Before World War II, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the main political concerns in the United States involved social and economic issues. During the war, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, the key issues driving U.S. political debates and election campaigns were foreign policy and national defense. The two main political parties in the United States, the Republicans and the Democrats, held to their traditional ideas of how the nation should be governed. The Republicans favored the idea of a relatively small and limited federal government, whereas the Democrats preferred the federal government to take a leading role in providing services and protections for the nation's citizens. During World War II Americans reelected President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), a Democrat, to an unprecedented third term and fourth term. Franklin Roosevelt is the only American president who served more than two terms, and he greatly influenced U.S. politics during the war.
Politics before the war
During the mid-1930s, as Germany and Japan were busy building large militaries, the United States concentrated on domestic issues. The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression, an economic crisis that began in the United States in late 1929 and spread throughout the world during the 1930s. By the late 1930s the Republican Party and the Democratic Party had each developed a distinct ideology (a set of beliefs or ideas) strongly influenced by the Great Depression experience. President Roosevelt, a Democrat, first took office in March 1933. Roosevelt introduced a set of programs designed to combat the suffering caused by the economic crisis; the new programs were collectively known as the New Deal. To administer these programs the federal government greatly expanded in size and power. From that point on, the Democratic Party, led by Roosevelt, stood for a big, central government that would support social services and provide economic assistance for the aged, disabled, and poor. People referred to members of the Democratic Party as liberals because they looked to the government to improve their financial security and healthcare, things not traditionally supported by the government prior to the 1930s.
The Republican Party, whose members were called conservatives, opposed having a large federal government and extensive social programs. Republicans favored a much smaller national government and greater local rule. They were the dominant political power throughout the 1920s, as the nation's economy boomed and unemployment was low. However, by 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, many people began to see the benefits of large government—namely, assistance during times of great crisis—and gave their votes to the Democrats.
In 1936 Roosevelt won a sweeping victory in his bid for a second presidential term, receiving almost 61 percent of the public vote. The Democrats held the majority of seats in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, and, as a result, had much control over legislative activities in Congress. Political support for the Democrats in 1936 came from a diverse group of voters, including white Southerners, large-city urban dwellers, Catholic immigrants, Jews, black Americans, and lower-income voters. In contrast, the Republicans were generally supported by white Protestants and higher-income voters.
Although Roosevelt and the Democratic Party held great political power after the 1936 elections, major problems soon arose for Roosevelt. Because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that some of his new federal programs in the 1930s were unconstitutional, Roosevelt introduced a proposal to reorganize the Court. This proposal proved highly unpopular with Congress and the public. They feared Roosevelt's presidency was becoming too powerful. Then the economy, which had gradually been improving, took another downturn in 1937. Many of the Democrats elected to Congress were Southerners with conservative views. They worried about the growth of government and feared Roosevelt would increasingly support greater rights for women and minorities. With Roosevelt's public support somewhat weakened after the attempt to reorganize the Supreme Court, the Southern Democrats began to join forces with Republicans to form a conservative coalition (a temporary alliance of different groups). They blocked further growth of government and new domestic social measures that Roosevelt had hoped to initiate.
In the 1930s the American public favored a foreign policy of isolationism (the policy of avoiding formal foreign commitments and involvement in foreign conflicts). Congress shared the public's attitude: When German troops, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), began to march through Europe in 1937, both Democrats and Republicans believed the United States had no business getting involved in the unfolding European events. The horrifying experiences of chemical warfare in World War I (1914–18) had made Americans deeply reluctant to enter another war. A public poll taken several years after World War I showed that a majority of Americans believed U.S. entrance into the war had been a mistake. Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) was a key spokesman for isolationism. As the first person to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean (in 1927), Lindbergh was an American hero. With U.S. government assistance, he made three trips to Germany between 1936 and 1938. Greatly impressed by the massive level of Nazi (the ruling political party of Germany, more formally known as the National Socialist German Worker's Party, led by dictator Adolf Hitler from 1920 to 1945) militarization, Lindbergh became convinced that the United States should not try to militarily oppose Hitler's actions in Europe if they did not directly threaten the United States. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, setting off World War II (1939–45), Lindbergh became even more vocal for U.S. isolationism. He gave five national radio talks during a fifteen-month period after the Polish invasion. By April 1941 he was a top spokesman for the America First Committee, the leading organization opposed to war with Germany. Lindbergh lost influence after he made anti-Semitic statements (statements that express hostility toward Jews) in a speech. However, the majority of Americans would continue opposing war with Germany until late 1941.
In 1938, with his domestic agenda effectively blocked and war appearing imminent in Europe, Roosevelt quietly turned to foreign policy issues. He considered the possibility that the United States could be drawn into the European conflict. Despite the public's isolationist mood, Roosevelt and Congress worked together to pass a bill creating the Selective Service System in 1940. This bill called for the first peacetime military draft (a legal requirement that young men serve their country in the military for a certain period of time) in U.S. history. Congress expanded the draft in 1941; the bill passed by only one vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Politics on the eve of war
In the history of the United States before 1940, no one had ever been elected to three terms as president. In the later part of Roosevelt's second term, the public seemed well opposed to his running again. However, during the presidential election year of 1940, the powerful German military made major advances. In early 1940 the Germans gained control of much of Western Europe, and France surrendered to Germany in June. Then, as U.S. political parties were preparing to nominate their candidates in the summer of 1940, the Germans began bombing Britain. The possibility of Britain falling to Hitler caused a good deal of public concern, and the political debate grew between interventionists (those who favor involvement in foreign affairs) and isolationists.
Presidential Term Limits
Franklin Roosevelt's reelection to an unprecedented third and fourth term as U.S. president during World War II had a permanent impact on American politics: It inspired the Twenty-Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that limits presidents to two terms in office.
In his first term as president, during the Great Depression, Roosevelt demonstrated an impressive ability to relate to the common person. He instilled confidence and hope during hard times, and in 1936, though the Depression dragged on, the American public reelected him for a second term. In 1940 Americans were uneasy about the prospect of entering the worldwide war; again they chose Roosevelt—a familiar and comforting leader—as their president. Four years later, when victory appeared certain, new worries arose: When war production ceased, the U.S. economy might go back into a depression. Trusting that Roosevelt could prevent this, the public made him president for a fourth time.
Many Americans, though perhaps highly supportive of Roosevelt, generally believed a person should not hold the presidential office for so long. Their increased powers and influence would likely be unhealthy for the U.S. governmental system that relies on a balance between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Therefore, in 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. The brief amendment begins simply, "No person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice…." Because of this amendment, Roosevelt's political legacy will likely remain unique in U.S. history.
Roosevelt decidedly fell on the side of intervention but cautiously avoided getting involved in any discussion of the issue. However, public debate over U.S. foreign policy would greatly influence which candidates were nominated for president. Gradually, public opinion shifted toward Roosevelt; one poll showed that 60 percent of voters said they would support Roosevelt for a third term. Roosevelt had provided leadership and comfort through one major crisis, the Great Depression. Now people were hoping he could help them through another potential crisis, a worldwide war. Roosevelt easily won the Democratic nomination.
On the Republican side, Ohio senator Robert A. Taft (1889–1953) and New York district attorney Thomas E. Dewey (1902–1971) were initially the main candidates vying for the party's nomination. Taft was a staunch isolationist. This position caused concern among the public, because the rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe seemed to demand some response from the United States. On the other hand, Dewey seemed too young to be president. A third candidate, Wendell L. Wilkie (1892–1944), came to the fore-front. The head of a major Midwest utility company, Wilkie was attractive to Republican voters because he opposed big government, including Roosevelt's New Deal programs. On foreign policy Wilkie was an interventionist, differing little from Roosevelt, and supported U.S. aid to Britain. Wilkie won the Republican nomination.
As election day drew near and Germany's bombing of Britain continued, Roosevelt held a firm lead in the polls. Wilkie began challenging Roosevelt more on the war issue. He accused Roosevelt of being a warmonger (one who readily threatens war) who would readily thrust the United States into another costly war. Roosevelt responded with a famous pledge: In a Boston speech he stated that he would not send America's youth into a foreign war. (However, when Japan later attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he broke that pledge with strong public support.) Desperately trying to gain an advantage in the campaign, the Republicans began saying that Roosevelt's possible third term could be the beginning of an American dictatorship, similar to the dictatorships that had recently been established in Germany and Italy.
On election day Roosevelt received almost 55 percent of the vote, and the Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate). The Democratic coalition that had formed in the 1936 election held together. It included diverse segments of society, from white Southerners to urban black Americans, from Catholic immigrants to Jews. Concern over the war played a major role in the outcome of the election: A growing number of people were becoming more interventionist as the threat of German military expansion grew. Polish Americans also favored a tough stance against Germany, because German troops had invaded and taken over Poland. These voters chose Roosevelt over Wilkie. If America was forced to enter the war, Americans felt safer with Roosevelt's pro-British position and his experience in managing crisis. People hoped that the domestic security he represented could
be translated to home front security in the event of a war. Congress remained cautious, however, in supporting Roosevelt's calls for war mobilization in U.S. industry. Nonetheless, isolationism was weakening, and in 1941 Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, approving a program that would supply Great Britain with war materials produced in the United States.
Politics during the war
After the Japanese attacked U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States made its official entrance into World War II: The United States declared war on Japan, and Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Sensing that the shocked and enraged public would no longer accept political bickering between the Democratic and Republican Parties, leaders of the two parties suggested that they work together for the sake of winning the war. After all, Britain had gone so far as suspending public elections throughout the war and formed a special coalition government made up of representatives from all the British political parties. Congress decided to give Roosevelt a free hand in foreign policy and home front defense. However, the political truce over home front issues proved impossible to sustain. Before long, traditional partisan politics (taking positions on political issues primarily based on party allegiance rather than the general good of the nation) would return on the home front.
The first public elections after the Pearl Harbor attack came in November 1942. The war played a much greater role in these congressional midterm elections than it had in the 1940 presidential election. At this point, the war was not going well on the battlefield, and on the home front industrial mobilization (converting from production of civilian consumer goods to war materials) seemed chaotic. Critical industries lacked key resources, such as rubber, aluminum, and steel, because of scarcity and distribution problems, and shortages of consumer goods occurred more frequently. An unpopular and complex rationing program (a system to make foods and other items of short supply available in limited amounts to ensure citizens receive a fair share) was growing, wage and price controls had begun, and labor shortages were frustrating America's effort to meet production goals. Bickering between Republicans and Democrats in Congress grew; they accused each other of hampering U.S. war efforts by either allowing the government to intervene in industrial activities too much or not enough. Republicans claimed they could bring greater efficiency to war mobilization. Democrats called for continuity in leadership and support for the wartime president. The war had become the number one political issue.
The Republicans made substantial gains on election day, winning new seats in both houses of Congress. Though the Democrats still held majorities in both houses, the coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats was strengthened. Not only were there more Republicans, but some conservative Democrats replaced those who had supported Roosevelt's social programs of the 1930s. The strengthened coalition would seriously restrict Roosevelt's home front war policies by limiting government control over industrial mobilization and blocking any newly proposed social service programs. In explaining the Republican success, some political analysts pointed to the low voter turnout as a key factor. Only twenty-eight million voters turned out, whereas fifty million had voted in 1940. Some political analysts thought the ongoing movement of young servicemen and workers seeking war production jobs hurt the Democratic vote since that segment of society was considered strong supporters of Roosevelt and the Democrats. However, most analysts thought it more likely that the public was dissatisfied with management of the home front economy, particularly the complex rationing system and the unpopular Office of Price Administration (OPA) that administered it. This dissatisfaction may have caused a mild withdrawal of support for the Democrats. Perhaps the biggest factor in the loss of Democratic seats in Congress was simply that Roosevelt was not running. It was a midterm election, not a presidential one, and the Democratic supporters of Roosevelt's policies could not generate as much enthusiasm to counter the rising conservative coalition.
A conservative Congress
Through 1942 and 1943 America was becoming increasingly politically conservative on the home front. In times of war and faced with uncertainty, people are often less open to accepting new political or social ideas. The focus is on winning the war and protecting closely held traditional social beliefs. Opposed to federal planning, spending, and social programs, the conservative Congress went to work cutting back the smaller and more vulnerable New Deal programs that still existed from the previous decade. In 1942 Congress cut funding for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The CCC had been one of Roosevelt's favorite New Deal programs. Originally it trained enrollees in outdoor conservation programs such as wildfire fighting, tree planting, and trail construction. As America edged closer to entering the war, the CCC began teaching skills that would be useful in the military. Roosevelt unsuccessfully argued that the CCC could teach boys under draft age to look after public parks and forests. The WPA had provided much-needed work during the Depression, assisting with large public projects such as building schools and dams. However, as better-paying jobs became available in the war industries, fewer people took advantage of the WPA work program.
During 1943 Congress exerted its control over Roosevelt's home front agenda. It shut down the National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency that helped unemployed youths, especially black Americans, by teaching them vocational skills for war industries. Congress also reduced funding for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The FSA helped small, marginal farmers buy land and machinery. The REA provided electricity to sparsely populated rural areas. Congress did not tackle more-popular New Deal efforts such as Social Security (a federal program that provided economic assistance for citizens including the aged, retired, unemployed, and
disabled), banking regulation, farm price supports, and labor laws.
Congress also terminated the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB), a group in charge of planning a postwar home front economy. The NRPB was considering an expansion of Social Security and other social services. It also planned to restart public works projects, government-funded construction projects to build schools, highways, and ports for public use, to maintain full employment after the war. Opponents, including business leaders, claimed that the plan represented socialism (a political and economic system in which the government owns and controls most means of production). In socialism, the government controls all means of economic production and sets prices of goods. In capitalism, upon which the U.S. economy is based, private business and markets largely free of government intervention determine the prices of goods. Through its House Un-American Activities Committee, Congress opened investigations of supposed political radicals in the Roosevelt administration. HUAC was driven by the conservative members of Congress who adamantly opposed those in the Roosevelt administration who advocated social service programs and industry regulation; they were considered political radicals by the conservatives. The investigation was another way to put Roosevelt on the defensive regarding home front politics.
Roosevelt realized that Congress was unwilling to consider any new social reform legislation. In a press conference in late 1943 he declared that "Dr. Win-the-War" had replaced "Dr. New Deal." These were nicknames he had been given in editorial cartoons. However, Congress was still uncooperative and rejected some of Roosevelt's war-related proposals as well. Among the rejected ideas was a new tax proposal to help fund war expenses. Congress proposed a far smaller tax bill, which the president angrily vetoed. Undeterred, Congress passed the bill despite the veto.
Looking to the future
In January 1944 Congress passed a notable piece of legislation that pleased President Roosevelt. It was the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, more popularly known as the GI Bill. The bill offered many benefits to veterans returning to the home front from the battlefield; it would also serve as a major social reform program. The bill pumped millions of dollars of government funds into the home front economy as the war came to a close. It provided veterans $20 a week for up to one year to help them make the transition back to civilian life. It also provided educational benefits, low-interest loans for the purchase of homes, and loans to run farms and start businesses. The GI Bill greatly contributed to the nation's postwar prosperity. By 1950 U.S. war veterans had purchased 4.3 million homes with the GI loans. Housing construction increased to meet the demand, providing jobs and ending a long-standing housing shortage. Almost eight million veterans went to school under the bill, enrolling in high schools, trade schools, and colleges. In all, sixteen million veterans and their families—one-third of the U.S. population—benefited from the GI Bill. They passed the benefit along to millions of nonveterans by spending the government funds in all sectors of the economy.
Despite the conservative political climate in Congress, Roosevelt kept some of the NRPB's postwar economic plans alive. In his State of the Union address in January 1944, Roosevelt called for an expanded postwar economy with the government providing work programs for those not able to find employment elsewhere and social service programs to help the disadvantaged. He proposed a "second Bill of Rights" that addressed home front economic prosperity and security. It would ensure jobs, food, medical care, housing, and social insurance, such as Social Security, to provide economic safety nets for those unable or unfit to find work, for all Americans. There was
no chance that Congress would act on such an idea, but Roosevelt wanted to at least express the future hopes of the Democratic Party.
The 1944 presidential election
With the presidential election looming in November 1944, a political battle erupted over how the eleven million people serving in the armed forces would be able to vote. More than half of them were stationed overseas. Polls showed that those in the military were strongly Democratic. Consequently, the Democratic Party wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to vote. The Republicans, hoping to make the voting more difficult, raised concerns about states' rights. (Normally the states determine voting eligibility requirements and the federal government plays little role except to guard against discrimination.) After months of debate, an absentee ballot system was devised as a compromise. Ballots were made available to those serving in the military, and four million soldiers made use of the system to vote.
The Republicans needed to find a new candidate to challenge Roosevelt. The 1940 candidate, Wendell Wilkie, had lost favor with the party for his increasingly liberal views. The party returned to Thomas Dewey, who had been elected as governor of New York in 1942. In Republican tradition, Dewey promoted limited government and a postwar economy led by private enterprise with little federal involvement through regulation or social service programs.
The Democrats were considering who Roosevelt's running mate should be. Roosevelt's health was declining; his running mate could very likely become president (that is, Roosevelt might not live through the entire four-year term). Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965) had been Roosevelt's vice president since 1941. However, Wallace held unconventional and liberal views—he was in favor of establishing strong economic ties with the Soviet Union and avoiding military escalation; he was also known as a strong supporter of government social and research programs—on both domestic and foreign policy issues, and he was not well liked by many Democrats. To replace Wallace on the ticket, the party considered former senator and U.S. Supreme Court justice James F. Byrnes (1879–1972). Byrnes was known as Roosevelt's "assistant president" on home front economic issues. However, Byrnes, a strongly conservative South Carolinian, supported racial segregation programs and opposition to labor organizations and, therefore, was unacceptable to liberals, labor union members, and black Americans, all of whom were traditionally Democratic voters. The Democrats instead turned to Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), a senator from Missouri. Truman had become well known to the public when he headed a Senate committee investigating the performance of big business (a group of large, profit-making industries that exert a major influence over national politics) in the war mobilization effort. Truman was considered a political moderate (not tending to favor extreme views on political issues and favoring a conservative viewpoint on some issues and a liberal perspective on others), and he had supported Roosevelt's New Deal programs during the Depression. He was known as an excellent political campaigner who appealed to the common person.
By the fall of 1944, with the election approaching, both Germany and Japan were in retreat. Battlefield victories for the Allies (the nations fighting alongside the U.S., including Great Britain, France, and others) were mounting, and it was becoming obvious that they would win the war. With nearly twelve years of experience as the leader of the United States, Roosevelt firmly believed that he was the candidate best suited to deal with other world leaders in shaping the postwar world. Few were willing to argue that point.
Besides winning the war and establishing peace, the key election issue was postwar prosperity on the home front. American business was still booming, but postwar employment was a major concern. For example, in Connecticut nine out of ten workers were in war production industries, and it was uncertain whether they could find new jobs after the war. With Roosevelt showing strong support of labor during the 1930s before the war, he continued to enjoy a large labor following through the early 1940s. Almost 70 percent of labor union members considered themselves Democrats, so unions launched a sweeping voter registration drive. They registered thirty-six thousand voters in a single day in St. Louis, Missouri. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an important labor group, established a political organization to support pro-labor Democratic candidates.
For their campaign the Democrats pointed out that continuity in leadership would be crucial during the last, critical stages of the war. Roosevelt promoted his economic bill of rights to ensure economic security following the war. He promised to sustain full employment in the postwar period. Republicans took aim at Roosevelt on personal issues, claiming that he was too old and tired to tackle a fourth term, that he might be dying. Roosevelt had been paralyzed below the waist by polio since the early 1920s and had suffered a bad bout of influenza in late 1943; the latter seriously damaged his health. In February 1944 doctors discovered that Roosevelt was also suffering from hypertension (a heart condition causing abnormally high blood pressure) and heart disease. However, much of the information on Roosevelt's health was not released to the public. Indeed, even close friends of the president did not know the extent of his health problems.
Republican attempts to cast doubt about Roosevelt did not do much good. The Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, was unable to connect with the common citizen; his cool and aloof manner worked against him. In desperation, Republicans charged that Communists were infiltrating the Roosevelt administration. (Communism is a political and economic system calling for the elimination of private property so that goods are owned in common and, in theory, available to all. A single political party controls all aspects of society, as was the case in the Soviet Union from 1917 until 1991.) They also attacked Roosevelt's pro-labor union positions. Many believed labor unions were un-American, infiltrated by political radicals eager to change the U.S. capitalistic system.
Despite Republican efforts to unseat him, Roosevelt won a fourth term of office, earning more than 53 percent of the vote. He attracted the same diverse voter support as before: urban dwellers, lower-income voters, blue-collar workers, Jews, Catholic immigrants, and black Americans. Roosevelt had been successful as commander in chief during the war, and the public felt comfortable with him leading the nation into the unknown of the postwar period. Polls showed that the public had great faith in Roosevelt's ability to achieve home front economic security. Though the Democrats gained a stronger hold in the House of Representatives, the Republicans made some gains in the Senate with the support of higher-income, white Protestant, and Midwestern voters.
Politics as usual
The Democratic coalition of diverse voters, forged during the Great Depression, stayed intact throughout the war years. The conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats remained strong and increasingly influenced home front politics. In the 1944 election, the last public election held during the war, the home front remained politically much the same as before the war. The war had brought little political change, though debate over domestic issues grew more heated.
The 1944 election was the last time Southerners would vote so strongly for the Democratic presidential candidate. The war had intensified racial conflict in the South as blacks moved into already overcrowded towns to work in war industry jobs. Racial concerns began to dominate Southern politics, and white Southerners turned away from the Democratic Party because it supported increased civil liberties (protection of certain basic rights from government interference, such as freedom of speech and religion) for racial minorities.
End of a political era
For most Americans Roosevelt remained the top political figure in the United States through 1944—a symbol of home front security and a champion of the common man. Roosevelt's presidency ended on April 12, 1945, when he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) while vacationing at his Georgia retreat. His vice president, Harry Truman, took over as president and led America to war's end. Truman soon faced major decisions: how to handle Germany's surrender in May and whether to use atomic bombs (a bomb whose massive explosive force comes from a nuclear reaction involving uranium or plutonium) to end the war with Japan. Truman also continued Roosevelt's home front agenda, promising a strong government role in the postwar economy.
For More Information
Fleming, Thomas J. The New Dealers' War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1990.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu (accessed on June 30, 2004).