Wendell Lewis Willkie (February 8, 1892–October 8, 1944), whose grandparents came to America after the failure of the German democratic revolution of 1848, was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1940. Willkie was born and raised in rural Indiana, and before undertaking the study of law, he reflected on the progressive intellectual background of his upbringing in Elwood.
As a young attorney with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and then as a junior partner in a prestigious local law firm with a specialty in utilities matters, he engaged in political affairs, speaking out for Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations and leading a fight against surging Ku Klux Klan power. At the Democratic Party's 1924 national convention, Willkie participated in a futile floor battle to condemn the Klan. His leadership of the local bar association and experience in the utilities field led to an invitation to move to New York as a legal representative of Commonwealth and Southern, a newly formed holding company. Later, at the age of forty-one, and at the depth of the Great Depression, he took over as its president.
Willkie's corporate position clashed with the New Deal's Tennessee Valley Administration, bringing him into conflict with the federal government's efforts to provide cheap power to a vast backward area. Willkie's fight against such federal ownership ended when the Supreme Court upheld TVA. Commonwealth and Southern was paid an impressive $78,600,000 for its facilities, a process that gave Willkie prominence that endeared him to anti-New Deal businessmen as the administration's most engaging critic.
Even before Willkie became a Republican in the fall of 1939, the concept of him as United States president was promoted by an alliance that included businessmen, bankers, electrical power interests, and influential editors and publishers. Hastily organized Willkie Clubs tried to prevent Franklin D. Roosevelt from winning an unprecedented third term. Such corporate and grassroots Republicanism aimed at sparing the party from entering the election as indifferent to European victims of Nazi Germany. While other GOP presidential candidates held to a strong Midwestern sense of isolationism, Willkie feared that England was in imminent danger of invasion. With the announcement in January 1940 that Willkie had become a Republican and the news that spring that the Nazi blitzkrieg had rolled through France and the Low Countries and reached the English Channel, Willkie's popularity made quick gains. His promoters comprised a loosely organized so-called Eastern Establishment that came to dominate Republican presidential politics for the next twenty years.
At the Republican national convention, amid tumultuous nominating sessions energized by spectator galleries filled with Willkie boosters, "the darkest horse in the stable" won the nomination on the sixth ballot. His ranking in the Gallup poll had shot ahead of New York District Attorney Tom Dewey, a fact confirmed only after his victory at that enthusiastic Philadelphia convention. The candidate chose Senator Charles McNary of Oregon as his running-mate.
Leading a party dominated by anti-interventionists, Willkie wavered between backing aid for Great Britain and warning that Roosevelt's reelection would surely lead to young Americans dying in a European war, rhetoric he later dismissed as "a bit of campaign oratory." His key contribution to preparedness was the muting of political conflicts threatening to slow Roosevelt's efforts. In August, he offered a forthright endorsement of a selective service bill, which Congress approved the following month by a single vote. In early 1941, after the election, he testified in support of Roosevelt's efforts to help Great Britain via the Lend-Lease program, which fellow Republicans denounced as "the war dictatorship bill."
Failing to block a third term, losing by 449 to 82 in the electoral college (while picking up a Republican record of 22,321,000 popular votes to Roosevelt's 27,308,000), Willkie returned to New York City for a partnership in a law firm that gave him enough time to remain active politically. He undertook two overseas trips, the second on Roosevelt's behalf after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, which resulted in a very popular book, One World, an anticolonialist view of the future. Willkie also fought in the courts for civil liberties and worked for racial justice. Deserted by GOP conservatives, especially after losing a primary in Wisconsin during the spring of 1944, he received invitations to team up with Roosevelt, possibly to form a more liberal third party. Wary of being manipulated for political purposes by a shrewd president, Willkie decided to postpone his response until after the election, but he died on October 8, 1944, after a series of heart attacks at the age of 52.
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Herbert S. Parmet