The Greatest Convention

That was when Estes Kefauver barely defeated John Kennedy for the vice presidential nomination in 1956. The Republicans also saw a reasonably close fight between Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft in 1952, and the Democrats had another for the vice presidency between Henry Wallace and Harry Truman in 1944.

That brings us back to 1940, and the convention that had it all–the five days in Philadelphia during which the Republicans took six ballots to select a candidate. Not only was the convention exciting, but the stakes were also high: Would this country keep its head in the sands of isolationism, or would it face the menace of Adolf Hitler?

The 1940 race began with Tom Dewey, who had gained national attention as a crusading district attorney, comfortably in the lead for the Republican nomination, with over 50 percent in the Gallup poll, followed by Ohio senator Robert Taft and Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg. Although Dewey and Vandenberg would later become internationalists–and Dewey may have been a closet one even then–all three men were campaigning as isolationists, determined to keep this country out of World War II, which had started the previous September. In this regard, they probably reflected the attitudes of most Americans and certainly those of the great majority of Republicans. The Nazi conquest of Poland had settled into “the phony war,” with neither side doing much of anything. Most Americans disliked Hitler, but they felt little danger from him because the mighty British fleet appeared to control the seas, and on land, behind the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, there was the French army, widely considered to be the best in the world, standing ready to repel the Nazis.

One potential Republican presidential candidate was clearly more concerned about Hitler than the others. This was Wendell Willkie, the president of Commonwealth and Southern, a utility holding company in New York. Willkie had become a public figure because of his spirited defense of the private electric companies against the threat presented by New Deal public-power projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Born in a small town in Indiana, Willkie still had his hair cut “country-style.” He seemed to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He was also handsome, vital, and warm, with immense personal appeal. To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential. It included much of the staff of The New York Herald Tribune, the voice of the northeastern Republican establishment. Willkie had met that newspaper’s publishers, Helen and Ogden Reid, through their friend and his mistress Irita Van Doren, the Herald Tribune‘s book editor. Van Doren also introduced him to a wide range of journalists and writers, including the novelist Sinclair Lewis and his wife, the prominent columnist Dorothy Thompson.

At a conference in August 1939, Willkie met and was immediately befriended by Russell Davenport, the editor of Fortune. Through Davenport he met Henry Luce, the most powerful publisher in America. Luce, who strongly opposed Hitler, owned Life, the first and by far the most popular picture magazine whose impact at the time could only be compared to that of a combination of several of today’s television networks. Luce also owned Time, the most popular of the magazines devoted to reporting current events. Time did not hesitate to propagandize for Luce’s causes, molding the political thinking of much of the American middle class.

The great New York banks, led by Thomas Lamont of J.P. Morgan, and their Wall Street lawyers also tended to favor the allies. They had much more power and influence than they do today. Lawyers and bankers all over America were careful not to get on the bad side of the big boys from New York, who could cut them in on lucrative business.

Thus, Willkie was not without friends. But at the beginning of April their efforts had only resulted in his getting three percent in the Gallup poll, far behind Dewey, Taft and Vandenberg. But then on April 9, 1940, Hitler invaded and quickly conquered Norway and Denmark. People became more concerned about the threat from abroad, and interest in Willkie rapidly escalated. A young Wall Street lawyer named Oren Root launched a petition movement on Willkie’s behalf that quickly took fire and led to the establishment of Willkie clubs throughout the country.

On May 10, the Nazis invaded Belgium and France. Soon, the Belgians surrendered, the British were evacuated from Dunkirk, and the French army was reeling in retreat across the Seine. Willkie’s warnings about Hitler now seemed prescient. A movement that had originally seemed composed exclusively of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alumni–Alice Roosevelt Longworth said it sprang from the “grass roots of a thousand country clubs”–now expanded to include millions of average citizens. Tens of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers flocked to the Willkie clubs. Luce’s propaganda machine churned out one pro-Willkie article after another. So did two of the nation’s other most popular magazine, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. And the Herald Tribune’s influential columnists Walter Lippmann and Dorothy Thompson, as well as its editorial writers, seemed to become more passionately committed to Willkie every day.

On June 22, France surrendered. A keystone of the isolationists’ faith had crumbled–the French army had failed to hold off Hitler. Now only Britain stood between us and the Nazis, and, among Republicans, only Willkie favored all-out aid to Britain. Still, as the balloting at that week’s convention began, Willkie had only 105 votes on the first ballot. This was enough to put him ahead of Vandenberg, who seemed to have lost his stomach for the fight, but Willkie still needed 501 to win. Dewey was well out in front with 360, and seemed within striking distance of victory. But at 38, the prosecutor’s youth and inexperience worried delegates who were beginning to think that a more seasoned leader was needed to confront the grave world situation.

On the second ballot, Dewey lost 22 votes. Taft’s total improved from 189 to 203. Willkie gained the most, going from 105 to 171. Willkie’s volunteers had packed the gallery and kept chanting “we want Willkie.” That morning, the latest Gallup poll of GOP voters around the country showed Willkie had moved ahead of all of the other candidates.

Still, there were great obstacles to Willkie’s candidacy. He simply was not a typical Republican. Not only did he not share their isolationism, but he was also in many ways a liberal Democrat–on race, for example, more liberal than Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, he had only recently changed his party registration to Republican. There was also a danger that Dewey and Taft would join forces against him. They had enough votes to control the convention. But they had to move fast. Willkie was continuing to gain.

On the third ballot, he jumped into second place ahead of Taft with 259 votes. Taft gained nine for a total of 212. Dewey was still in the lead but continued to lose votes and was now down to 315. Managers for the candidates raced around the floor trying to pry delegates away from their opponents, and to keep those already on their side from defecting.

On the fourth ballot, with chants of “We Want Willkie” ringing through Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, Willkie moved ahead with 302 votes. Taft, with 254, also passed Dewey, whose total decreased to 250. Dewey and Taft managers tried to make a deal. But each of their candidates wanted to be president, with the other settling for the vice presidency. Neither man would budge.

The fifth ballot saw the collapse of Dewey’s candidacy. He got just 57 votes. The race was now between Willkie and Taft, who each added exactly the same number of votes, 123. Taft was “Mr. Republican” to most of the delegates, and probably their real preference. But Willkie had begun to have the smell of a winner; even to isolationist delegates, this meant he might be a better vote-getter than Taft, and that his presence at the head of the ticket might help lesser Republicans get elected.

The large delegation from Michigan, which had stuck with Vandenberg, and the even larger one from Pennsylvania, which had been voting for its favorite son, Gov. Arthur James, were now the targets of desperate pleas from the Willkie and Taft camps. On the sixth ballot, the race was still close when Michigan was recognized. The delegation’s chairman announced that Sen. Vandenberg had released his delegates, and that Willkie would get 35 of its 38 votes. Pennsylvania then gave Willkie all of its 72 votes. He now had a total of 502, one more than a majority, which meant that the man who had stood at 3 percent in the polls less than three months earlier had become the nominee of the Republican Party. And Franklin Roosevelt had an opponent who would support his foreign policy. The significance for Britain, the United States, and the world was not inconsiderable.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.