Why the 1940 US presidential election was – and wasn't – a lot like 2016

The candidates and the issues they confronted in 1940 have some surprising similarities to the candidates and issues of 2016. But the differences are at least as stark.

Susan Dunn talks about her book '1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler – the Election amid the Storm.'

The US presidential election looms. The Republican candidate, a wealthy New York businessman, has never held elected office. The Democratic candidate, scion of a famous political family, has been in the public eye for decades. And the year is – 1940.

Susan Dunn, author of 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler – the Election amid the Storm, talks to Monitor contributor Randy Dotinga about the gripping presidential race that pitted Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.) against Wendell Willkie, even as the American public was drawn into a bitter prewar battle over isolationism.

Q: What drew you to write about the presidential election of 1940?

It’s an extraordinary year and an extraordinary election. In the spring of 1940, right before the Republican Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Hitler has crushed the democracies in Western Europe except for Britain. There’s clearly going to be a war with the values of Judeo-­Christian morality and the principles of the Enlightenment on the brink of annihilation. And there’s an election coming up. Who will be the Democratic candidate? Will it be F.D.R.? No president has ever run for a third term. Who would be the Republican? There’s also a strong isolationist movement, the premier spokesman of which is the aviator Charles Lindbergh [who in 1927 had become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean].  

Q: Who runs for the Republican ticket?

Most of the front-runners are isolationists, even former President Herbert Hoover, who’s trying to make a comeback. The one who isn’t is a dark horse named Wendell Willkie, who’s never run before and had been a Democrat. Willkie is brilliant, compassionate, and charming, and he’s willing to go to war to protect America. He’s also way ahead of Roosevelt on civil rights; F.D.R. couldn’t take a stand because the South was solidly Democratic.

Q: What are Willkie’s points of opposition to Roosevelt?  

Willkie is in complete agreement with the New Deal. But he feels he can administer it better, and he believes the Democrats have become hostile to private enterprise and capitalism.

Q: How does Roosevelt handle the question of whether he’ll run for a third term?

He won’t say, and they call him a sphinx. In an age of dictators, he can’t say he wants to run again, because then he’d be accused of being a dictator, wanting more power. So he has to wait for the Democratic Convention to draft him. Then he can say he would have preferred to go back to private life, but he has to obey the call.

Q: Roosevelt wins the race, and Willkie puts patriotism ahead of party. He goes on missions for the president during World War II. What does this mean for his political prospects?

The Republicans are very angry at Willkie. He wants to run again in 1944, and he does campaign in two or three primaries, but he doesn’t do well. They won’t even let him speak at the Republican Convention. He dies before the convention at a young age.

Q: What happens to the isolationists?

Little by little, the isolationist movement loses credibility. By Pearl Harbor in 1941, they close their doors, and that’s it for them.

Q: What can we learn from the debate over the role of the United States in the world in this era?

One of the most important lessons is that America cannot retreat from its global role. We have a global responsibility, and we avoid that only at our peril, and the peril of the rest of the world.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is a board member and immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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