Thursday, March 14, 2013

Unsung Hero

In 1940 my grasp of geo-politics consisted of the voice of FDR (which I conflated with God’s), faces in Life magazine, movie newsreels and the collection box for Infantile Paralysis. I also had Roosevelt buttons on my beanie cap but none for Wendell Willkie.

It was Willkie, in a sense, who saved the day and possibly the world. He was a political amateur who had never held public office. Charles Peters in his fascinating book, Five Days in Philadelphia, makes the case for Willkie’s place in history. In the winter and spring of 1940 the three Republican front-runners were Robert Taft (son of the former president), Arthur Vandenberg and Thomas Dewey. All were staunch isolationists as was 80% of the country. Willkie, an internationalist, scored zero percent in the Gallup poll three months before the convention. The Democrats were called the war party by Republicans.

A most unfunny thing happened in that time leading up to the late June convention. In early April Denmark fell in 24 hours followed by Norway. Holland and Belgium were overrun in May and finally, two days before the convention convened, France capitulated. The situation was grave.

These events muted the opposition shattering the isolationist argument and propelled Wendell Willkie to the forefront. His candidacy was supported by the Luce magazine empire of Time, Life and Fortune. He was an engaging, charismatic, erudite and handsome figure. Republicans had a candidate with sex appeal, said David Halberstam. Willkie came into the convention as a dark horse but won the nomination on the sixth ballot.

As late as 1938 he was a registered Democrat with many contacts in the party. As a lawyer and executive of a utility company he took exception to some of Roosevelt’s domestic programs, especially the Tennessee Valley Authority, but was in accord on foreign policy issues.

FDR breathed a big sigh of relief and Churchill even a bigger one when Willkie was named as the opposition candidate. Nothing less than the defense of Western Civilization was at stake. In the months just before the election the urgent task was to rush fifty U.S. destroyers to Britain. Isolationist opposition was mounting but Wilkie tacitly agreed with FDR and the ships caused Hitler to call off his invasion. Early in 1941 when Britain had run out of funds both supported Lend Lease and the first peacetime draft. With Willkie protecting Roosevelt’s right flank ships, ammunition and weaponry for England would be ratcheted up as well as our own armed services.

After the war Churchill wrote, At the time it was a sublime act of faith and leadership for the U.S. to deprive themselves of this very considerable mass of arms for the sake of a country which many deemed already beaten.
FDR won with 85% of the electoral vote but Willkie actually collected more votes than any previous Republican candidate.

It’s a stretch, today, to imagine the two parties so close as they were in 1940; it signaled the closing of ranks which was to follow after Pearl Harbor. It could be argued that Willkie merely got swept up in the events unfolding in Europe however he was well ahead of the curve breaking with his party’s orthodoxy and continued serving as an ambassador-at-large at FDR’s request after his defeat. His best-selling book, One World, envisaged a map free of colonialism and imperialism.  During the war he urged Roosevelt to increase the maximum tax rate even higher than 90% to finance our military expenditure.

In today’s climate of uber-conservatism one wonders what clients the fiscal hawks are serving. They would sooner dismantle the federal government than meet the challenges facing us. Where are the Wendell Willkies to step up and talk common sense?    

About twenty years ago I started collecting presidential buttons for a few years. I just checked and counted two of Lincoln, William McKinley, even William Jennings Bryan and fourteen for FDR. I still have none for Willkie. Shame on me.



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