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Wendell Willkie: The Forgotten Maker of History

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

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 organized stealth offensive by his well-connected supporters. While political types worked behind the scenes to organize 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.

As shocking as this coup was, Willkie’s cooperation with Roosevelt just weeks after his nomination was even more staggering. In the summer of 1940, the White House was considering a plan to send 50 old destroyers to Britain to help protect its shipping from German submarines, but Roosevelt refused to sign off on it unless Willkie promised not to make it a campaign issue. Willkie agreed, setting off a Republican firestorm that escalated when, in his campaign kickoff speech, he pledged to support legislation to create America’s first peacetime draft. The bill was political dynamite: If Willkie had opposed it, it almost certainly would have failed. Thanks to its passage, some 1.65 million men were in uniform when America finally entered the war in December 1941.

Although Willkie dropped his interventionist stance in the heat of the campaign and accused Roosevelt of trying to plunge the country into war, he returned to bipartisanship after his defeat in what turned out to be the closest election in more than two decades. Of Roosevelt, he declared in a national radio broadcast: “He is your president. He is my president. … We will support him.”

In February 1941, Willkie went before Congress to champion Roosevelt’s proposed Lend-Lease program, 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 Oct. 8, 1944, he died of a heart attack at 52.


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