Fortunately for America, the primary issue in 1940 was staying out of war

A 1940 Wendell Willkie anti-FDR cartoon pin, featuring an image of the boy who would become Alfred E. Neuman, sold for $1,625 at a February 2020 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1940, The New York Times surprised many readers when it announced it would support Wendell Willkie for president. It was a critical time for America as Nazi Germany had swept across the democratic nations of Europe and soon would threaten England’s weak defenses. Once that domino fell, the United States would be exposed to direct attacks via the eastern routes of the northern Atlantic Ocean. It would also dispel the long-standing fallacy that our two great oceans provided insurmountable defenses. 
While conceding that both presidential candidates were experienced leaders who recognized the magnitude of the threat and, short of direct intervention, clearly understood the major role America must ultimately be forced to play, Willkie was favored over FDR since his extensive business experience would make him better prepared to provide a more robust defense of America. His production experience would be invaluable to gear up the industrial base that would be required. In this role, Willkie was the professional and Roosevelt clearly the amateur. 
There was also an almost unspoken concern about the next president being tough enough to defeat an enemy that had demonstrated a level of ruthlessness and cold-blooded efficiency rarely seen in modern times. Maybe it was the wheelchair that was discreetly hidden or the soft, cozy fireside chats to bolster morale during seven years of hard economic times. But FDR’s smiling, cheerleading style faded in comparison to Willkie’s tough talk about “sweat and toil, the emphasis on self-sacrifice and the radiant confidence to rebuild our earlier superiority. 
The Times had supported FDR in 1932 and 1936, but the fiscal policies of the New Deal had failed disastrously and the national debt had more than doubled in seven years. A continuation would lead the country to the precipice of bankruptcy. Looking back, it is now obvious that these concerns were totally misjudged. FDR turned out to be a wily, tough executive who managed Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin with superior strategic skills with the courage to hammer out agreements without blinking. The United States war machine cranked out planes, tanks and military men at a remarkable rate. The public support was overwhelming as the entire nation joined in. American tobacco dropped a color and advertised Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War.” In the process, a new era of fiscal strength evolved and the gloom of the Great Depression faded in the glare of Rosie the Riveter’s sparks. War bond parades blossomed and my family stored bacon fat in coffee cans without really knowing why. I traded comic books for butter coupons and we started eating something called oleomargarine. 
But in 1940, breaking the precedent of no third term established by George Washington in 1796 was viewed as duplicitous. Earlier, FDR had declared, “Last Septemberit was my intention to announce clearly and simply at an early date that under no conditions would I accept re-election.” Now, this had morphed into merely: “He had no wish to be a candidate again. Clearly, it was a bit of political spin that fit the revised situation. In the defeat of FDR and election of Mr. Willkie, there was an opportunity to safeguard a tradition with the wisdom of long experience behind it. 
Fortunately for America, the primary issue in the campaign was staying out of war and the isolationist crusade lead by the America First Committee was having a dramatic effect on the nation. Many leading figures across a broad political spectrum vehemently demanded that America stay out. Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh was perhaps the most influential voice heard. FDR was again his usual cunning political self and promised the American people that American boys would not be fighting in any “foreign wars. That was enough to allow him to win a substantial victory in 1940 and a coveted third term. Naturally, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec71941, that eliminated the FOREIGN war angle commitment and Americans were eager to seek retribution against all enemies. 
An interesting epilogue to 1940, when FDR defeated the only presidential candidate with no government experience, was the death of Wendell Willkie in 1944 at age 52. He had poor health as a result of a poor diet, incessant smoking and hard drinking. Had he defeated FDR in 1940, he would have died right after D-Day but before the heavy fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, when victory was not yet assured. However, his VP running mate, Senator Charles McNary of Oregon, had died eight months earlier and for the only time in history, we would have been forced to elevate the secretary of state to president!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell]. 

FDR deserves credit for steering our ship through dangerous waters

This Wendell Willkie “Out at Third” campaign button – a reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 third-term candidacy – sold for $9,560 at a November 2009 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Sept. 19, 1940, loyal hard-core supporters of the New Deal awoke to a rather startling surprise. The venerable editorial gurus at The New York Times announced their choice for the upcoming presidential election … and it was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt!

The Times had supported FDR in 1932 and 1936, but in 1940, they decided to support his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. In rationalizing this decision, they prepared a long preamble describing the seriousness of national and world affairs, but without offering anything new that was not already common knowledge: “One of the great crises in American history … a hostile force sweeping across Europe … impossible to continue isolation … world revolution at stake … Americans fortunate to have two candidates who agree on fundamental foreign policy.”

To buttress their choice of Willkie, they asserted he was better equipped to provide the country with an adequate national defense. They described him as a practical liberal who understood the need for increased production and, lastly, because the fiscal policies of Roosevelt had failed disastrously. And, as a coup de grâce, it was their belief that the traditional safeguards of democracy were failing everywhere. They did not mention that Willkie was a corporate lawyer, read Marx and lobbied for his college to teach socialism. They also failed to mention that Fortune magazine had dedicated an entire edition to Willkie.

Instead, they added to this litany the old third-term taboo, a principal that dated to George Washington. Perhaps they didn’t realize that Washington was too sick to serve a third term (he would die the following year) or that Thomas Jefferson turned down a third term for purely precedent-setting political reasons.

But The Times conceded that FDR had a taken a number of steps to bolster defense, including the new Defense Advisory Commission, before quickly deriding it for lack of real power (it had become a mere consultancy) unable to cut through Washington’s red tape. Instead, they much preferred Willkie’s call for individual sacrifice, hard work and “sweat and toil.” They found this more reassuring than Roosevelt’s speeches, designed to maintain morale. In essence, they were charging the president with a lack of substance.

In choosing Willkie, they were arguing for a business leader with practical experience in stimulating economic growth, while expanding industrial production. “In this field, Willkie is the professional and Mr. Roosevelt the amateur.” A harsh indictment of the country’s leader!

Then the NYT in its editorial proceeded to excoriate FDR for fiscal policy (under an argument it titled “The Road to Bankruptcy”) by highlighting three specific policies that had become reckless:

● A silver policy that had grown to incredible proportions. They cited more than 2 billion ounces of silver – “which our government has no earthly use” – purchased by the Treasury “at overvalued prices in an artificial market. This policy makes no sense, except as a political maneuver.”

● A national debt that had doubled in seven years.

● Welfare programs that would lead citizens to bed rather than work.

In retrospect, we know the NYT was wrong on many levels. Collectively, the New Deal kept the country together through the entirety of the two greatest travails ever visited on the United States. Times were tough and sacrifices many, but we emerged with our republic intact. Roosevelt proved himself tough enough to steer our ship through rough and dangerous waters.

The economic and social reforms of the New Deal created a legacy of new solutions, from the Works Progress Administration and Social Security to banking and financial regulations and a modicum of security to millions of people who’d never tasted it. FDR managed to impart a freedom from fear that resulted in a platform to take on the sacrifices of the impending war.

We ramped up a massive display of Americanism. The Selective Service Act established the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history, while Rosie the Riveter galvanized generations of women as factory workers, warriors and healers … all keeping the home safe. The stimulus from war production produced a Keynesian effect that wiped out the lingering depression.

Thanks to the strategic blunder of Dec. 7, 1941, we saved the free world and possibly civilization as well. Starting with a “Germany First” strategy (whereby the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to subdue Nazi Germany first), Americans gradually led the world back to peace and, in the process, became the Peace-Keeper-Rebuilder.

Perhaps for the first time in modern history, conquering armies did not take vast territories or treasure. We brought our troops home and resumed the American story.

The world owes America a debt that has long been forgotten.

A little-known postscript: FDR and Willkie discussed starting a new liberal party to supplant Republicans and Democrats. Willkie died before the idea had a chance to become a reality, but it’s fun to contemplate how different things might be today.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

When Britain Needed Help to Fight the Nazis, FDR Came Through

A Franklin D. Roosevelt inscribed photograph signed, circa 1930s, sold for $1,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the idea at a press conference on Dec. 17, 1940, in typical homey, easily comprehended language:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches on fire and I have a length of garden hose 400 or 500 feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up to his hydrant, I may be able to help him put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15, you have to pay me $15 for it.’ No! What is the transition that goes on? I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is out.”

The neighbor on fire was England, facing the full ferocity of the Nazi blitz. England was the only major European power still resisting (barely) the German juggernaut. The formal cry for help, a desperate letter from Winston Churchill to FDR, had been received eight days earlier on Dec. 9 when a navy seaplane had touched down next to the USS Tuscaloosa off of Florida’s southern coast. The president was on board the heavy cruiser recuperating from the rigors on his November reelection campaign when the seaplane crew delivered the letter.

The Prime Minister had written, “The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies” … pointing out that the Exchequer was down to its last $2 billion – with $5 billion in orders from American munitions factories outstanding. Roosevelt knew the answer was to find some way around the Neutrality Acts, an isolationist ploy that stipulated that any war belligerents had to pay cash for weapons – and loans were prohibited to any nation that had not repaid debts from WWI.

Harry Hopkins – FDR’s man for all seasons – wrote that his boss mulled it over for two days, then one evening came up with the whole program! The “whole program” quickly became House Resolution 1776, better known as “Lend-Lease.” It granted the president the authority to lend tanks, planes, ships and other aid not only to England but to “any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Leaders across the political spectrum rallied to support H.R. 1776.

One was Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate just defeated in the 1940 presidential election and a staunch opponent of the United States entering the war in Europe. When the Senate quizzed him about this obvious contradiction, he smiled broadly and said, “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt and didn’t pull any punches. He was elected president. He is my president now … I say a world enslaved to Hitler is worse than war, and worse than death.”

The opposition was organized and very powerful. Colonel Charles Lindbergh had even assured the Senate that Britain was already doomed. Fortunately, Congress had more faith in FDR and passed H.R. 1776 by large margins on March 11, 1941. The bill provided Roosevelt with $7 billion in appropriations – the first of $50 billion to be used by the end of hostilities in 1945.

Churchill famously called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].