There's Nothing New Under the Sun Part Three - The Election of 1940

5 November 2018

A look at heated rhetoric of the 1940 U.S. Presidential Election between Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and Republican Wendell Willkie before the 2018 midterms.

*Disclaimer: This series of articles should in no way be taken as an endorsement of any political group, party or candidate. It is simply a look back at historical events to illustrate the fact that heated political discourse is not a modern phenomenon. There is nothing new under the sun.


In keeping with this series' theme of there's “nothing new under the sun,” which aims to underscore the fact that “shocking” political rhetoric is nothing new, part three will bring into the spotlight the United States Presidential Election of 1940. In part two, the Election of 1864 was discussed. Seventy-six years on from that contentious, war-time contest, war once again stalked a United States presidential contest. Though a more modern conflict than the Civil War was brewing, the United States had yet to enter into the fray. Europe was engulfed in World War II and during this campaign, dark historical events were taking place such as the fall of France to the Nazis.1 American interventionists and isolationists argued passionately about the level of aid to send our beleaguered ally in the region – Britain.2 As such, war was again foremost in the minds of the government and the public.

In 1940 two-term president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat and distant relation of Theodore Roosevelt, was causing waves with rumors he intended to run for an extraordinary third term.3 To do this would break the long-held tradition that American presidents only serve two terms in office. President Roosevelt was hardly the first to attempt this, however. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt ran, though unsuccessfully, for third terms. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only one to be successful. So successful, in fact, in 1944 when FDR ran for, and won, a fourth term, a consensus emerged that a president serving more than two terms was antithetical to democracy, and thus the 22nd Amendment was passed in 1947 prohibiting it.4

Prickly relationships, and indeed flat out hostility, between the media and the president is not a new phenomenon either. In 1937 President Roosevelt ordered a New York Times reporter to the corner for irritating him, humiliating the journalist in the process. Roosevelt went so far as to award another reporter an actual Nazi medal during a 1942 press conference for what he called, “giving aid and comfort to the enemy through his columns.” Things seemed to come to a head with the press when Roosevelt pulled the White House credentials of two correspondents who disagreed with his foreign policy and only reinstated them when his own press secretary threatened to quit.5

As with any other era and any other politician, Roosevelt had made enemies, with one New York Democrat, Tim Sullivan, proposing Roosevelt be drowned when he was still a young Senator in New York. Republicans referred to Roosevelt as “that man in the White House.”6 President Roosevelt was accused of being a dictator and his opponents lamented that the United States' system of government would not survive should he run for a third term. Anti-Roosevelt political rally participants, not content with attacks on the president, displayed signs that expressed distaste for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.7 In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt was accused of using her husband's presidency to enrich herself and her children. She was a favorite target with critics taking aim at everything from her looks to her activist politics.8

On the GOP side, contenders were lining up to challenge the incumbent president, from a former president's son and senator, Robert Taft, and the future governor of New York, Thomas Dewey. However, the candidate who would receive the Republican nomination, Wendell Willkie, was considered an outsider. Willkie was a New York businessman who had been a registered Democrat and had contributed to that party's candidates. Indeed, the Democratic and Republican stances on the prevailing issues of the day were not that different. Though Willkie's platform was criticized for being too similar to President Roosevelt's, his opposition to a third term for Roosevelt was his most potent rhetorical truncheon. Wendell Willkie was popular, had a sense of humor and was often taken to hyperbole.9

As the campaign got underway, Roosevelt was cagey, refusing to put gossip about a third term run to rest. This caused stress within in his own party.10 Indeed, well into the Democratic Party's convention in July 1940, Roosevelt would neither confirm nor deny his intentions. Finally, the president notified his party that he had no intention of running, but they nominated him anyway. As World War II raged and the Battle of Britain began, resistance to a third run within the president's own party festered. However, Democratic Party bigwigs feared nobody but Roosevelt could defeat the popular Republican candidate Willkie. Other democrats saw this as a ploy to hide his third term ambitions and make it seem he was “drafted” into running by the sheer will of the Democratic Party.11
 

Racism reared its ugly head in the 1940 election as well and was used as a political bludgeon by both nominees' supporters and the media. Adolf Hitler's vicious comments regarding African Americans were presented by some to appear as if GOP nominee Willkie supported them. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was the subject of anti-semetic attacks, deriding him as the president of “Jew-nited States.” Both Willkie and Roosevelt were accused of being part of a “Jewish” cabal that conspiracy theorists claimed controlled the American government and Willkie's German heritage was the subject of suspicion and paranoia. Both Democrats and Republicans hurled invective, comparing each candidate and their supporters to Hitler and the Third Reich. The Republicans accused Roosevelt of, “explosive utterances,” and of “leading us [the U.S.] into war.” His opponent, Willkie, with his characteristic bombast, attacked the president at times as a war monger and an appeaser at others.12

Despite all the back-and-forth, Roosevelt won handily.13 Perhaps what awarded the incumbent a third term was the notion, as Abraham Lincoln cautioned voters in 1864, a war time election was “no time to swap horses in the middle of the stream.14 Or perhaps it was, as the Republicans were fond of saying, referring to Roosevelt's lavish spending on social programs, “you can't beat Santa Claus.”15 Whatever the case, Franklin D. Roosevelt is revered today for leading America, and the world, in the defeat the Nazi scourge.

Now, of course, tomorrow's election is not a presidential contest, but a midterm. The whole point of this series is to show that outrageous political discourse is not only nothing new, it is not unique to intense elections. Part four will address other instances of heated political rhetoric from ancient forerunners of modern democracy to the American pamphlet wars of Colonial times.

 


1 Wikipedia. "United States presidential election, 1940," Wikipedia.org (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1940 : last edited on 20 October 2018, at 08:02 (UTC) : last accessed 4 November), para. 9.
2 David E. Johnson and Johnny R. Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House: Foolhardiness, Folly, and Fraud in the Presidential Elections, from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush (Lanham, Maryland : Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004), pages 91 and 92.
3 Ibid.
4 YourDictionary, n.d, "Which President Served More Than Two Terms?," Biography.yourdictionary.com (http://biography.yourdictionary.com/articles/which-president-served-more-than-two-terms.html : last accessed 4 November 2018), paras. 3-11.
5 J. Mark Powell, "Another president hated the media even more than Trump does," WashingtonExaminer.com (https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/another-president-hated-the-media-even-more-than-trump-does : last accessed 5 November 2018), paras. 10-12.
6Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 92-93.
7Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 98-99.
8 Cynthia Koch, "They Hated Eleanor, Too," FDRFoundation.org (http://fdrfoundation.org/they-hated-eleanor-too/ : last accessed 5 November 2018), paras. 9 and 14-23.
9Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 93 and 96-99.
10 Ibid.
11 Wikipedia. "United States presidential election, 1940," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1940 : last edited on 20 October 2018, at 08:02 (UTC) : last accessed 4 November), para. 5-6. Also Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 95-96.
12 Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 94 and 97-99.
13 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, "United States presidential election of 1940," Britannica.com (https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1940 : last updated 29 October 2018: last accessed 5 November 2018), 1940 Election Results Table.
14 "Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words: Folk Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media," Books.Google.com (https://books.google.com/books : last accessed 5 November 2018); citing "Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words": Folk Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media, Wolfgang Mieder, author (Peter Lang Publishing Company, 2008), pg. 211.
15Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pg. 101.

There's Nothing New Under the Sun Part Three - The Election of 1940

5 November 2018

A look at heated rhetoric of the 1940 U.S. Presidential Election between Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and Republican Wendell Willkie before the 2018 midterms.

*Disclaimer: This series of articles should in no way be taken as an endorsement of any political group, party or candidate. It is simply a look back at historical events to illustrate the fact that heated political discourse is not a modern phenomenon. There is nothing new under the sun.


In keeping with this series' theme of there's “nothing new under the sun,” which aims to underscore the fact that “shocking” political rhetoric is nothing new, part three will bring into the spotlight the United States Presidential Election of 1940. In part two, the Election of 1864 was discussed. Seventy-six years on from that contentious, war-time contest, war once again stalked a United States presidential contest. Though a more modern conflict than the Civil War was brewing, the United States had yet to enter into the fray. Europe was engulfed in World War II and during this campaign, dark historical events were taking place such as the fall of France to the Nazis.1 American interventionists and isolationists argued passionately about the level of aid to send our beleaguered ally in the region – Britain.2 As such, war was again foremost in the minds of the government and the public.

In 1940 two-term president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat and distant relation of Theodore Roosevelt, was causing waves with rumors he intended to run for an extraordinary third term.3 To do this would break the long-held tradition that American presidents only serve two terms in office. President Roosevelt was hardly the first to attempt this, however. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt ran, though unsuccessfully, for third terms. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only one to be successful. So successful, in fact, in 1944 when FDR ran for, and won, a fourth term, a consensus emerged that a president serving more than two terms was antithetical to democracy, and thus the 22nd Amendment was passed in 1947 prohibiting it.4

Prickly relationships, and indeed flat out hostility, between the media and the president is not a new phenomenon either. In 1937 President Roosevelt ordered a New York Times reporter to the corner for irritating him, humiliating the journalist in the process. Roosevelt went so far as to award another reporter an actual Nazi medal during a 1942 press conference for what he called, “giving aid and comfort to the enemy through his columns.” Things seemed to come to a head with the press when Roosevelt pulled the White House credentials of two correspondents who disagreed with his foreign policy and only reinstated them when his own press secretary threatened to quit.5

As with any other era and any other politician, Roosevelt had made enemies, with one New York Democrat, Tim Sullivan, proposing Roosevelt be drowned when he was still a young Senator in New York. Republicans referred to Roosevelt as “that man in the White House.”6 President Roosevelt was accused of being a dictator and his opponents lamented that the United States' system of government would not survive should he run for a third term. Anti-Roosevelt political rally participants, not content with attacks on the president, displayed signs that expressed distaste for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.7 In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt was accused of using her husband's presidency to enrich herself and her children. She was a favorite target with critics taking aim at everything from her looks to her activist politics.8

On the GOP side, contenders were lining up to challenge the incumbent president, from a former president's son and senator, Robert Taft, and the future governor of New York, Thomas Dewey. However, the candidate who would receive the Republican nomination, Wendell Willkie, was considered an outsider. Willkie was a New York businessman who had been a registered Democrat and had contributed to that party's candidates. Indeed, the Democratic and Republican stances on the prevailing issues of the day were not that different. Though Willkie's platform was criticized for being too similar to President Roosevelt's, his opposition to a third term for Roosevelt was his most potent rhetorical truncheon. Wendell Willkie was popular, had a sense of humor and was often taken to hyperbole.9

As the campaign got underway, Roosevelt was cagey, refusing to put gossip about a third term run to rest. This caused stress within in his own party.10 Indeed, well into the Democratic Party's convention in July 1940, Roosevelt would neither confirm nor deny his intentions. Finally, the president notified his party that he had no intention of running, but they nominated him anyway. As World War II raged and the Battle of Britain began, resistance to a third run within the president's own party festered. However, Democratic Party bigwigs feared nobody but Roosevelt could defeat the popular Republican candidate Willkie. Other democrats saw this as a ploy to hide his third term ambitions and make it seem he was “drafted” into running by the sheer will of the Democratic Party.11
 

Racism reared its ugly head in the 1940 election as well and was used as a political bludgeon by both nominees' supporters and the media. Adolf Hitler's vicious comments regarding African Americans were presented by some to appear as if GOP nominee Willkie supported them. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was the subject of anti-semetic attacks, deriding him as the president of “Jew-nited States.” Both Willkie and Roosevelt were accused of being part of a “Jewish” cabal that conspiracy theorists claimed controlled the American government and Willkie's German heritage was the subject of suspicion and paranoia. Both Democrats and Republicans hurled invective, comparing each candidate and their supporters to Hitler and the Third Reich. The Republicans accused Roosevelt of, “explosive utterances,” and of “leading us [the U.S.] into war.” His opponent, Willkie, with his characteristic bombast, attacked the president at times as a war monger and an appeaser at others.12

Despite all the back-and-forth, Roosevelt won handily.13 Perhaps what awarded the incumbent a third term was the notion, as Abraham Lincoln cautioned voters in 1864, a war time election was “no time to swap horses in the middle of the stream.14 Or perhaps it was, as the Republicans were fond of saying, referring to Roosevelt's lavish spending on social programs, “you can't beat Santa Claus.”15 Whatever the case, Franklin D. Roosevelt is revered today for leading America, and the world, in the defeat the Nazi scourge.

Now, of course, tomorrow's election is not a presidential contest, but a midterm. The whole point of this series is to show that outrageous political discourse is not only nothing new, it is not unique to intense elections. Part four will address other instances of heated political rhetoric from ancient forerunners of modern democracy to the American pamphlet wars of Colonial times.

 


1 Wikipedia. "United States presidential election, 1940," Wikipedia.org (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1940 : last edited on 20 October 2018, at 08:02 (UTC) : last accessed 4 November), para. 9.
2 David E. Johnson and Johnny R. Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House: Foolhardiness, Folly, and Fraud in the Presidential Elections, from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush (Lanham, Maryland : Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004), pages 91 and 92.
3 Ibid.
4 YourDictionary, n.d, "Which President Served More Than Two Terms?," Biography.yourdictionary.com (http://biography.yourdictionary.com/articles/which-president-served-more-than-two-terms.html : last accessed 4 November 2018), paras. 3-11.
5 J. Mark Powell, "Another president hated the media even more than Trump does," WashingtonExaminer.com (https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/another-president-hated-the-media-even-more-than-trump-does : last accessed 5 November 2018), paras. 10-12.
6Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 92-93.
7Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 98-99.
8 Cynthia Koch, "They Hated Eleanor, Too," FDRFoundation.org (http://fdrfoundation.org/they-hated-eleanor-too/ : last accessed 5 November 2018), paras. 9 and 14-23.
9Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 93 and 96-99.
10 Ibid.
11 Wikipedia. "United States presidential election, 1940," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1940 : last edited on 20 October 2018, at 08:02 (UTC) : last accessed 4 November), para. 5-6. Also Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 95-96.
12 Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pgs. 94 and 97-99.
13 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, "United States presidential election of 1940," Britannica.com (https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1940 : last updated 29 October 2018: last accessed 5 November 2018), 1940 Election Results Table.
14 "Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words: Folk Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media," Books.Google.com (https://books.google.com/books : last accessed 5 November 2018); citing "Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words": Folk Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media, Wolfgang Mieder, author (Peter Lang Publishing Company, 2008), pg. 211.
15Johnson and Johnson, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, pg. 101.

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