The Greatest Convention: In 1940, the Contest Was Never Closer, the Stakes Never Higher

By Peters, Charles | The Washington Monthly, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

The Greatest Convention: In 1940, the Contest Was Never Closer, the Stakes Never Higher


Peters, Charles, The Washington Monthly


Political conventions have not always been so devoid of excitement that television networks cover them only grudgingly. Nominees have not always been determined months in advance of the proceedings whose original purpose was to choose them. But it has been a long time since. The last closely contested Republican convention was between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in 1976. The Democrats have to look back another 20 years to find their last real nailbiter.

That was when Estes Kefauver barely defeated John Kennedy for the vice presidential nomination in 1956. The Republicans also saw a reasonably close fight between Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft in 1952, and the Democrats had another for the vice presidency between Henry Wallace and Harry Truman in 1944.

That brings us back to 1940, and the convention that had it all the five days in Philadelphia during which the Republicans took six ballots to select a candidate. Not only was the convention exciting, but the stakes were also high: Would this country keep its head in the sands of isolationism, or would it face the menace of Adolf Hitler?

The 1940 race began with Tom Dewey, who had gained national attention as a crusading district attorney, comfortably in the lead for the Republican nomination, with over 50 percent in the Gallup poll, followed by Ohio senator Robert Taft and Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg. Although Dewey and Vandenberg would later become internationalists--and Dewey may have been a closet one even then--all three men were campaigning as isolationists, determined to keep this country, out of World War II, which had started the previous September. In this regard, they probably reflected the attitudes of most Americans and certainly those of the great majority of Republicans. The Nazi conquest of Poland had settled into "the phony war," with neither side doing much of anything. Most Americans disliked Hitler, but they felt little danger from him because the mighty British fleet appeared to control the seas, and on land, behind the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, there was the French army, widely considered to be the best in the world, standing ready to repel the Nazis.

One potential Republican presidential candidate was clearly more concerned about Hitler than the others. This was Wendell Willkie, the president of Commonwealth and Southern, a utility holding company in New York. Willkie had become a public figure because of his spirited defense of the private electric companies against the threat presented by New Deal public-power projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Born in a small town in Indiana, Willkie still had his hair cut "country-style." He seemed to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He was also handsome, vital, and warm, with immense personal appeal. To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt's sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie beg-an to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential. It included much of the staff of The New York Herald Tribune, the voice of the northeastern Republican establishment. Willkie had met that newspaper's publishers, Helen and Ogden Reid, through their friend and his mistress Irita Van Doren, the Herald Tribune's book editor. Van Doren also introduced him to a wide range of journalists and writers, including the novelist Sinclair Lewis and his wife, the prominent columnist Dorothy Thompson.

At a conference in August 1939, Willkie met and was immediately befriended by Russell Davenport, the editor of Fortune. Through Davenport he met Henry Luce, the most powerful publisher in America. Luce, who strongly opposed Hitler, owned Life, the first and by far the most popular picture magazine whose impact at the time could only be compared to that of a combination of several of today's television networks. Luce also owned Time, the most popular of the magazines devoted to reporting current events. …

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