The Election of 1940 - FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh and Hitler

GUEST: Susan Dunn
AIR DATE: 07/27/2013
VTR: 05/23/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is an historian who has brought me – as she surely will bring you – enormous reading pleasure with her new Yale University Press volume titled “1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler – the Election amid a Storm”.

Susan Dunn is a Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Williams College. Among her other historical writings, she has co-authored with historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns The Three Roosevelts … about, of course, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor.

In her new book, 1940, Professor Dunn tells the extraordinarily evocative story of our nation divided so bitterly in 1940 between isolationist and interventionist forces, between “America Firsters” and those of us who believed instead that a free America as we knew it could not long survive Europe’s and England’s defeat by Hitler.

So that in the Presidential race that year many Americans saw Franklin D. Roosevelt’s defeat of Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, with FDR’s re-election to a thoroughly unprecedented third term, as absolutely necessary.

And I trust you’ll indulge my personal memories as a skinny 15-year-old political partisan parading the streets of upper West Side Manhattan passing out flyers that read, “A horse’s tail is soft and silky, lift it up and you’ll find Willkie.”

DUNN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: It didn’t take long, of course, for most Americans to realize that – party imperatives aside – when it came to the basic issue of that Presidential election year: strict neutrality towards both the Axis and the Allied Powers, FDR and Wendell Willkie really saw eye to eye, both siding with England, however fervently some of Willkie’s fellow Republicans joined isolationist aviation hero Colonel Charles Lindbergh in believing that it was Germany instead that reflected “the wave of the future”.

DUNN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: And I would first like to ask today, to ask Professor Dunn to elaborate a bit on those isolationists and America “Firsters” and on how her book’s title can legitimately join them all together: “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler – the Election amid the Storm”? How can you put those names … that fact together?

DUNN: Well, you’re so right. That FDR and Willkie were both internationalists and you might have been thrilled that FDR won, but I must say that Willkie was a real mensch. He was a man of tremendous integrity, great humanity, generosity and on the question of civil rights, he was ahead of FDR, who, as you know, had to kowtow quite a bit to the South since the south was his most important political base.

The isolationists … yes … Lindbergh was their principal spokesman, the charismatic heroic aviator who flew across the Atlantic in a single engine plane that he himself had designed in 1927 and one can get on YouTube the, the videos of tickertape parade that he was thrown in New York.

He was a great hero. What happened is that a few years later, as everyone knows, his child was kidnapped. And Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh felt very harassed by the American press and they left the United States and moved to Germany.

Actually not to Germany … first the England and then to and then to France, but they travelled a lot in Germany and they were treated as great dignitaries in Germany and Lindbergh fell for all the German propaganda on the one hand and was dazzled by Hitler whom he felt was a great visionary.

On the other hand, he did learn about the tremendous technological advances in German aviation that, to a great extent Germany was ahead of the United States and when Lindbergh did come back to the United States to live permanently in 1939, he spoke to people in, in national defense circles and helped inspire defense research that ultimately resulted in things like the Manhattan Project.

So on the one hand Lindbergh did make a contribution. On the other hand, his isolationism was completely poisonous. He felt that the United States was protected by the two vast oceans, that we were invulnerable, impregnable and he also … he and his wife both felt that … you mentioned the wave of the future … that’s the title of his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s best selling book that came out in October 1940 as the height of the election season … it’s a short little book … and she wrote exquisitely, but the book is rotten to the core. It’s called The Wave of the Future and the wave of the future, according to Anne Morrow Lindbergh was Fascism.

And it was dazzling and it was dynamic and she put the word democracy in quotation marks because it was so quaint and outmoded and old fashioned and who would possibly want checks and balances and that slow process, but one, of course, in the 20th century would need a great dreamy romantic dictator like Hitler … so …

HEFFNER: How did Willkie win the party’s nomination then if Lindbergh expressed what must have been some substantial part of Republican isolationist thinking.

DUNN: Willkie and Roosevelt were both internationalists, but Roosevelt for the most part had his party behind him. If Willkie had won, we would have also had a great anti-Fascist President, but he would have had most of his party not behind him. Very divided. At one point, right after winning the nomination, Willkie said he wanted to debate with FDR and Harold Dickey said “No”, Willkie should debate with his own party members because they didn’t agree. Hmm, what was again the question?

HEFFNER: Well, the question really had to do with … how could Willkie have gotten the nomination …

DUNN: Oh, yes … exactly.

HEFFNER: … from these people?

DUNN: When is the Republic Convention in Philadelphia? It’s in the middle of June 1940. And who’s … who were the candidates for the GOP nomination? All isolationists … Taft … Robert Taft … very Conservative isolationist Senator from Ohio. Herbert Hoover, believe it or not thinks he’s going to make a comeback. Arthur Vandenberg, another isolationist Senator from Michigan and Thomas Dewey, also quite isolationist, the District Attorney in New York.

What happens … June 22nd, 1940 … France surrenders to Hitler. That’s the eve of the GOP Convention.

HEFFNER: You think that did it?

DUNN: Absolutely. Absolutely. They picked the one dark horse, the one internationalist in the whole convention. Yes.

HEFFNER: What about the stories one hears about the way the galleries were loaded by Willkie’s people and that it was the “We want Willkie” chants that came through the convention that stampeded it.

DUNN: I, I don’t know if it stampeded it, but he, he was well … somewhat well organized.

HEFFNER: He wasn’t well-organized according to what you write.

DUNN: Exactly. It was … perhaps his backers … especially Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune … he, he did have important backers. What’s interesting about Willkie … I said that he’s a mensch, he’s a great internationalist … a … an inspirational person.

But he … he had never run before for public office. So the dark horse at the GOP convention is the one person who had never before run for any public office, not for dog catcher. He was the utilities magnet … the head of a giant Southern utilities holding corporation. And his campaign, in fact, was quite amateurish.

We were talking before about FDR’s great speech writer, Robert Sherwood, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, who FDR tapped to help him write his incredibly moving and beautiful speeches.

Willkie had no one. He had a staff of amateurs . So his, his campaign was disorganized. He won ten states, FDR won 38. But what’s so interesting about that is that … naturally they fought and attacked each other as … rather gently, but nevertheless during the campaign … but as soon as the election was over … they came together and they became, what I call, almost a team.

And at one point FDR said that Wendell Willkie was a godsend to the United States, that without Wendell Willkie, we might not have had Lend/Lease which was probably the one … of the most important policies during the war that helped win the war and that supplied Britain with all of the war material … planes, tanks, whatever they needed … basically for free … we would “lend” them.

And, and Willkie also supported Selective Service, which is another interesting detail about this amazing election season … that right before the election … FDR wanted to win … but nevertheless he took an astounding chance by passing and signing a Selective Service Act … compulsory universal military training and service weeks before the election … all these American boys are going to be drafted. And at the same time he was saying in his campaign speeches that he had a promise to make to American mothers and fathers that “I will not send your boys to fight in foreign wars”.

HEFFNER: That was the hooker … it wasn’t foreign wars, the war became ours … that …

DUNN: We’re attacked. He said that … if we’re attacked, it’s not a foreign war. And that’s actually what happened. But nevertheless those were “weasel words”.

HEFFNER: What do you, as an historian, think about the charge … and it is a charge that has been made by the former isolationists, the America “firsters” that President Roosevelt actually set things up … I’m not talking about the notion that he had the planes lined up in the Hawaiian Islands waiting for the Japanese to attack … but that Roosevelt made it impossible, given what the Japanese wanted, given what Hitler wanted, for anything to happen other than that we would be attacked. What’s your judgment of that?

DUNN: Hmm, when my students ask questions like that … I …

HEFFNER: You put them down?

DUNN: I refer them to a wonderful article and I suggest that just about everybody read it … by the great political scientist Richard Hofstadter and the title of the article is “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”.

HEFFNER: Now, come, come, Professor Dunn …

DUNN: FDR was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War I, he did not want that fleet destroyed and also on YouTube … YouTube … by the way, the whole universe is on YouTube … and I show the historical videos to my students, it’s an amazing resource. Any, anybody who’s listening to us who hasn’t seen what the attack on Pearl Harbor was like can get, get that. And the devastation is phenomenal and heartbreaking and to think that the President could have wanted that or even partially engineered it …

HEFFNER: You’re, you’re …

DUNN: Nevertheless, the Japanese did us a favor. Because FDR didn’t want to enter the war. He, he did not want to take action …

HEFFNER: Unless we were attacked.

DUNN: Unless we were attacked. So the Japanese helped us. And then, what happens a day or two later … Hitler declared war on the United States. Thank you, Adolf for doing that. FDR was very, very ambivalent … interestingly the people who were the most pro-war were his Republican appointees.

Also what confused the Republican Convention in Philadelphia wasn’t just France’s surrender to Hitler, it was two days before that FDR appointed two Republicans to two of the key posts in his Cabinet … Henry Stimson, Secretary of War … lifelong Republican and Frank Knox, lifelong Republican Secretary of the Navy.

And they didn’t agree with FDR that we would give England all help short of war … they said, “Why not war?”

HEFFNER: You know, let me … I’m going to take you back a moment. You’ve raised the hackles with me … referring to Dick Hofstadter’s paranoid comments … not paranoid comments … comments about the paranoid style in, in America. Dick Hofstadter was my teacher …

DUNN: Well, you were lucky.

HEFFNER: I was very, very lucky. I want to be as realistic as he was. Certainly Roosevelt was no great hero to him when he wrote his American political leadership … American political … what was the American political …

DUNN: Tradition.

HEFFNER: Tradition and the men who made it. Roosevelt was not a great hero to him. Would Roosevelt have been less of a hero for you … and I gather that he is … had he conducted himself in a way that was certain to bring the Japanese into an attacking position and the Germans into …

DUNN: Not … well, certainly not at the cost of the …what happened in Pearl Harbor. But I do personally wish that the United States had entered the war (laugh) earlier. It’s a … there are two things that are very personal to me about this book.

One is the introduction to … the dedication to my parents … my mother who escaped from Germany in 1938, my father who served in World War II … so, so it’s a personal story, too. And, and it’s also personally intellectual because when I say “the election amid the storm” in the title … I was seeing a movie last night … The Mortal Storm … believe it or not …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

DUNN: Frank Borzage’s great 1940 anti-Nazi film and I’m thinking I should have called the book The Election Amid the Mortal Storm because what is being threatened … Western civilization itself is being threatened. And Western civilization represents everything that is most precious … in my opinion that human beings have ever accomplished. Judeo-Christian morality … things as simple as the Golden Rule … and the … the legacy of the enlightenment.

HEFFNER: Then how do you account as a historian for the sizeable and certainly very influential isolationist, America First Movement. How do you account for the fact that Lindbergh, who was a great hero … and you named before and in your book … I was astonished as you went down the list of people I didn’t know had been in the America First Movement.

DUNN: Yes, yes, yes. Very surprising.

HEFFNER: Kingman Brewster …

DUNN: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: How do you account for that?

DUNN: I think naiveté … great political naiveté. Ostrich-like blindness … most historians say that these people were perhaps mostly well-meaning. They …

HEFFNER: Do you think so?

DUNN: Well meaning only if they were also stupid and didn’t read the newspapers and didn’t see the front pages of the newspapers and see what was going on. Many of them were scarred by World War I. Millions of deaths that were senseless deaths, mustard gas, trench warfare … that … they were, they were scarred by that. They were anti-Semites. They were mid-Western isolationists. For some reason, the mid-West, more isolated from the Coast … was the most isolationist region in the country.

There were some people like Lawrence Dennis, the theorist of American Fascism, who believed in Fascism … again that it was the future, the wave of the future, dynamic, etc. There were some business men who wanted to continue trading and working for Nazi Germany. Ford Motor Company was making engines in Germany until very late.

HEFFNER: Do you think that those who have criticized the American press were correct, who said that the press didn’t, until the very end, let us in sufficiently to what was going on in Germany? I don’t’ think so because I lived through those years.

DUNN: Oh, I think there were great correspondents, Shirer was reporting from Berlin … took … kind of late … 1940 …

HEFFNER: Late.

DUNN: … you have Edward R. Murrow. I, I think … a lot of my research in the book is from American newspapers because now we … I have … and people have online data bases that historians never had access to. Now … it’s called “Pro-Quest” … have access in one … time doesn’t exist in these websites … so in two seconds I can access every editorial on … Wendell Willkie in a certain month, or a certain year … whatever you want. It’s all there.

For my research, the newspapers are informing the American public quite well. There is a resistance to that. For instance on the question of immigration … there was a period in which Germany wanted to expel the Jews. Great … free ticket out. And countries wouldn’t take them. And the United States was …

HEFFNER: … including the Unites States …

DUNN: … absolutely including the United States. The, the restriction … they weren’t … the United States was not even filling its immigration quotas, which were … which had been reduced more and more over the years.

And they were especially concerned because there was anti-Semitism in the United States and unemployment. So they, they were quite averse to, to immigration. Nevertheless, they understood what was happening in Germany.

HEFFNER: Professor Dunn, when Sinclair Lewis wrote, “It Can’t Happen Here” … do you think it could have happened here? Is that your judgment?

DUNN: No, I don’t think it could have happened here. No. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … all men are created equal … Alexander Hamilton in his first Federalist Essay … Federalist Number 1 … in which he is arguing that the state, state ratifying conventions should accept the Constitution … he says “This Constitution is the result of reflection and choice, that sums up American democracy.” Reflection … it, it … we believe in intellect, we believe in rational debate, in deliberation, in thought, in human reason and in choosing the form of government that we want.

And Alexander Hamilton also said to a friend, “We think in English”. There is that tremendous intellectual, cultural bond with Great Britain and so I don’t think it could have happened here.

HEFFNER: But, of course, what I’m talking about is … could it happen here now?

DUNN: Philip Roth wrote a novel called … for which he did nice research … called The Plot Against America …

HEFFNER: Right.

DUNN: In which he imagines that Lindbergh wins in 1940 and that FDR comes back in 1944 …so he … it’s an interesting exercise in counter-factual history. But personally I, I love the United States. Again, I mentioned how personal it is to me. I’m very grateful that the United States let my mother in here in 1938 … and, and I see how, how much young immigrants believe in our Constitution and our principles.

In fact if I have just another 30 seconds I could say that many countries … you’re French or perhaps you are Swiss or Spanish because you have a common language or religion or history … in the United States what holds us together is our belief in this piece of paper … the Constitution. We have no common race, common religion, perhaps not even a common language. But we all become neophytes, acolytes of this Constitution and what it stands for … self-government.

HEFFNER: Which leads me to a little research I did into your teaching … thinking about the, the course that you give on the Roosevelt style of leadership in which your description of it … and we just do have a couple of minutes left … you talk about “The Three Roosevelts transform the role of government in American society, bringing about fundamental and lasting change”. Would you repeat that today? Would you say the same thing today? I don’t know when you wrote that course description.

DUNN: Ahemm …

HEFFNER: “Fundamental and lasting” change.

DUNN: Yes, I think the, the Theodore Roosevelt coming after decade after decade of laissez faire government in which government was completely passive and letting the so-called “Robber Barons” and the Gilded Age take over. Set the … Theodore Roosevelt set the stage for FDR. And FDR believed in a … and it hasn’t yet been fulfilled, but nevertheless many Americans still believe in it … he, he … he gave a talk in which he, he spoke about economic bill of rights. He said, “Our Bill of Rights is fine … freedom of speech, freedom of the press, but not if you’re hungry. If you’re hungry, it’s not enough to have freedom of speech. And we have economic rights, too, to security in old age, to health care, to an education, to decent living conditions and even to a few days off from work a year, so that we can relax.”

I think that has become a, a core message in American government that people on … most likely people on all sides of the political spectrum agree on, although they interpret it in different ways.

HEFFNER: Gosh. Honestly, you believe that and that the fights that are going on today do somewhat give the lie to the notion that there was a permanent Roosevelt revolution.

DUNN: I don’t see the Republicans trying to undo Social Security. There are extremist strains that are trying to cut back on Medicaid …

HEFFNER: And privatizing Social Security?

DUNN: He had to dump that idea pretty fast. It didn’t work.

HEFFNER: Didn’t get the support for it. For good political reasons.

DUNN: I was speaking to one Conservative newspaper columnist and asking him if the New Deal offended him. And he said, “No, it wasn’t so much the New Deal, it was the Great Society.

HEFFNER: You mean it was Lyndon Johnson, not FDR.

DUNN: It was the expansion under LBJ that … if that columnist speaks for other moderate Conservatives, apparently that that’s their beef.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I … can’t argue with you because you’re quoting a contemporary journalist. But I am interested in this notion about fundamental and lasting change. And I, I, I must say that your book, 1940 about Willkie and even about Lindbergh and Hitler and their relationship … in analyzing the campaigns and the election is one of the most interesting, one of the most thrilling I’ve read in a long, long time. And I much appreciate your willingness to put this all down on paper.

DUNN: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Thank you and thank you for joining me today, Susan Dunn. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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