The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order by David Levering Lewis; Liveright, 400 pp., $28.95
Failed presidential candidates are usually relegated to biographical purgatory, with the lion’s share of historical attention reserved for the victors. Happily, an exception is this superb, long-awaited portrait of Wendell Willkie by David Levering Lewis, a professor of history at New York University and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his multivolume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. Now is an ideal moment for us to consider Willkie, who, as the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, courageously broke with his party’s isolationists and its advocates of “America First,” helping to unite the country before it entered World War II and to adopt a new form of internationalism when it was over. In the process, he provided a model for the now nearly extinct concepts of bipartisanship and loyal opposition. Lewis offers a nuanced, deeply researched account of Willkie, who despite his loss to the Democratic incumbent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was arguably one of the most consequential public figures of the 20th century.
Willkie’s political views were shaped by progressive parents, who in their small-town Indiana home presided over “a freewheeling disputatiousness on politics, free trade, socialism, religion and the evils of empire,” Lewis writes. In Akron, Ohio, where he moved in 1920 to practice law, Willkie entered politics, attending Democratic national conventions in support of two platform planks: civil rights and Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. His career later took him to New York City, where he became general counsel at Commonwealth & Southern, a large private utility company, and in 1932, its president.
Willkie’s story is irrevocably tied to that of FDR, who assumed the presidency only a few months after Willkie took over the corner office at C & S. At the time, Willkie was still a Democrat and supported most of FDR’s New Deal, but given the president’s opposition to utility holding companies, like C & S, and his creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority with its federally subsidized rates, the two were bound to clash. Willkie, acting as the national spokesman for the industry on regulatory issues, met with FDR in 1934, in hopes of persuading him to ease up on utility holding companies; his effort achieved nothing, and each man came away from the encounter, as well as others that followed, with a fresh sense of distrust.
Willkie’s speeches, articles, and broadcasts appealed to many Americans, among them well-placed editors and owners of major publications, who saw in him a potentially viable Republican presidential candidate. Willkie warmed to the idea, studied the issues, wrote more articles, and improved his speaking skills, and soon his picture was appearing on the covers of national magazines. His campaign, as yet unacknowledged, was underway.
Starting out well behind the establishment frontrunners, Willkie gradually made up ground and arrived at the Philadelphia convention in June 1940 as a contender, helped along not only by his casual, down-home appeal but also by his candor in talking about the war now encompassing Europe. His rivals were staunch isolationists who stayed as far from the subject as possible. Only Willkie favored sending aid to embattled democracies, making the same case as FDR: with Britain and France as the nation’s first line of defense against Hitler, the United States needed to help them stay in the fight in order to buy time and prepare for war.
Word reached the convention floor in Philadelphia that France had capitulated, leaving Britain vulnerable to an invasion. The dark-horse candidate, boosted by the war scare, did better than expected on the first ballot and subsequently climbed steadily, finally winning the nomination on the sixth ballot—a stunning moment for the GOP establishment, whose nominee had been a registered Democrat only six months before. Roosevelt was also surprised but relieved that his new opponent supported aid to Britain, ensuring it would not become a campaign issue. Nevertheless, FDR realized that the charismatic Willkie would be the toughest opponent he had ever faced.
As the presidential contest began in earnest, members of Congress increasingly saw the inevitability of American involvement in the war and began considering the adoption of the first-ever peacetime military draft. Willkie favored the measure, but the GOP leadership urged him to remain silent. Facing his first test as the Republican nominee, Willkie responded that he would rather lose the election than make conscription a political issue. Even so, Willkie ramped up his attacks on Roosevelt as a warmonger, causing the Republican candidate’s poll numbers to climb and a nervous FDR to pledge in Boston just days before the election: “Your boys are not going to be sent into foreign wars,” this time leaving out his previous qualification, “except in case of attack.” Willkie heard FDR’s promise on the radio and reacted with fury. “That hypocritical son-of-a-bitch!” he said. “This is going to beat me.” Whatever its effect, Willkie went on to lose the election by five million votes.
Even in defeat, though, Willkie wasn’t through. Just days after the election, according to Lewis, he offered a national radio audience “an eloquent statement of the obligatory role of the party out of power.” The defeated candidate urged Republicans not to “fall into the partisan error of opposing things just for the sake of opposition,” but rather to become “a vigorous, loyal and public spirited opposition.”
Again resisting heavy pressure from GOP leaders, he announced he would go to Britain to see the war for himself. The evening before FDR’s third inauguration, the president, always eager to co-opt the opposition, hosted Willkie for dinner at the White House before sending him on his way with a personal letter for Winston Churchill. Upon his return, Willkie testified forcefully before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in support of the Lend-Lease Act, Roosevelt’s chosen vehicle to make America “the arsenal of democracy,” providing arms and food to allies around the world. Asked by Michigan Republican and isolationist Arthur Vandenberg whether he favored going to war, if necessary, to save Great Britain, Willkie said, “No man can guarantee to you that the policy of aid to Britain will not involve the United States in war. … Hitler will make war on us … when, as, and if he chooses. … But he is far less apt to be aggressive while Britain stands, than if she were to fall.” A Gallup poll revealed that the favorable press from Willkie’s appearance tipped public opinion in favor of the bill’s passage. Churchill later called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.”
Willkie hoped to win his party’s nomination again in 1944, but his apostasy on isolationism and some New Deal programs—he supported aid to farmers, the unemployed, and the aged, for example—had left deep wounds in the Republican Party, whose leaders aimed to stop him. In 1942, determined to keep speaking his mind, he and NAACP leaders visited film studio heads to urge them to change how Hollywood portrayed African Americans. That same year, with FDR’s endorsement, he took a seven-week trip around the world that yielded a best-selling book, One World, which was, Lewis writes, “high-minded war propaganda in the service of ideals upon which a liberated world democracy would rise.” What made the book “truly distinctive,” he added, “was Wendell’s prescient twinning of America’s inescapable involvement in the future affairs of the world with the just and necessary death of colonialism and race prejudice.”
His 1944 hopes crumbled after a disappointing primary showing in Wisconsin. Later, reports emerged that surrogates for FDR and Willkie considered having the two men run together on a unity ticket, perhaps form a new liberal party, or at least include the Republican in Roosevelt’s administration. Nothing came of it: Willkie died of acute arrhythmia on October 8, 1944. He was 54.
When the news reached the White House, FDR adviser Harry Hopkins made a derogatory remark about Willkie, eliciting an outraged response from Roosevelt. “You of all people ought to know that we might not have had Lend-Lease or Selective Service or a lot of other things if it hadn’t been for Wendell Willkie,” he said. “He was a godsend to this country when we needed him most.”
Much as Willkie was a godsend to the country, so too is David Levering Lewis for offering us this instructive story of courage and bipartisanship at a time when both are in very short supply. Perhaps the words we most need to hear come from Willkie himself, quoted by the presiding minister at his memorial service: “I have got to live with myself and what is most important is not that I attain office but that the principles I stand for should gain acceptance.” From small-town boy to world statesman, Wendell Willkie was a man of principle.
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