The Revolution of 1940: America’s Fight Over Entering World War Two

Not since the Civil War had Americans voted in such a high-stakes presidential election as the unprecedented 1940 race. Marc Wortman on that tumultuous period.


We may pledge allegiance to “one nation under God,” but from the start American society has been anything but “indivisible.” The America Revolution split families and pitted neighbor against neighbor before it launched a nation; the Civil War that nearly broke it asunder was, well, a civil war. And let’s not talk about slavery and the brutal subjugation of Native Americans. Between the open battles, we mostly just shouted at each other across political lines like now. Yet the great national commitment to victory in World War II stands out as a singular shining moment of cohesion and unity. The afterglow of that massive war effort and the Allies’ great victory hides a darker reality of the political storm that swept the nation right up to the very day of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The fight between isolationists and interventionists over America’s future role in the world, a fight that turned into a political and sometimes real brawl for the presidency in the 1940 election, proved lower and even more vicious than what passes for political discourse today. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1940 election to an unprecedented third term—breaking a 150-year national taboo—marked a true revolution in American determination to take on global responsibility in a world at war and, often to our regret, ever after.

Overshadowed by the Second World War and the prior Great Depression, relatively few books have been written about the prewar period, despite its supremely high stakes for the nation’s and world’s future. It’s a period well worth study, with high drama among the remarkable people involved in the clashes, such as aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, plutocrat U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain (and father of a future president) Joseph P. Kennedy, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, movie mogul Jack Warner, publisher Henry Luce, and the ever-calculating, Sphinx-like FDR. Several recent books, including two new histories of the 1940 race for the presidency, fill some major gaps.

Just published, Susan Dunn’s 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election Amid the Storm delivers a richly detailed Making of the President–style look back at the 1940 race. I also got an early look at Richard Moe’s more engaging and nuanced Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War, due out this fall. Both books remind us how grave a decision the nation faced in choosing a president with global war raging just over the oceanic horizons and just how close America came to abandoning its traditional democratic allies to the seemingly unstoppable forces of totalitarianism and nationalistic hatred.

Placing that election into a wider overview of America at the time, Lynne Olson’s brilliant Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941, published in early spring, is hard to put down. She richly portrays the debate (when it wasn’t a shouting match or a fistfight) that swept up America between the isolationists and interventionists. A large majority of Americans deeply opposed sending their boys to fight another war in the Old World, yet even more strongly supported the last free nations holding out against Nazi terror. Most understood that if the Brits (and later the Russians) fell, America would almost certainly confront a very powerful foe in Hitler. But would offering aid to the Allies court war with the Axis powers or prevent it? As Lindbergh, who would emerge as the chief spokesperson for America First, the most organized anti-interventionist movement, told a cheering crowd of Yale students a week before the 1940 Election Day, “If we desire peace, we need only stop asking for war. Nobody wishes to attack us, and nobody is in a position to do so.”

Olson captures vividly how such seemingly intelligent and well-meaning people like the Yale-student founders of the America First Committee, including future U.S. president Gerald Ford and future Yale president and ambassador to Great Britain Kingman Brewster, and their counterparts at Harvard, such as Ambassador Kennedy’s eldest son, Joseph, could agree with the Harvard Crimson editors when they wrote, “We are frankly determined to have peace at any price.” On Capitol Hill, staunchly conservative Republicans—prominent among them Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and North Dakota Sen. Gerald Nye and several Northeasterners, including FDR’s Hyde Park, New York, home district’s congressman, Hamilton Fish—along with a smaller number of anti-foreign Democrats like powerful North Carolina Sen. Robert Reynolds, used their obstructive legislative power much like today’s Republicans to kneecap the administration in its efforts to arm the British and Chinese nationalists (at war with the Japanese) and grow the paltry American military.

They at least were not Fascists. Olson also describes the machinations of more odious anti-British Hitler sympathizers and anti-Semites such as Ambassador Kennedy, a young architect named Philip Johnson, and Hitler’s favorite U.S. industrialist, Henry Ford, who shared Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s belief, articulated in her No. 1–bestselling testament The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith, that the various violent movements crushing human freedom, above all Hitler’s Nazism, were just “scum on the surface of the wave” as civilization moved into a new “highly scientific, mechanized, and material era.” I guess they considered the already well-known existence of the Nazi concentration camps just part of adjusting to the new age dawning upon the world.

However nauseating in retrospect, millions shared their views. Bankrolled by Gen. Robert E. Wood, chairman of retail giant Sears, Roebuck; editorially backed by the Hearst chain of newspapers, publisher Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, and New York Daily News publisher Joseph Patterson; and given voice by avowed anti-Semite radio priest Father Charles Coughlin and many other leading media figures, the anti-intervention-movement rallies attracted crowds in the tens of thousands, often to hear Lindbergh speak, sometimes to call for FDR’s impeachment and Lindbergh to take power. Many in the movement were thoughtfully opposed to the war, but their numbers included Communist Party members toeing the Stalinist line, German Bund Hitlerites, and unabashed Jew haters.

For all his cynical willingness to manipulate everyone around him, FDR never wavered in his commitment to freedom, republican ideals, and his New Deal social programs. He would bend the truth, dissimulate his thinking behind a bright smile and personal charm, send subordinates to take actions and deny he did, and even risk impeachment to win reelection and provide “all aid short of war” to the Allies. For all his public denials that American boys would ever fight in foreign wars, he was certain that war with Hitler (and eventually Japan) was inevitable. He preferred that until then Britain and the Red Army have American aid to hold off the Axis and that when the time came to fight his country’s military be ready.

Nobody in his administration played a more central role in bringing the interventionist agenda to fruition in this prewar period—not even FDR in certain respects— than the still too-little-known Harry Hopkins. The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, by David L. Roll, is the best biography since FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood’s seminal postwar Pulitzer-winning Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History of the extraordinarily brave, deathly ill man who lived down the hall from the president from 1940. Roll had access to newly opened papers from the period when Hopkins spent more time with FDR than anyone, including his wife, Eleanor. Despite lacking any official government title or party post, Hopkins rammed FDR’s 1940 third-term renomination down a restive Democratic convention’s throat and then oversaw the common-law marriage that would take place between his boss and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and later Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. (After Lend-Lease opened the floodgates to arming the Allies in 1941, Hopkins also administered the greatest arms buildup and transfer of military hardware to foreign powers in world history out of his White House bedroom.)

Before then, however, FDR had good reason to fear that his inward-looking nation, still deeply traumatized by the Depression, would reject him and his start-and-stop efforts to rebuild the nation’s paltry national defenses.

Two books follow out the story of how the seemingly indomitable FDR found himself on what appeared to be the verge of defeat on election night. Williams College history professor and author of prize-winning histories of Roosevelt’s presidency Susan Dunn offers 1940, a deeply researched look into how the darkest of dark-horse candidates, Wendell Willkie, and the unwilling-to-declare-his-intentions FDR handled their historically unique nominating conventions—brilliantly in Willkie’s case and utterly ineptly in FDR’s. She follows the way their campaigns caught fire as the question of whether to fight Hitler became the true decision for voters.

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Until just before a liberal Wall Street Democrat and an avowed internationalist, Willkie entered the Republican convention with seemingly little support. But using his engaging, devil-may-care persona and Wall Street and media ties, he swept up support and shockingly emerged from the convention as nominee and the frontrunner. From the Luce Time-Life-Fortune publishing empire to The New York Times, virtually every major media outlet came out in support of Willkie over FDR. Even the powerful United Mine Workers union leader John L. Lewis vowed he’d give up his post if Roosevelt won. Dunn shows well the forces at work across the political landscape that enabled the amateur pol Willkie to threaten the greatest politic mind in American history right up to election night.

For his part, FDR went into the Democratic Party convention refusing to declare his candidacy. He wanted to be “drafted” into service, much like the first-ever peacetime draft then being proposed for the nation’s armed forces. He refused to attend the convention and nearly caused a party revolt when, for the first time in political history, he demanded his own choice for vice-presidential running mate, Henry Wallace, be nominated. It took an unprecedented convention speech by the immensely popular Eleanor Roosevelt to stop the bitter tide running against him.

The sides were drawn for an epic battle—with both candidates in a sense running against Hitler, or who would prove better able to deal with the world at war.

Richard Moe was Vice President Walter Mondale’s chief of staff and a longtime head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In Roosevelt’s Second Act, he offers reliable interpretations of the inner workings of FDR’s always fenced-off mind. Moe’s book is as exciting as a character-driven thriller, insightful as only those who have watched presidents up close can be. Read it when it comes out in September.

As Election Day drew near in 1940, Willkie began to lose the party’s conservative base. He tacked hard to the right into the isolationist camp. It worked, and his standing in the polls surged. Meanwhile, in the months before the election, despite the isolationist outcry, FDR engineered a controversial bases-for-destroyers exchange with the fast-sinking British and the creation of a draft army.

The day before the vote, the Republican Party ran an ominous radio commercial addressed to the mothers of America. A chilling voice warned, “When your boy is dying on some battlefield in Europe and he’s crying out ‘Mother! Mother!’—don’t blame Franklin D. Roosevelt because he sent your boy to war—blame YOURSELF, because YOU sent Franklin D. Roosevelt back to the White House!”

FDR had to answer such attacks. He may have believed war with Germany was inevitable, but he felt forced to declare in a nationally broadcast campaign speech just days before the vote, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars ... We will not send our Army, Navy, or air forces to fight in foreign lands.” We know the election result, but the final days of the campaign played out like a political Super Bowl where the outcome wasn’t clear until the very last seconds of play. Even the preternaturally confident FDR thought he had lost the election as he read the first vote counts coming to him at his home in Hyde Park.

Such pronouncements that he would not intervene made it impossible for the third-term president to go to war—except through subterfuge, which he did—without an actual attack on America. One can speculate that had he been freer to pursue the election’s foreign-policy mandate, the U.S. might have entered the war several months before Pearl Harbor. An earlier buildup of the nation’s armed forces would surely have saved uncountable but likely many lives.

These books help us reflect on today’s deep national divisions, as our messy republican democracy lurches from crisis to crisis and minority viewpoints, still largely Republican, game the system to block worthy legislation and needed government action, even when most citizens believe they are in the nation’s interest.

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, Senator Nye addressed several thousand rowdy people at a Pittsburgh America First rally. “Whose war is this?” he shouted out. “Roosevelt’s!” roared back the crowd. A short while later they knew that war was America’s.