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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: FDR’s GOP Opponent Who Became an Ally

By Tom Morrow

Of the four presidential campaigns Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran, he considered a small-town Indiana lawyer, Republican Wendell Willkie, as the most formidable of his opponents.

Wendell Lewis Willkie (born Lewis Wendell Willkie; Feb. 18, 1892, was an American lawyer and the 1940 Republican nominee for president.

Although the U.S. remained neutral prior to Pearl Harbor, Willkie favored greater U.S. involvement in World War II to support Britain and other Allies.

In 1933, Roosevelt was sworn in as U.S. president and soon after Willkie became head of Commonwealth and Southern Corp., a utility holding company. The president announced plans for a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that would supply power in competition with C&S. Between 1933 and 1939, Willkie fought against the TVA before Congress, in the courts, and before the public. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but sold C&S’s property for a good price, and gained public esteem.

On the assumption Roosevelt would not seek a third term, Willkie had been spoken of as a possible Democratic presidential candidate as early as 1937. A stream of positive press mentions for Willkie continued through 1938 and into 1939, culminating with a favorable cover story in Time magazine in July 1939. Willkie was initially dismissive of the many letters he received urging him to run for president, but soon changed his mind.

Willkie never had any doubt that Roosevelt would run for a third term, and that his route to the White House would have to be through the Republican Party. In late 1939, he changed his registration and early in 1940 announced he would accept the Republican nomination if it were offered to him. He felt the Democrats no longer represented the values he advocated. As he later characterized it, “I did not leave my party. My party left me.”

Willkie did not run in the 1940 presidential primaries, but positioned himself as an acceptable choice for a deadlocked convention. Willkie appealed to liberal, “Eastern Establishment” Republicans who saw none of the declared candidates to their liking. His rumpled suits, country-style haircut, and Indiana twang were reminiscent of ordinary mid-westerners, which led to some derision as the efforts to nominate him became more obvious. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes mocked Willkie as “a simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Theodore Roosevelt) said the Willkie campaign came “from the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs.”

Republicans didn’t want to nominate an isolationist like Thomas E. Dewey; they turned to Willkie, who was nominated on the sixth ballot over Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft. Willkie’s support for aid to Britain removed it as a major factor in his race against Roosevelt. Also, important, Willkie backed Roosevelt on a peacetime draft. However, Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term, taking 38 of the 48 states.

After the election, Willkie made two wartime foreign trips as Roosevelt’s representative. He continued as nominal leader of the Republican Party, but gave Roosevelt his full support, which angered many conservatives, especially as Willkie increasingly advocated liberal or internationalist causes.

Willkie will be remembered for giving Roosevelt vital political assistance in 1940, which allowed the president to aid Britain in its time of crisis. Willkie announced support of the president’s Lend-Lease program. It was highly unpopular in the Republican Party, and Willkie’s announcement created a firestorm. Almost 200 Republican members of the House and Senate. One senator remarked that “Willkie couldn’t dig up 10 friends if his life depended on it.”

Willkie had long been neglectful of his health and diet, smoking heavily, and rarely exercising. His heavy drinking had charmed the reporters in Philadelphia in 1940, but by 1944 it was becoming a problem. In August 1944, Willkie felt weak while traveling by train to his Rushville home. There, he suffered a heart attack, but refused to be admitted to a hospital.

Willkie’s condition only worsened as the weeks went on. He went to New York by rail and on the trip, he was stricken with another heart attack. he was said to have suffered over a dozen heart attacks. He died on Oct.8, 1944. The president released a statement saying, “… In this hour of grave crisis, the nation loses a great citizen.”

War Secretary Henry Stimson offered to have Willkie buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but Edith Willkie wanted her husband to be buried in his native Indiana, at Rushville. His casket was placed in the center aisle of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church; 60,000 people filed by his casket, and 35,000 crowded around the church during the service, including many blacks — as, Eleanor Roosevelt noted in her column, was fitting. Wendell and Edith Willkie rest together in Rushville’s East Hill Cemetery.


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