An engaging new book about the U.S. presidential election campaign in 1940 highlights how close America came to adopting a "hands-off" isolationist policy toward Europe, following France's surrender to German armies in June and Britain's ensuing struggle for survival against a massive bombing campaign by Hitler's Luftwaffe.
1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindberg, Hitler--the Election amid the Storm, by historian Susan Dunn, depicts powerful political forces that urged America to "stay out of Europe's war." One of them, the America First Committee, had Charles Lindberg, a national hero for being the first pilot to fly the Atlantic non-stop, as its major spokesman. He had lived in Britain during the 1930s and became convinced after visiting Germany that it would win the European war and that giving Britain aid was a waste of resources.
Joseph P. Kennedy (father of the future president), the U.S. ambassador in London, concluded that Britain was too divided politically and socially to resist German arms. After returning to the States he lobbied against the Lend-Lease Program for Britain.
In mid-1940, as German armies overran France, Belgium and Holland, a crucial presidential election campaign was underway in the United States. Democrats wrestled with the problem of finding a replacement for Franklin Roosevelt who had served two terms and said he would not run again. Republicans too were desperate to find a suitable candidate who could regain the White House after eight years.
Dunn details how Roosevelt manipulated the Democratic Party's nominating process to ensure that he emerged as the overwhelming choice at the Chicago convention and provides a fascinating insight into his exceptional political skills. It helped that events in Europe had persuaded many party leaders that continuity in the White House was vital to the country's security.
Republicans were united in denouncing the president's New Deal policies, but they were deeply split between isolationists and internationalists on foreign policy. Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg were strong isolationists, while Thomas Dewey and a political newcomer, Wendell Willkie, represented a more internationalist outlook. The Republicans finally chose Willkie, a young, vigorous campaigner who had wide support among major newspapers and eastern financial interests.
The fall election campaign emphasized two major themes: Should Roosevelt have more than two terms in the White House? And was the president taking the country into the European war? Willkie supported the president's policy of providing military aid to Britain and strongly attacked his New Deal policies. But he faced strong opposition among isolationists who charged that he had sold out to the president on foreign policy. Both Roosevelt and Willkie pledged that they would not take the country to war.
Franklin Roosevelt won a third term because most voters preferred continuity in leadership during time of danger. They trusted him to steer a prudent course.
Roosevelt's reelection and Willkie's endorsement of aid to Britain in 1940 set the stage for sixty years of bipartisanship in foreign policy, a period that spanned the Cold War against the Soviet Union and beyond.
However, every new president, beginning with Harry Truman, needed to reaffirm America's commitment to an internationalist foreign policy. In 1952, Republican neo-isolationists, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, mounted a major campaign to limit U.S. commitments abroad. But the party nominated war hero Dwight Eisenhower, and his election victory reaffirmed America's commitment to an internationalist policy.
John Kennedy faltered during his first year in office, 1961, with an ill-fated intervention in Cuba and his acquiescence in erection of the Berlin Wall. Although he recouped a year later in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's introduction of troops into Vietnam led to a large, costly war that deeply divided the public on foreign policy.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan reasserted a robust internationalist policy and forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Europe and Afghanistan. But he caused a political backlash against his clandestine intervention in Nicaragua. In the 1990s, with the Cold War over, Bill Clinton continued an interventionist policy in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
By the early 2000s, bipartisanship fragmented when George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, two costly, inconclusive wars that severely strained America's economy. As a result, Barack Obama faced an increasingly divided public and Congress in 2009, and many Democrats and Republicans called for reductions in military operations abroad and to cutbacks in foreign aid and intelligence gathering.
A major lesson to be learned from studying seventy years of foreign policy decisions by thirteen presidents is this: America needs to select candidates for president who understand the international political arena. This will help avoid mistakes in judgment that frequently occur during a new president's first year. Republicans and Democrats should do a better job in their party primaries to identify well-qualified persons to be the "decider" in foreign policy, and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.
File last modified on Wednesday, 13-AUG-2013 11:25 AM EST