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Election of 1940: On the Eve of War

The tradition that no American president serves more than two terms was established by George Washington but was never part of the Constitution. As FDR neared the end of his second term, he began to suggest the need for continuity in a world full of crisis. Democrats agreed and renominated Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term. The Republicans began the campaign with three leading contenders: Senators Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan along with Thomas Dewey of New York, a US district attorney in New York who had built a reputation fighting organized crime. When the Republican national convention was held in June, none of them could gain a majority and the convention turned to a dark horse candidate, Wendell Willkie, on the sixth ballot. Willkie had a difficult challenge. The New Deal was unpopular with Republicans but by 1940, Republicans represented a distinct minority among the voters. It was mandatory for a Republican to criticize the New Deal, but it was not a strategy likely to appeal to swing Democrats. On the international front, Willkie was not an isolationist himself and supported the European democracies who were then fighting for their survival. But, as he insisted in his acceptance speech:

Mr. Roosevelt has not done this. He has dabbled in inflammatory statements and manufactured panics. Of course, we in America like to speak our minds freely, but this does not mean that at a critical period in history our President should cause bitterness and confusion for the sake of a little political oratory. The President`s attacks on foreign powers have been useless and dangerous. He has courted a war for which the country is hopelessly unprepared—and which it emphatically does not want. He has secretly meddled in the affairs of Europe, and he has even unscrupulously encouraged other countries to hope for more help than we are able to give.
This tightrope had two problems. It was not easy to explain why Americans should enthusiastically support Britain but not speaking harshly about Hitler. It was also hypocritical for Republicans to criticize the national military unreadiness after a decade of opposing military preparedness. Roosevelt was happy to point this out:
I now brand as false the statement being made by Republican campaign orators, day after day and night after night, that the rearming of America is slow, that it is hamstrung and impeded, that it will never be able to meet threats from abroad. Those are the whisperings of appeasers.

That particular misstatement has a history. It came into the world last June, just about the time of the Republican National Convention. Before that, the responsible Republican leaders had been singing an entirely different song. For almost seven years the Republican leaders in the Congress kept on saying that I was placing too much emphasis on national defense.

And now today these men of great vision have suddenly discovered that there is a war going on in Europe and another one in Asia. And so, now, always with their eyes on the good old ballot box, they are charging that we have placed too little emphasis on national defense.

Unlike 1936, third parties were not significant in 1940. The Union Party of Father Edward Coughlan and others had vanished. The Socialists, laboring on the ever-less-appealing pacifism of Norman Thomas polled only a hundred thousand votes, while giving some to the even more insignificant Socialist Labor Party. While the outcome was never in doubt, and Roosevelt cruised to an easy electoral victory in November, Willkie could take pride in the his 22 million votes, the greatest number received by a Republican candidate.
Election of 1940
Candidates Party Electoral Vote Popular Vote
Franklin D. Roosevelt (N.Y.) Henry A. Wallace (Iowa) Democratic 449 27,243,466
Wendell L. Willkie (New York) Charles L. McNary (Oregon) Republican 82 22,304,755
Norman Thomas (New York) Maynard C. Krueger (Illinois) Socialist 0 100,264
Roger Babson (Massachusetts) Edgar V. Moorman (Illinois) Prohibition 0 57,812
Earl Browder (New York) James W. Ford (New York) Communist 0 48,579
John W. Aiken (Massachusetts) Aaron M. Orange (New York) Socialist Labor 0 14,861
Election of 1936 All Elections Table Election of 1944