Roosevelt, Churchill, and…Willkie?

Charles Peters on how a little-known utilities executive saved civilization.

The big difference between Charles Peters, founding editor of this magazine, and those of us who came to work for him over the years is this: He believes in idealism while we want to believe in idealism.

Peters is part of the celebrated Greatest Generation that lived through the Depression, World War II, and the New Frontier—a time when the American political process called forth leaders who inspired the public to service and sacrifice. We, on the other hand, members of the generations that followed, came of age in very different times—Vietnam, Watergate, the Carter and Reagan years, the Clinton wars—when something like the opposite spirit has been ascendant. We look back on the character of that earlier era with admiration and some envy. We wish the country could be like that again. We know that the immense challenges America faces today—rising oil prices, the war in Iraq, the coming fiscal train wreck—will be very difficult to overcome if Americans and their political leaders cannot rise above their self-interest for the greater good. But little in our experience of American politics makes us think this will occur or even allows us to imagine how it might occur.

Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing “We Want Willkie!” Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World by Charles Peters

Thankfully, Peters has written a book that vividly recreates how, once, it did happen—the American electoral process, amidst bitter partisan divisions and backroom manipulation, produced a stunningly wise, beneficent, and forward-looking result. Five Days in Philadelphia is about the 1940 Republican convention. Peters brings this largely forgotten event delightfully to life with details plucked from archives, his own memory of the times, and a persuasive, How-the-Irish-Saved-Civilization-style argument that the convention was a pivotal moment in world history.

In Philadelphia that July, an isolationist and conservative GOP, desperate to deny Franklin Delano Roosevelt a third term, chose as its candidate a liberal internationalist, Wendell Willkie. And though Willkie did not in the end defeat FDR, he did something almost as consequential: He gave the president the crucial political running room he needed to ask the voters to make sacrifices in preparation for war. “If we can understand how and why people rose to their best,” Peters writes, with characteristic clarity about the point he’s trying to make, “then maybe we can make it happen again.”

Conventional wisdom

It is hard to exaggerate how desperate the world situation was in the run-up to the convention. In April, Hitler’s forces conquered Norway and Denmark. In May, they invaded Holland and Belgium. FDR knew that it was crucial for America to supply France and Great Britain with weaponry and to build up its own military forces. He also knew that time was running out. Yet over 80 percent of the public still opposed getting involved in the war. Congress had put severe restrictions on the president’s ability to arm the allies. And going into the GOP convention, the party’s top three presidential candidates, Arthur Vandenberg, Robert Taft, and Thomas E. Dewey, were all isolationists.

There were a few in the GOP who understood the gravity of the Nazi threat. Many were New York-establishment types—Wall Street bankers and media luminaries with business and personal connections in Europe. These individuals were looking for a candidate who shared their internationalist outlook, but whose biography and personality would appeal to the party’s small-town base and to voters at large.

Their attention quickly focused on Wendell Willkie, an Indiana-born utilities industry executive who, though politically astute and involved, had never run for public office. Willkie lived in Manhattan, moved easily among the literati, and was in most respects a liberal; indeed, Peters’s research shows that he did not switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican until 1939 or 1940. But he had broken with FDR over federal regulation of the power industry. He hailed from a small town in Indiana and still cut his hair “country style,” like Will Rogers, with one lock falling onto his forehead. And by all accounts, he was tremendously impressive and likable. “He was a big, shambling, rumpled, overweight, carelessly dressed man,” wrote one of his New York friends, Marcia Davenport, “and he radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth.”

The brain trust that soon gathered around Willkie came up with a strategy for winning the nomination that any outsider candidate today would do well to study. Sam Pryor, a Republican national committeeman from Connecticut, wrested control over what was, in those days, one of the key resources to winning the nomination: tickets into the convention hall. Media mogul Henry Luce used his magazines to promote Willkie’s candidacy shamelessly. New York Herald Tribune book editor Irita Van Doren, Willkie’s mistress, helped the candidate hone his message. A young lawyer named Oren Root Jr. organized Willkie Clubs around the country—historic precursors to Howard Dean’s Meetups.

Indeed, there was much about the maverick operation that sounds familiar to modern ears, from the way the campaign consciously marketed Willkie as a straight-talking non-politician to the candidate’s skill at stroking the egos of an adoring press. The weekend before the convention, two bigfoot New York Times reporters, Arthur Krock and Turner Catledge, suggested to Willkie that his campaign needed a floor manager. What’s that? Willkie asked. In fact, the candidate knew perfectly well, having himself been an assistant floor manager at a previous Republican convention. The feigned ignorance, Peters suggests, was probably intended to make the journalists feel that the candidate was taking their advice. (Apparently it worked; the headline of Krock’s next column read “Willkie forces seek strategist.”)

The convention itself was one of the last in which delegates actually chose the candidates before primary voters took over that job, and it was a rip-roaring one. Peters captures the sights and sounds of what it must have been like inside the packed Philadelphia Convention Hall—“a filthy, sweaty hell of sealed-in heat,” as one attendee described it. He also provides wonderful color commentary on the often bare-knuckle tactics that each of the campaigns used to win votes. Much of the game involved impressing other delegates with the intensity of support for your candidate. Most of the delegates on the convention floor were conservative small-town folks who, though perhaps open to the logic of a Willkie candidacy, were not exactly enthusiastic about the liberal New York transplant, however hoosier his roots. Pryor solved that problem by using his control of convention tickets to pack the balconies with Willkie fans.

More than any convention in history, however, the outcome in 1940 was deeply affected by outside news events. On the eve of the convention, France fell to Germany. Movie newsreels showed French roads clogged with refugees and German troops parading through Paris. The news shocked the nation and the delegates. Though still fervently against going to war, enough delegates understood that Willkie was the only candidate who had seen the threat coming and would have the best shot at beating Roosevelt in November. On the fifth ballot, he won the nomination.

Peters devotes the latter half of the book to the crucial role Willkie played after the convention in helping FDR prepare the nation for war. Later that summer, Roosevelt was desperately trying to sell the public on the wisdom of trading 50 mothballed destroyers to Britain for West Indian naval bases. The War and Navy Departments worried that this would leave the United States itself dangerously exposed. Lawmakers and voters felt the same way. Willkie, through intermediaries, let the president know he would not attack him over the deal, a gesture, Peters argues, that gave FDR the courage to go through with it.

Even more consequential was a speech Willkie gave in August, against the advice of key aides, supporting a return of the military draft, which FDR was calling for. To stake out such a position in the midst of an election campaign before the nation was even at war (remember, Pearl Harbor was still 16 months away), it took considerable political courage. Though polls suggested that the majority of the country supported a draft, the minority that opposed it was far more intense. When the selective service bill passed in September, Sen. Hiram Johnson said that Willkie had “broken the back” of opposition to the draft.

Willkie’s position probably cost him politically. In the closing weeks of the campaign, he turned more isolationist (in rhetoric if not in substance), bashing Roosevelt for secretly plotting to get the country into war, and cut Roosevelt’s lead in half. Even after losing in November, Willkie made another vital contribution to the war effort. After touring war-torn London on FDR’s behalf, Willkie testified before Congress in favor of the president’s controversial Lend-Lease proposal to arm the allies, saying it was the “last, best chance” to keep America out of the war. With Willkie’s support, Lend-Lease passed—over the opposition, it should be noted, of his campaign opponents, Sens. Taft and Vandenberg, who had also voted against the draft bill.

Our better angels

Willkie deserves recognition as a real American political hero. He was certainly seen as such by many of the brightest minds of his time. “Under any other leadership but his,” wrote Walter Lippmann, “the Republican party in 1940 would have turned its back on Great Britain, causing all who resisted Hitler to feel abandoned.” Five Days in Philadelphia ought to go a long way towards reviving Willkie’s reputation.

But I hope the book resurrects something more. For those of us depressed by the corruption and mismanagement that the American political system has wrought lately, the book should provide hope that, under the right circumstances, that same system can turn things around.

One can question whether the circumstances are right today. Peters certainly takes pains to describe how different American culture was back then. Yet he also marvels at the role of chance and individual character. Had France not fallen just as the GOP convention was opening, or had Willkie followed other advice, history might have turned out quite differently.

The same, I think, can be said of our own time. Recall what the nation felt like immediately after 9/11. For a few brief months, we were more united than at any point in my lifetime. Had President Bush wanted to, he could have called for rescinding his tax cuts, a crash program of mandatory national service, and major reforms of NATO and the United Nations in the service of a united war on terror. The country and the world, I think, would have responded positively. It was his choice to take us in a different direction.

Or think about the last election. The candidate who most closely resembled Willkie was probably Wesley Clark. Had the former general and onetime Republican voter decided to jump into the presidential race a year earlier, chosen cleverer advisors, and not conceded Iowa, I think the probability is high that he would have won the nomination, and maybe the presidency.

Sure, these are what-ifs. But the point is, nothing is fated. In 1940, the American political process produced an almost miraculous result. Nothing says it can’t do so again.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.