After Franklin Roosevelt served his two terms, America was eager to find out who their next president would be. Who could possibly succeed one of the most popular presidents of all time? Wait, he’s doing what now?!
The Last Four Years
At his second inauguration, Roosevelt promised to continue to fight for the underprivileged. He wanted to continue the New Deal, but was increasingly concerned that the Supreme Court would nullify his progress. The Court had already ruled that the Agricultural Adjustment Act and National Industrial Recovery Act were unconstitutional. Roosevelt worried that next target would be Social Security, the cornerstone of his vision. The problem, as he saw it, was the old, conservative justices making up the court. If they would retire, he could appoint younger members more willing to agree with his expansive use of federal power. His proposed solution was a bill to expand the court with a new justice for every current member over 70 years old, totaling six new appointments. Obviously, many politicians and reporters were critical of Roosevelt’s court packing attempt, but the Democratic majority in Congress meant that it was a real possibility. The plan was never realized, however, because the Supreme Court shifted their outlook on the New Deal and starting siding with the president. The change was referred to as “the switch in time that saved nine.” By the summer, Roosevelt no longer had the support of Congress for the new appointments, but he already had the result he wanted. The Supreme Court never again struck down a New Deal act.
Roosevelt’s tendency to push the limits of executive power did not stop there. He was known for creating new government agencies to circumvent existing departments that he deemed too slow. He also openly supported progressive primary challengers to conservative Southern Democrats in the 1938 midterms. His plan failed, as only one of his targets was replaced. Instead, Roosevelt made some enemies within his own party.
Despite the aggressive steps taken by the New Deal, the Great Depression raged on. The economic situation worsened in the fall of 1937. Industrial production fell again and stocks plummeted. The nation was facing a recession inside of a depression. Critics called it the “Roosevelt Recession.” Surprisingly, cause of the downturn was a recent reduction of federal spending, part of Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s attempt to finally balance the federal budget. In 1936, the federal government spent $4.1 billion stimulating the economy. In 1937, it only spent $1 billion. Roosevelt maintained a conservative course at first, but did not want to threaten the Democratic midterms with accusations of inaction. In the summer of 1938, he signed a $5 billion relief plan. But it still wasn’t enough. Recovery remained slow and unemployment in 1939 was still at 19%.
As disheartening as the lingering Depression was, the nation’s economic woes were quickly overshadowed by growing international tensions. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the same year that Franklin Roosevelt took office. Along with his anti-Semitic rhetoric, he promised the German people more territory for “living space.” He was openly defiant of 1920s disarmament agreements. Meanwhile, Japan was becoming increasingly aggressive in the Pacific. As the world feared war, the US remained officially neutral. Congress passed five different neutrality acts between 1935 and 1939, based on the widespread belief that American intervention in World War I had been pointless. Though he warned of the need to “quarantine” aggressors, Roosevelt initially did not work hard to change public sentiment. Like Hoover before him, he did not recognize Japanese control of Manchuria, but did little to intervene.
In 1936, Germany invaded the demilitarized Rhineland, near France and Belgium. Two years later, they annexed Austria. Next, Britain and France allowed Germany to take over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in exchange for an agreement that they would not pursue any more territory. Six months later, they invaded the rest of the country. The final straw came on September 1st, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war. The following year, German troops had control of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France. In the summer, they began air raids on Britain. Roosevelt was still confined by the neutrality acts, but was now more direct with the American public. In one radio speech, he said, “This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.” Although the US was not ready to join the war, Roosevelt provided aid to Britain and France. In 1939, he won a revision to the neutrality acts to allow “cash and carry.” Congress permitted him to sell arms, but the buyers had to pay cash and transport it themselves. The resulting increase in industrial production was the true motivator for the end of the Depression. It provided the public and private spending needed to jump start the economy and it gave Roosevelt the excuse he needed to directly control industry.
Eleanor Roosevelt Pause!
I’ve finally made time to talk about First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt! Eleanor was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, and a member of the traditionally-Republican “Oyster Bay” Roosevelts (named for the family’s favorite vacation spot). Her husband, and distant cousin, Franklin, was a member of the Democratic Hyde Park Roosevelts. Both of her parents, and one of her brothers, died when she was still a child, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother. After she married Franklin, she felt suffocated by her mother-in-law, who dictated much of their lives. While her husband was serving in the Wilson Administration during World War I, Eleanor volunteered with the Red Cross. She became more involved in politics in the 1920s, specifically women’s organizations. Eleanor was best known for transforming the role of First Lady into a more active one. She influenced her husband to appoint more women to government positions and traveled the country, meeting those affected by the Great Depression. From 1935 until shortly before her death in 1962, she wrote a newspaper column, titled “My Day,” six days a week. Sadly, her marriage to Franklin was largely for social and political benefit. She uncovered his affair with her social secretary in 1918, and he continued to keep several questionable relationships with other women throughout his life. Armchair psychiatrists may conclude that the resulting distancing from her relationship influenced her independent style as she became more involved in politics.
After their massive defeat in 1936, many predicted that the Republican Party would go the way of the Whigs. But the bumpy economic recovery allowed them to make gains in the 1938 midterms.
Much like the 1916 election, concern for domestic issues was secondary to the war in Europe. The country was torn. Was giving aid to Britain too much involvement, or not enough? Interventionists were known as hawks, and those opposed to the war were doves. The most famous anti-war organization was the America First Committee. It’s members included aviator Charles Lindbergh and college students Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy. For Lindbergh, that viewpoint often included German sympathy and white supremacism.
The Republican convention took place just two days after France’s surrender to Germany. It was notably suspenseful, as everyone wondered who would be next to challenge the Democratic hold on the presidency. The front-runners were New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, famous for his gang-busting, and ohio Senator Robert Taft, son of the former president. The two sides failed to come to a compromise, leaving room for dark-horse newcomer Wendall Willkie. Willkie was a Wall Street lawyer and utility owner from Indiana. As a former Democrat, he was disliked by the old guard of the party, but he had switched allegiances in response to the New Deal. Specifically, he disliked the Tennessee Valley Authority for competing with his utilities business. He had no previous political experience, but came off as bright, lively, and articulate. His support from the press, bankers, and businessmen earned him momentum leading up to the convention. Dewey and Taft led on the first few ballots, but by the fourth, Willkie had taken the lead. He secured the nomination on the sixth ballot. His supporters celebrated his uniqueness. Willkie offered a fresh voice in politics, not tied to party bosses and chairmen. He appeared before the convention and promised “a crusading, aggressive fighting campaign.” His running mate was Senate Minority Leader Charles L. McNary, from Oregon.
The Democratic convention was just as suspenseful, but for different reasons. The question remained, would Franklin Roosevelt seek an unprecedented third term? The two-term limit was not yet law, but had been followed by almost all presidents since George Washington. The only presidents who had tried (and failed) were Ulysses S. Grant in 1880 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. As the convention neared, Franklin Roosevelt seemed undecided. He allowed close associates to seek the nomination for themselves, but did not groom a successor. If it wasn’t for the threat of war, he likely would have stepped down. By the time of the convention, however, planned to stay in power. He did not seek the nomination openly, but instead wanted the party to “draft” him, an outcome he carefully managed. Although Roosevelt did not attend the convention in Chicago, his advisor, Harry Hopkins, had a direct phone line to the White House in the bathroom of his hotel suite (the only place he could get privacy). The event carried on with a speech by Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley. When Barkley mentioned Roosevelt by name, the Chicago mayor signaled the Superintendent of Sewers, Thomas F. Garry, to yell, “We want Roosevelt!” into a microphone. The crowd erupted in cheers as Garry continued to yell slogans through the loudspeakers. The fabricated enthusiasm became known as “the voice from the sewers.” Barkley proceeded to read a message from the president, stating that he did not desire to be nominated, but that the delegates were free to vote for any candidate. Garry followed with another chant, “The party wants Roosevelt! Illinois wants Roosevelt! The world needs Roosevelt! Everybody wants Roosevelt!” The president won re-nomination on the first ballot.
The suspense continued as the Democrats picked a new vice presidential nominee. Current VP John Nance Garner was not a part of Roosevelt’s re-election plan. Roosevelt preferred to share the ticket with Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, a radical New Dealer that could attract votes from the farm belt. But many delegates did not like receiving direct orders from the White House and saw Wallace as an eccentric. Roosevelt instructed Hopkins to tell the convention that he would not accept the nomination if he did not get his way. He even convinced Eleanor Roosevelt to fly to Chicago and give a speech in support of Wallace. It was the first time a woman had addressed a nominating convention. Roosevelt’s demands were met and Wallace was nominated on the first ballot.
Willkie was more aggressive than the Republicans’ previous nominee, Alf Landon. Referring to the president, he often exclaimed, “Bring on the Champ!” Despite his enthusiasm, Willkie made some errors at the beginning of his campaign tour. He initially did not rely on speechwriters. In a Chicago suburb, he began, “Now that we are in Chicago…” To which an audience member yelled back, “No, you’re in Cicero.” Willkie said, “Well all right, this is Cicero. To hell with Chicago!” Of course, that line made the Chicago headlines the next day. In another speech, Willkie promised he would appoint a Secretary of Labor that was more favorable to workers, adding, “and it won’t be a woman, either,” a crack at the department’s current head, Frances Perkins. Soon after, Perkins received hundreds of letters of support from offended women, including Republicans. Willkie’s two main attacks against Roosevelt were to criticize his third-term attempt as “one-man rule,” and the New Deal for being too focused on distributing money, rather than on increasing production. Unfortunately for him, the third-term attacks didn’t gain much traction with voters not already committed to the Republican ticket, and the argument for increased production was null as the war boom kicked off.
Roosevelt stole the show on September 3rd when he signed an executive order to donate WWI-era destroyers to Britain in return for long-term leases on British bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Willkie actually agreed with this move, but criticized Roosevelt for circumventing Congress. He called it “the most arbitrary and dictatorial action ever taken by any president in the history of the United States.” Strong words! Willkie also attacked Roosevelt for neglecting to strengthen the nation’s defenses earlier, but that backfired when opponents pointed out that the Republicans had voted against the 1930s defense bills. In the fall, Willkie shifted to appeal more directly to anti-war voters. He argued that, if Roosevelt’s 1940 pledge to avoid war was as good as his 1932 pledge to balance the budget, then American boys were “already almost on the transports.” Willkie’s anti-war message finally earned him some momentum. Roosevelt’s campaign staff was concerned that Republican newspapers were spreading anti-war hysteria.
Roosevelt started campaigning in October, not unusual for the sitting president. He continued to advocate for the New Deal and defended his decision to send aid to Britain. To combat Willkie’s anti-war attacks, Roosevelt was forced to promise that he would not join any foreign wars, and begrudgingly dropped the qualifier, “except in case of attack.” He told an advisor, “Of course we’ll fight if we’re attacked. If somebody attacks us, then it isn’t a foreign war, is it? Or do they want me to guarantee that our troops be sent to battle only in the event of another civil war?” Despite his best efforts, most voters did not believe that Roosevelt truly wanted to stay out of the war.
1940 was not as big of a blowout as the previous two elections, but the result was still clear. Roosevelt dominated in almost every region. Willkie did make gains for Republicans in rural areas, and the Democratic base continued to shift to cities.
Franklin Roosevelt won the first, and only, third presidential term! The electoral results were 449-82. The president won over 54% of the popular vote.
What Did It Say About America?
Don’t change horses midstream! Roosevelt might not have been able to pull off a third-term run during peacetime, but in that case, he probably would not have run. Although he faced more opposition than he did in his previous two elections, Roosevelt was the father-figure Americans wanted to lead them through the turmoils of the upcoming decade.
Was It The Right Decision?
Since we have the hindsight of how World War II went, yes! But Roosevelt sure liked pushing the limits of presidential power, the consequences of which we will have to live with forever. To start Roosevelt’s third term, a large percentage of Americans did not want to join the war in Europe. Only a huge event could change their opinion.