Wendell L. Willkie campaigning for the presidency in his native town of Elwood, Indiana, 1940 Image Credit: Granger/REX/Shutterstock

The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country and Conceived a New World Order

By David Levering Lewis, Illustrated, Liveright Publishing, 371 pages, $28.95

Late in the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt sharply rebuked an aide for making a derogatory quip about Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the 1940 election. “Don’t you ever say anything like that around here again,” the president snapped. “Don’t even think it. He was a godsend to this country when we needed him most.” Coming from Roosevelt, never known for magnanimity to his foes, this was a remarkable statement. It was also true.

The 1940 presidential campaign coincided with one of the most perilous times in world history. Hitler’s Germany had just conquered most of western Europe, and Britain, which now stood alone against the Nazis, knew that its only hope for survival was aid from a then-neutral America. Although Roosevelt wanted to help, he was in the midst of seeking an unprecedented and controversial third term, and was wary of the political fallout in a country deeply divided over possible American involvement in the war.

Most Republican members of Congress were die-hard isolationists who, keenly aware of Roosevelt’s political vulnerability, opposed his cautious, halting efforts to aid the British. But their presidential candidate did not follow their lead. Where the war was concerned, Wendell Willkie told the 1940 Republican convention, “we here are not Republicans alone, but Americans.” To the fury of his party’s leadership, he turned those words into action.

David Levering Lewis’s book, The Improbable Wendell Willkie, is aptly titled. Like a shooting star, Willkie burned brightly, if briefly, over this country’s political landscape, leaving behind an astonishing legacy of bipartisanship that had an outsize impact on the outcome of the war. Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois, offers an insightful, compelling portrait of this political neophyte from the Midwest — a registered Democrat until 1939 — who stunned his newly adopted party and the nation by snatching the nomination away from the front-runners Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft and then sabotaged his own campaign by putting country above party.

The rumpled, ebullient Willkie first burst onto the national scene in 1933, when as head of one of the biggest electric power utilities in the country, he fought the Roosevelt administration over its plans to replace his company’s monopoly in much of the South with a bold new federal programme called the Tennessee Valley Authority. He lost that fight but emerged from it a respected national figure, a voice for moderate, middle-class Americans, notably businessmen, who felt that the federal government had grown too big, powerful and disdainful of private enterprise.

At the same time, Willkie criticised big business’s shortcomings and supported a number of New Deal reforms, including a minimum wage, a limit on workers’ hours, unemployment insurance and collective bargaining. When the Second World War began in 1939, he warned about the dangers that a German-controlled Europe would pose for America and in 1940 called for aid to Britain.

Although Willkie’s positions were anathema to most party regulars, they appealed to a small but influential group of moderate, internationalist Republicans, many of them from the Northeast. They included Wall Street lawyers and financiers, heads of major media companies and a sprinkling of party officials and political strategists. Alarmed by the strident isolationism of the leading presidential candidates, they reached out to Willkie as an alternative.

Lewis is particularly good at showing how Willkie’s implausible victory at the 1940 convention, often described as “the miracle of Philadelphia,” was in fact a carefully planned and skillfully organised stealth offensive by his well-connected supporters. While political types worked behind the scenes to organise a huge grass-roots campaign, newspaper and magazine publishers — particularly Henry Luce, owner of Life and Time — ran adulatory pieces about Willkie, calling on their readers to bypass the Republican bosses and make him the nominee.

Lewis astutely notes the fact that although Willkie was still regarded as a dark horse when he arrived in Philadelphia, “the entire convention machinery belonged to the Willkie team.” On the convention’s final night, after more than eight nail-biting hours of voting, he emerged the winner.

In February 1941, Willkie went before Congress to champion Roosevelt’s proposed Lend-Lease programme, which would provide military aid to Britain and other countries fighting Germany. His support helped sway public and congressional opinion, and the controversial bill was approved. Like the draft, Lend-Lease ended up playing a crucial role in the Allies’ ultimate victory. Willkie’s stand on Lend-Lease was the last straw for the party bosses, who had long regarded him as a “Republican Quisling” and a stooge for Roosevelt. His political career was over. Less than four years later, on October 8, 1944, he died of a heart attack at 52.

Over the last seven decades, Willkie has largely disappeared into the mists of history, recalled, if at all, merely as one of Roosevelt’s defeated rivals. As Lewis makes clear, he deserves so much more, not only for his crucial contributions to American unity in the Second World War but also for his lifelong commitment to civil rights and intense opposition to racism. In our own polarised age, Wendell Willkie serves as a poignant reminder of what can happen when a political leader steps up to do what is right, defying his party and putting the interests of his country and its people ahead of ambition and partisan advantage.

–New York Times News Service

–New York Times News Service

Lynne Olson’s latest book, Code Name Hedgehog: The Spies Who Helped Defeat Hitler and the Extraordinary Woman Who Led Them, will be published next May.