FIVE DAYS IN PHILADELPHIA:
THE AMAZING “WE WANT WILLKIE!” CONVENTION OF 1940 AND
HOW IT FREED FDR TO SAVE
THE WESTERN WORLD
By Charles Peters
Public Affairs, $26, 274 pages
REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN
If your hobby is counterfactual history, try this one: If instead of the now forgotten Wendell Willkie winning the 1940 Republican nomination for president to run against FDR seeking his third term, the nomination had gone, say, to a Republican isolationist. What would have happened?
Now for the factual history: France has been defeated in June 1940. A salivating Hitler is on a triumphal march through Western Europe with nightly bombing of London, beleaguered capital of a truly isolated Great Britain, and an American public indifferent to Britain’s crisis. Isolationist Republicans, headed by Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, in league with some isolationist Democrats, were saying let Britain go to hell; who cares if Hitler gets the powerful British navy, America must stay out of the war and reject FDR’s attempts to offer military aid to Britain. That, however, didn’t happen, thanks to Willkie, a handsome six-footer, lady killer and shrewd politician. David Halberstam described Willkie as “a Republican with sex appeal.”
Edith Willkie was aware of her husband’s philandering and the identity of his lover, Irita Van Doren, then the book editor of the then New York Herald Tribune. It was in Van Doren’s West Side apartment that Willkie wrote his 1943 bestseller, “One World.” Mrs. Willkie brushed off the affair with an ancient bromide: Politics makes strange bedfellows. (This saying is adapted from a line in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”)
Anyway, the press, including the tabloids, was reluctant, says Charles Peters, “to report the private misbehavior of public figures.” It was, however, well known that Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg was having an affair with Mitzi Sims, wife of the British military attach. In fact, the affair was so well known, says Mr. Peters, that Vandenberg was described as “the Senator from Mitzigan.”
As a very young political reporter in New York City, I knew Willkie who gave me the scoop of my life. In Fall 1944, the great political question was: Would Willkie support Thomas E. Dewey, running against FDR seeking a fourth term, would Willkie stay neutral or would he endorse FDR? There was little question about Willkie supporting the New York governor who had chosen the super-isolationist, Ohio Gov. John Bricker, as his running mate. But would Willkie openly break with the G.O.P. and return to the Democratic Party? Nobody knew and nobody really knows to this day because Willkie, a heavy smoker and heavy drinker, died of a heart attack on Oct. 8, 1944 without publicly revealing his presidential choice.
Out of a clear sky, FDR in August 1944 sent a pre-election day private letter to Willkie saying he would like to meet him, either at the White House or at Hyde Park, NY, FDR’s home away from home. Willkie phoned me at the newspaper PM, asked me to drop by and allowed me to read FDR’s short letter. When I finished reading it and handed back the letter, Willkie grinned: “Smart sonofagun, isn’t he?” My exclusive story about FDR’s letter drove the competition crazy because neither the White House nor Willkie would confirm or deny the existence of the letter.
This is a long introduction to a fascinating book about an earlier Willkie at the five-day 1940 Republican presidential convention and how he got the presidential nomination. How did this unknown public utility magnate who had gotten zero percent in the public opinion polls just three months before the convention, who a few months earlier had been a registered Democrat no less, who had never run for any elective office, get to be considered for the nomination?
His political heroes, says Mr. Peters, were Democrat Woodrow Wilson, independent and progressive Republican Robert LaFollette and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Norman Thomas is quoted as saying that Willkie agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt’s entire program of social reform. Yet he was the man the Republican convention chose to oppose FDR. And Willkie did well: He got more votes than any previous Republican presidential candidate. Mr. Peters tells a gripping political story.
Willkie’s personality and foreign policy politics appealed to the Eastern G.O.P. Establishment, pretty much headed by Henry Luce, Time Magazine publisher. Willkie had terrific media support: the Luce media empire, Look magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, the New York Herald Tribune. This powerful Republican bloc was wholeheartedly for Britain, then standing alone against Hitler and, let us remember, Hitler’s resolute ally, the Soviet Union. Willkie’s leading opponents for the nomination — Dewey, Taft, Vandenberg — were in 1940 hard-bitten isolationists. Without Willkie’s help, FDR could never have gotten through his military aid for Britain, especially the “destroyers-for-bases” deal.
Mr. Peters tells in a much too abbreviated paragraph one of the most fascinating events in the 1940 campaign. Letters written by vice presidential nominee Henry A. Wallace came into the possession of the Republican Party. If published, these letters would have endangered FDR’s re-election chances. The letters showed Wallace to be a wild mystic, a kook who, among other things, saw the Second Coming occurring on some Mongolian desert. The Republicans were forced to call off publication of these letters when FDR’s Harry Hopkins warned Willkie that in reprisal Democrats would make an issue of Irita Van Doren. Attack dogs on both sides were sent back to their kennels.
Mr. Peters has written an interesting book about the 1940 convention but too many errors, especially the misspelling of proper names, mar its value. He mentions Corliss Lamont without indicating that this son of a J.P. Morgan banker was the financial angel for every major communist cause and Stalin’s staunchest defender. But I will forgive him these shortcomings for coming up with the story of Mrs. Willkie’s cocktail party at her apartment several years after her husband’s death to which she invited Irita Van Doren. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall and overheard their conversation. Could have made a great movie script, with Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck playing the parts.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for the Washington Times. His updated biography “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian,” was recently published.