Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Wilkie!" Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World


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The rousing, fascinating story of the rowdy political convention that produced the unlikeliest of candidates and thereby had the unanticipated result of saving the world from fascism When the Republican Party met in June 1940 in Philadelphia, to nominate its presidential candidate there were four strong contenders: the crusading young attorney and rising Republican star Tom Dewey, solid members of the Republican establishment Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, and dark horse Wendell Willkie, utilities executive, favourite ...

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Oct 22, 2017

When American Politics Worked

I came to Charles Peters' study "Five Days in Philadelphia" (2005) after reading Steve Neal's biography of Wendell Willkie, "Dark Horse" I wanted to learn more about the fascinating and now almost forgotten Republican presidential candidate of 1940. Reading about Willkie (1892 -- 1944) intrigued me when I was young.

Charles Peters is a Washington political insider who founded the "Washington Monthly" political magazine and edited it for thirty years. He has written a study, "How Washington Really Works" How Washington Really Works. His most recent book is a succinct study of Lyndon Johnson for the American Presidents Series Lyndon B. Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 36th President, 1963-1969. "Five Days in Philadelphia" was greatly influenced by Neal's biography of Willkie. But Peters' book has a personal element. As a teenager in Charleston, West Virginia, Peters developed the love of the political process to which he would devote his life. He and his family became fascinated by Willkie and by the 1940 presidential election. Indeed, he and his family traveled from Charleston to Chicago in the summer of 1940 to attend the tumultuous Democratic convention which nominated President Roosevelt for a third term together with his chosen running mate, Henry Wallace. Roosevelt's choice of Wallace bitterly divided his party. Peters' account is based upon his impressions as a politically precocious adolescent together with his broad reading at the time and the development of subsequent historical sources.

The book is not a biography of Willkie. Instead its focus is on international events -- the fall of France and the fear of German invasion of England -- on American politics in 1940, and on Willkie's improbable rise to the Republican presidential nomination. With the exception of military leaders, such as Grant or Eisenhower, Willkie remains the only presidential nominee of a major party who had never held a political office. Willkie had been a successful Wall Street lawyer and utilities executive who came to prominence by his opposition to the Tennessee Valley Authority. He had been a lifelong Democrat until he changed his political registration to Republican late in 1939. With strong support from the news media and Wall Street together with the force of his personality Willkie rose to become a dark horse contender for the 1940 nomination. He was also supported by a powerful, well-organized grass roots movement.

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination, Dewey, Taft, and Vandenberg had been isolationists who opposed United States assistance to England and United States entry into the war. In a day-by-day analysis of the Republican convention in Philadelphia from June 24 -- June 28, 1940, Peters offers a dramatic account of how growing internationalist sentiment resulting from the fall of France propelled Willkie to the nomination on the sixth ballot. Peters' offers a positive and detailed account of Willkie's path to the nomination which rejects the claim sometimes made that the Eastern establishment engineered it. Peter's agrees instead with the view expressed at the time that the nomination constituted "a genuine popular revolt" and "a tremendous and historical revolt of the people against the politicians." (p.115) The story still has the capacity to inspire. Peters also examines the Democratic convention in Chicago in August, 1940. Although Roosevelt was easily re-nominated, the Democratic convention was nearly as contentious as the Republican.

The second part of Peters' book focuses on the 1940 campaign and on the relationship between Roosevelt and Willkie. During the campaign, Willkie courageously supported the Selective Service Act. Somewhat more tentatively, he also supported Roosevelt's proposal to sent 50 destroyers to England to assist in its fight for survival against Germany. Peters argues forcefully that no other possible Republican candidate would have taken these stances. Willkie was able to put his view of the good of the nation above narrow partisanship. In so doing, Peters argues, he made it possible for Roosevelt's program of assistance and military preparedness to succeed.

After Willkie's defeat, his actions became even more governed by principle rather than by political expediency. Peters describes the Lend-Lease program of 1941 which gave the president broad authority to authorize military assistance to American allies. By contemporaneous accounts, Willkie's testimony before Congress was instrumental in securing enactment of the lend-lease program.

Peters offers high praise to Willkie, to Roosevelt, and to the American people for coming together on principle at a moment of significance and danger. Willkie's nomination was in part a stroke of luck and in part an exemplification of American politics at its best. His support of Selective Service, the destroyer deal and Lend-Lease made it possible for Roosevelt to pursue his programs with a showing of bipartisanship. It would be difficult to conceive of a Willkie story in current American politics with the changes in the convention system. Furthermore, Willkie had his personal weaknesses, which primarily involved womanizing (a trait he shared with FDR) as well as excessive use of alcohol. Peters observes that in the current political environment that these flaws would likely have prevented Willkie's political activity at the outset.

Before his death in 1944, Willkie told a friend that "If I could write my own epitaph and I could choose between 'Here lies an unimportant president' or "Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril' I would prefer the latter." (p. 195) His idealism and determination during his short political career confirm his statement. Willkie's story, Roosevelt's story, and the American people's story in 1940 remains inspiring. I have learned a great deal in revisiting my youthful interest in Wendell Willkie.

Robin Friedman

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