Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Dark Horse of 1940

An outsider businessman ran for and won the Republican nomination. That may seem familiar, but it’s not a statement from the 2016 primaries. Rather, it’s the result of Wendell Willkie’s defeat of establishment candidates to claim the nomination and run against Roosevelt. And despite losing the general election, Willkie continued working to move the party establishment away from outdated and outmoded ideals according to Steve Neal’s biography of Willkie - Dark Horse.

Willkie was an unlikely candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination. He had been a Democrat, which included being a member of Tammany Hall’s executive committe and a contributor to FDR’s 1932 campaign. And he did not switch his party registration until January 1940. Furthermore, Willkie’s campaign for the nomination was a challenge to the contemporary Republican establishment, which favored isolationism, while Willkie was pushing for internationalism, particularly more support for Britain in its struggle against Nazi Germany.

As a Republican candidate, Willkie did not participate in the party primaries of 1940 (of which there weren’t many), while recognizable Republican figures such as Thomas Dewey, Robert Taft and others vied for the nominations in these beauty contests. Willkie did go out on the stump and received the support of prominent media members, such as Henry Luce, the editor of Time, Fortune, and Life, who promoted his candidacy. Willkie arrived at the convention far behind the frontrunners Dewey and Taft, but no candidate had enough delegates to win on the first ballot. As the nomination fight began, Willkie’s supporters began to engage in some convention chicanery; one of his supporters was chairman of the credentials committee, and he ensured the hall was packed with Willkie supporters. Their clamor and some wheeling & dealing by Willkie’s floor managers secured him the nomination on the sixth ballot. Needless to say the party regulars were shocked and forced to come to terms with an unexpected nominee.


During the general election campaign, Willkie made a play for constituencies that had either abandoned the Republican party (black voters) or were opposed to Republican ideals and policies (the labor movement) - hoping to potentially split the Democratic vote. Willkie criticized Roosevelt’s civil rights record, and even received the endorsement of Joe Lewis, as well as several African-American publications. He also received the endorsement of CIO leader John Lewis, who blamed Roosevelt’s policies for worsening the Depression. However, Willkie’s campaign sagged as he struggled to get along with Republican officials, run an organized campaign, find a message (he even began to adopt a more isolationist tone, despite his earlier agreement with FDR on foreign policy). These issues helped Roosevelt, but Willkie still outperformed prior Republican campaigns and gave Roosevelt some cause for worry about winning his third term. Ultimately, Roosevelt would win an overwhelming Electoral College victory, though outside the South, he carried some states by slim margins.

After losing, Willkie continued to work on issues that were close to him during the campaign. He worked with Roosevelt’s administration to support Britain and served as a special envoy, visiting Russia and China, as well as other allies. He represented William Schneiderman, a Russian-American and secretary of the California Communist Party, whose citizenship had been revoked; Willkie argued the case before the Supreme Court defending Schneiderman’s freedom of thought (and won the case). He also continued his support for civil rights, supporting antilynching legislation, fair hiring practices, and attempting to change the portrayal of black men and women in movies.

Willkie returned as a candidate in 1944, but it was clear the Republican party had returned to its isolationist ideology. It didn’t help that Willkie seemed to be pushing even more liberal positions. After a convincing defeat in the Wisconsin primary, Willkie withdrew from the contest. He was considering forming a true liberal third party; however, he died in October 1944 after suffering several heart attacks; he was 52. Willkie had an impact and played a role unlike many also rans, and it’s interesting to think what might have been had he lived.

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