise.”
It is clear that Willkie’s vision of liberal Republicanism was short-lived. But it is impossible to say how, had he lived, he might have shaped the struggle over liberal capitalism that defined midcentury America. History can be fickle like that.
By David Levering Lewis
Liveright. 400 pp. $28.95