Title Reviewed:
1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm

Author Reviewed:
Susan Dunn

Patrick Maney


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 111, Issue 2, pp 205-206

Article Type:
Book Review

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1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm
By Susan Dunn
(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 418. Illustrations, notes, index. $30.00.)

After Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt is the most-written-about president in history. Current scholarly attention focuses on the period immediately preceding American entry into World War II and on the war itself. No fewer than four high-profile books on the subject, including Susan Dunn's 1940, have appeared during the past two years. They vary in scope and emphasis but their storylines are virtually identical: Viewing Germany as a mortal threat, FDR sought desperately to come to Europe's rescue. Standing in the way were the isolationists, led by charismatic aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh. But in his finest hour since the storied Hundred Days of 1933, Roosevelt fended off challenges from all directions. In 1940 he won an unprecedented third term. Shortly thereafter, he deftly outmaneuvered the isolationists to throw a lifeline to Great Britain in the form of Lend-Lease, thus ensuring Britain's survival until the U. S. officially entered the fray after Pearl Harbor.

The centerpiece of Dunn's lively account is the 1940 election. She breaks no new ground but does provide riveting portraits of FDR and of his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, who last received major attention thirty years ago in journalist Steve Neal's fine biography. Forty-eight years old, a native of Indiana, Willkie was one of the darkest horses ever to head the presidential ticket of a major party. A Wall Street lawyer and utility executive, he had earned some notoriety as a critic of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Still, it is unlikely most Americans had even heard of Willkie until he bested two well-known opponents to win the Republican nomination on the sixth ballot. Stranger still, he had never held executive office, had voted for FDR in 1932, and had joined the GOP just one year before becoming its standard bearer. With his coarse voice, rumpled suits, and lock of hair forever tumbling over his forehead, he reminded people of Jefferson Smith, Jimmy Stewart's character in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Despite his opposition to the TVA, Willkie supported most of the New Deal. Like FDR, he also believed that the U. S. should do everything in its power to help Great Britain. His success in gaining the nod of his party meant that no matter what the outcome of the election, a liberal internationalist would sit in the White House, though whether a political novice like Willkie could have steered Lend-Lease through Congress is another matter. During the campaign, both candidates did things they probably regretted. Willkie accused FDR of warmonger-ing; FDR responded by promising "the mothers and fathers" he would not send their boys "into any foreign wars." Willkie lost, of course, but he was the most formidable foe that FDR faced in his four campaigns for the presidency. A majority of respondents told pollsters that had it not been for the looming crisis in Europe, they would have voted for the Indianan.

The Roosevelt-Willkie contest had a postscript hard to imagine in today's polarized environment. To underscore American unity, FDR sent Willkie on several diplomatic missions abroad. The two even talked about jettisoning the mossbacks in both of their parties and organizing a progressive third party of their own. In 1944, before their plans had moved beyond the talking stage, Willkie died of a heart attack. FDR followed him six months later.

Dunn excels at characterization. She brings her protagonists to life but sometimes takes dramatic license. Her isolationists are mostly starry-eyed idealists or menacing, pro-German appeasers. But as the leading scholar of the isolationists, Wayne S. Cole, has persuasively argued in Roosevelt and the Isolationists (1983) and elsewhere, the isolationists were a diverse and largely respectable lot. None advocated cutting the United States off from the world; most opposed Germany and Japan and favored some sort of aid short of war to Britain; all wanted an impregnable national defense. A presidential election set against the backdrop of war is dramatic enough. It doesn't need embellishment.

PATRICK MANEY is Professor of History at Boston College. He is the author of Young Bob: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr., 1895-1953 (2002) and The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR (1998).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.