Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term coincided with America’s first wartime presidential election since 1864. In his twelve years, he faced two of the country’s greatest challenges. Did he deserve to stay at the helm?
The Last Four Years
Although he maintained an official position of neutrality on World War II, Roosevelt instituted the nation’s first peacetime draft in the fall of 1940. The following August, Roosevelt met in secret with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, off the coast of Newfoundland. Together, they drafted the Atlantic Charter, an outline of unified goals for world peace. Its objectives were primarily focused on ending hostility over territory and increasing global cooperation.
In the Pacific, Japan continued to threaten the US, aiming to force an end to the American embargo. On December 7th, 1941, they took direct action. Japanese bombers made a surprise attack on the US Naval Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Additional targets on the same day included Thailand, British Hong Kong, and the Philippines. The next day, in a joint session of Congress, President Roosevelt referred to the event as “a date which will live in infamy.” All antiwar sentiment vanished and Congress declared war on Japan. Germany and Italy followed suit and declared war on the US three days later. By waiting for them to make the next move, Roosevelt was able to silence critics who, otherwise, might have claimed that he forced the country into Europe’s war. After years of cheering from the sidelines, the US had officially joined World War II.
For about a month after America’s entrance into the war, Winston Churchill stayed as a guest in the White House. As confident and cunning leaders, he and Roosevelt had a lot in common. The two spent their days developing a strategy for the war. According to White House legend, during his stay, Roosevelt accidentally walked in on Churchill while exiting a bath. Churchill allegedly reassured him that there was no cause for embarrassment, as “the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.” Roosevelt agreed that the US would focus on aiding its European Allies, before putting its full force into the Pacific. As with WWI, the Allies struggled at first. American and British forces began their land campaign in North Africa, leaving the Soviet Union to hold back the Nazis alone on the Eastern Front. Luckily, the US had some important early victories against Japan at the Coral Sea and Midway Island. By 1943, the outlook had improved. The US was slowly pushing back Japan via island hoping, the Soviets stopped the Nazi onslaught at Stalingrad, and the North African campaign was complete. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin urged for the next target to be France, but Churchill instead wanted to invade Italy and attack the Nazis from their “soft underbelly.” Roosevelt sided with Churchill, though they promised Stalin an assault to France in 1944.
That promise was kept on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day*. Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, in Northern France. The assault was led by US General Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Ultimately, the invasion was a success. Paris was liberated later that summer. The fall brought more victories in France, the Eastern Front, and the Pacific. US forces were now close enough to the Japanese mainland to launch bombers.
*In military terms, D-Day essentially stands for “Day-Day.” The D is a placeholder used when counting down to an operation. D-2 means two days before D-Day, and D+2 is two days after. Things can also happen at H-Hour!
With the wartime production boom, the US economy was finally dragged out of the Great Depression. Also thanks to the war, Roosevelt finally had the authority he long desired to direct American industry. The theme of the era was sacrifice. Unions agreed not to strike, basic necessities like food were rationed, and big-ticket items like automobiles were unavailable to the average consumer. Likewise, the war was changing the composition of the workforce. More African Americans were filling industrial jobs and large numbers of women were going to work for the first time. Although discrimination lingered, this was an important step towards shifting the closed-minded views of many Americans. One decision that tarnishes Roosevelt’s legacy, however, was his use of Japanese internment camps. He gave into racist paranoia by signing an executive order to relocate Japanese-Americans to hastily-built concentration camps. Thousands of citizens were forced to abandon their properties and businesses. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Kilroy Was Here Pause!
Meme culture was alive and well in the 1940s! Kilroy was a common cartoon graffiti drawn on the walls of military bases, ships, and pretty much anywhere American troops set foot. He greeted servicemen at each stop along their journey. The origins of the drawing are unclear. The character himself was likely borrowed from a British cartoon used to complain about rations, (“Wot, no petrol?”). One myth ties the name Kilroy to a ship inspector named James Kilroy who may have hid the phrase as he performed his job. If you ever wonder how future historians might view the internet memes of today, this is a pretty good example!
Without a doubt, the war was the most important thing on people’s minds. The tide had turned in the Allies’ favor, but the job was not yet complete. To plan for the future, Roosevelt and Churchill introduced an idea for a new international coalition to guide the postwar world, the United Nations. They intended for the UN to be a peacekeeping organization that would enforce the objectives of the Atlantic Charter. Even Stalin committed to a continued alliance after the war. Unlike Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, the UN earned support from both parties.
One issue that did go beyond the war was Franklin Roosevelt’s health. He had noticeably aged over the course of the war and looked thin and tired. Many worried that he would not survive another term. His harshest critics also speculated that he would suspend the presidential election. In February, a reporter pressed the president to respond to the rumors. He shot back, “Well, you see, you have come to the wrong place, because – gosh, all these people haven’t read the Constitution. Unfortunately, I have.”
Despite fear of a postponed election, the Republican Party proceeded with their nomination. General Douglas MacArthur, most famous for leading the Philippine campaign, received some buzz for the position, but withdrew his name. The party’s previous nominee, Wendell Willkie, also withdrew after a disastrous defeat in the Wisconsin primary. This left the ticket wide open for New York Governor Thomas Dewey, a former front runner for the 1940 nomination. Dewey was seen as a moderate, best known for being tough on organized crime in the ’30s. He did not actively campaign because he had promised to complete his full term as governor, but he gained a lot of support from write-ins and state conventions. By the time of the national convention, it was clear that he was the favorite. Dewey won the nomination of the first ballot. In his acceptance speech, Dewey attacked the Democrats as having “grown old in office” and becoming “tired and quarrelsome.” Unlike Willkie, Dewey was an internationalist who supported the United Nations. As was the norm in the New Deal era, the Republican platform supported the overall goals of Roosevelt’s policies, but asserted that they could enact them more efficiently. It also criticized excessive government interference with business. Dewey’s running mate was John W. Bricker, the conservative governor of ohio.
Unlike the convention four years earlier, no one doubted President Roosevelt’s re-nomination. Roosevelt wrote the committee chairman that, “as a good soldier,” he would “reluctantly” run again if his party wanted him to. The keynote speaker, Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, defended the president from Dewey’s attacks. He asked the crowd, “Shall we discard as a ‘tired old man’ 59-year-old Admiral Nimitz… 64-year-old General MacArthur… 64-year-old General Marshal? No, Mr. Dewey, we know we are winning the war with these ‘tired old men,’ including the 62-year-old Roosevelt as their Commander-in-Chief.” Roosevelt won on the first ballot.
The Democrats’ search for a vice president did mirror their 1940 convention. Conservative Southerners would not accept another term for the current VP, progressive Henry Wallace. This time, Roosevelt complied. The president’s second preference was James F. Byrnes, head of the Office of War Mobilization and one of his top advisors. But Byrnes was seen as too conservative on labor issues by union leaders who contributed heavily to the campaign. Roosevelt instead settled on Harry Truman, a popular Senator from Missouri and New Deal supporter, best known for heading a Senate committee to investigate war profiteering. Truman was not thrilled and considered the vice presidency to be a demotion, but he accepted his fate under fear that his refusal would cause a rift in the party. Although Wallace led on the first ballot, Truman secured his spot on the next round. Many called it the “New Missouri Compromise.” Later, a reporter alleged that Roosevelt had asked the DNC chairman to clear Truman’s nomination with the labor leaders who vetoed Byrnes. Republicans used this rumor to assert that the Democrats were beholden to radicals, not the American people.
Since Roosevelt was a preoccupied with a world war, Dewey initially dominated campaign news. He held back when discussing the New Deal and wartime foreign policy, but continued to charge that the White House needed fresh blood. Although he was adamant about replacing the president, Dewey did not make Roosevelt’s health a major issue, fearing it would backfire. In any case, the president defended himself from rumors by releasing a statement of good health from his physician. Roosevelt’s other main controversy was his support among Communists. Four years earlier, Democrats tied Republicans to radical Communists, as both opposed the president. But now that the US had allied with the Soviet Union, the tables had turned, and Communists supported Roosevelt. This made an easy target for Dewey. Roosevelt, who got along fairly well with his last two opponents, called this year’s contest “the meanest campaign of his life.”
Roosevelt ignored most attacks at first, but became more active in September. He gave a series of speeches to answer his critics and prove his physical health. His first speech was to the Teamsters Union in Washington, and is considered one of his best campaign speeches ever. Roosevelt told the crowd, ”Well, here we are – here we are again – after four years – and what years they have been! You know, I am actually four years older, which is a fact that seems to annoy some people. In fact… there are millions of Americans who are more than eleven years older than when we started to clear up the mess that was dumped into our laps in 1933.” He went on to ridicule Republicans who “suddenly discover” every four years, just before election day, that they love labor, after having attacked it “for three years and six months.” Humorously, he also responded to accusations that he spent taxpayer money on travel for his dog. “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent these attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself… But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.” The speech was a hit. Roosevelt was praised by the press, who noted his mastery of the political game.
Dewey considered accusing Roosevelt and his staff of having advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and failing to prevent it. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall was worried that the accusations, if made public, would reveal that the US had broken the secret Japanese diplomatic code, and would place its continued use in jeopardy. Marshall sent an intelligence officer to beg Dewey not to use it as a campaign attack. Dewey confirmed that he knew about the codebreaking and insisted that Roosevelt should be impeached. Marshall continued to pressure the candidate through letters, phone calls, and intermediaries. He insisted that Roosevelt did not know about the attack and that the message identifying Hawaii had not been decoded in time to act. Dewey eventually backed down. He ordered his aides to assemble everything they knew about the allegations and “put it away securely and forget it.” Roosevelt was informed of Dewey’s actions, but trusted his opponent not to put the US in danger for political purposes. The codebreaking was not made public until after the war.
A similar map to 1940. Still lots of blue!
Franklin D. Roosevelt won a FOURTH presidential term! He earned 432 electoral votes, against Dewey’s 99, and 53% of the popular vote. While it was the smallest of Roosevelt’s four victories, it was still a landslide. Afterwards, Roosevelt joked, “The first twelve years are the hardest”
What Did It Say About America?
The New York Times put it best: “Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected in a war year as a war president who could promise the country victory in the war and on the basis of victory, a lasting peace. If a majority of the American people were willing to accept the hazardous precedent of a fourth term, it seems clearly because they were convinced that in his extraordinary crisis the Republican Party offered them no satisfactory substitute for Mr. Roosevelt’s experience in military affairs and foreign policy, and no equally good assurance that under Republican leadership the country could achieve a lasting peace.”
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! Bring it home, Franklin! After twelve years in office, it must have been difficult for Americans to imagine anyone else in the White House. Roosevelt was not without his faults, but he offered stability in a time when the world was in great turmoil. The world wouldn’t be the same without him.