I’M NOT SURE WHY I REMEMBER THE ELECTION OF 1940 – I was only nine years old. But I do. Maybe it was because my dad lost his business in the early 1930s, not long after the depression began, then pulled himself out of the morass and rebuilt his business; then, despite his gutsy effort, lost it again in the collapse of 1938. My parents’ mindset: a political change was desperately needed, one favorable to business.
But the depression wasn’t the only thing troubling American minds in 1940.
During the late thirties, and as the forties began, life was chaotic, beyond the depression that wouldn’t go away.
Hitler’s deadly Panzers were thundering through Western Europe.
And a fierce debate was building in America, between isolationists, perhaps the American majority, who wanted no part of the war, and interventionists, who said it was time – despite our economic depression – for us to get involved, not only to help England and what was left of Western Europe, but to insure our own survival. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, running for his third term as the Democratic presidential candidate, was an interventionist, championing building war-readiness and foreign aid to England, a country staggering from bombardment by the Nazi war machine.
That year, the Republican convention was held in Philidephia.
Isolationists Thomas E. Dewey, the favorite, and Robert A. Taft dominated the early going for the Republican nomination. Dewey, then Taft, led early rounds, but neither produced enough votes for nomination. As the German blitzkrieg picked up speed, the convention became more chaotic and contentious – worse than 2016 – as the influence of the interventionists grew. After five indecisive ballots, support for the isolationists faded and the Republicans nominated the dark-horse candidate Wendell Willkie, a nonparticipant in all of the primaries.
Once a Democrat, Willkie, a rising-star lawyer and businessman, had joined the Republican Party and sought the presidency because he believed Roosevelt’s policies were anti-business (the point my struggling parents supported). Like recent Republican presidential candidates, Romney and Trump, Willkie’s credentials were those of a successful CEO.
Willkie’s early campaign focused on America’s domestic issues, but as the European war escalated, though still leaning toward isolation, his focus shifted. He vowed to keep American troops out of the war; however, during the campaign, Willkie and Roosevelt communicated frequently about the America’s foreign aid programs, and Willkie became openly supportive. Fortunately, foreign aid to England and Western Europe never became a campaign issue. (In later years, historians wrote that Willkie’s support of Roosevelt’s war-aid programs probably saved England and ultimately the outcome of World War II.)
Roosevelt won the 1940 election. Willkie garnered but 45% of the popular vote.
THEN, SOMETHING SPECIAL HAPPENED.
On January 19, 1941, the day before he was sworn in for his third term, Roosevelt asked Willkie for his help. He asked Willkie to go to England as his representative – to confirm America’s support. What better, more-uniting, message could there be than a message of America’s support and unity conveyed by the leader of the opposition party at the request of the President?
By such a simple insight and act, both seemingly impossible in today’s contentious political reality game, political combatants became partners!
Susan Dunn wrote in the New York Times:
“As the war crisis deepened, F.D.R. and Willkie became almost a team. ‘The leader of the Republican party himself — Mr. Wendell Willkie — in word and in action, is showing what patriotic Americans mean by rising above partisanship and rallying to the common cause,’ Roosevelt would say in a speech in March 1941.”
Willkie’s trip to England was followed by his testimony before Congress supporting Roosevelt’s lend-lease programs, which was followed by more missions as Roosevelt’s representative: China, Russia and the Middle East. Willkie’s October 1942 radio report to the American people about his journey around the world and talks with our allies was heard by 36 million Americans. He opened Americans to “connectedness,” to the idea that – as there is but one earth – there also is but one world, and all of us are its inhabitants and its responsible members. Historian Samuel Zipp wrote:
“Willkie enchanted them with the story of his encounter with the people of the world, from a Baghdad shopkeeper and a Soviet factory superintendent to Charles De Gaulle, the Shah of Iran, Joseph Stalin, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, while also challenging readers to embrace the new spirit of global connection and interdependence he claimed to have discovered everywhere he went.”
Willkie’s radio report was followed by his book, One World, that quickly sold millions of copies. Zipp concludes:
“Willkie’s book capitalized on a new yet widely shared sense that technology and war had made the world small — and potentially interdependent — but it brought that reality home in a felt as much as intellectual manner. [Zipp then quotes Robert van Gelder, NY Times book reviewer]: ‘We all know what has happened to distance in these last years. But between the knowing and the feeling, between the knowledge and the emotional understanding, there is almost inevitably a gap. Willkie’s book is like a spark that closes that gap.’”
Sometime in the distant past – I think in my late teens or early 20s – I read Willkie’s One World. After our 2016 political conventions, I pulled my tattered copy off the shelf and read it again. Willkie frames his “one-world” conclusions in his Introduction:
“These convictions are not merely humanitarian hopes; they are not just idealistic and vague. They are based on things I have learned at first hand and upon the views of men and women, important and anonymous, whose heroism and sacrifices give meaning and life to their beliefs.”
In a chapter titled “Our Imperialisms at Home,” he writes:
“Freedom is an indivisible word. If we want to enjoy it, and fight for it, we must be prepared to extend it to everyone, whether they are rich or poor, whether they agree with us or not, no matter what their race or the color of their skin…. [W]hatever we take away from the liberties of those whom we hate, we are opening the way to loss of liberty for those we love.”
In his last chapter, appropriately titled “One World,” Willkie describes the futility that followed the first World War:
“We entered into an era of strictest detachment from world affairs. Most of our public leaders, Democratic and Republican, went about the country proclaiming … that never again should we allow ourselves to become entangled in world politics…. We shut ourselves away from world trade…. We sacrificed a magnificent opportunity for leadership…. The responsibility for this does not attach solely to any political party.”
He also writes about the negative effect of rammed-through party politics:
“President Wilson negotiated the peace proposals at Versailles, including the covenant of the League, without consultation with or participation of the Republican leadership in the Senate. He monopolized the issue for the Democratic party and thereby strategically caused many Republicans – even international-minded Republicans – to take the opposite position.”
Do Willkie’s insights not remind us of the Democratic Party’s approach to Obamacare and to the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party’s approach to every Obama proposal and its championing limitations on voting rights for those who may disagree? To political parties gerrymandering election districts? To political parties stacking the Supreme Court to support beliefs? To political denial shaped more by a Democracy of Dollars rather than the Democracy of People?
WILLKIES’ FINAL WARNING:
“The time is approaching when we must once more determine whether America will assume its proper position in world affairs, and we must not let that determination be again decided by mere party strategy.”
I doubt we will ever assume our “proper position in world affairs” until we control our tribalism – and its resulting polarized party strategy. Yes, we have one earth; now we must learn to see our earth as one world – the only home for all of life on earth. That is our challenge.
As we ponder the lessons we might gain from Willkie’s hands-on experiences, which broadened his worldview, something I wrote in Chapter 7 of Wonderlust might be helpful:
“[C]onsider the possibility that our Creator didn’t shape the DNA of some us to be conservative in our political or philosophic thinking because being conservative is always rational and right and all people should be conservative. Nor did our Creator shape the DNA of others among us to be liberal in our political or philosophic thinking because being liberal is always rational and right and all people should be liberal. Our globe is populated by people with differing points of views and insights for a reason. We gain from lessons provided to us through the wisdom of each other. If we have the sensitivity to listen to, and to consider, those whose ideas don’t fit comfortably within our own mind frames we will make better decisions. That’s why today’s political polarization is so sad and so nonproductive.”
And please take a few minutes to watch Anand Giridharadas TED Talk, A Tale of Two Americans and the Mini-Mart Where They Collided.
Check out the article Why Nationalism is So Dangerous.
Wonderlust was based on what I called my “dirty hands-wet feet” learning. Willkie’s One World was based on his first-hand experiences.
There’s something to be said for the revelations that come to us from those sorts of approaches. For us and those we chose to lead us.
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