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Wendell Willkie

In 1940, World War II was already raging in Europe and east Asia.  France fell to the Nazi blitzkrieg that spring, and Japanese forces kept grinding away in China and Indonesia.  Great Britain was alone against Axis aggression, since the other two most powerful Allied nations in that war—the Soviet Union and the United States—wouldn’t join on Britain’s side until the next year.  The Soviets had made a pact with Germany, agreeing to split Poland between the two and to allow Soviet aggression to proceed unchecked against the Baltic states and Finland.  Germany wouldn’t betray its Soviet neighbor until the following June, so Josef Stalin was content to sit the war in Europe out.  His country had gotten what it wanted—he thought.

In the United States, there was a sense that entering the war was somewhere between likely and inevitable.  There had been talk about American intervention against Nazi aggression since before the war broke out, but the will wasn’t there.  Now that the war had begun, it was a major issue for Americans, and it figured significantly in the 1940 election.

The Republican Party was generally opposed to entering the war.  All of its likely presidential candidates were opposed: Senator Arthur Vandenberg (MI), Senator Robert Taft (OH), and Senator Charles McNary (OR).  Also in the mix was Governor Thomas Dewey (NY), who was also an isolationist, but preferred not to say much about the war.  Despite an impressive record as governor, his lack of foreign policy experience was hard for voters to overlook with much of the rest of the world getting sucked into the conflict.  Dewey had a record that would make him look pretty good in peacetime.  He’d successfully prosecuted organized crime in New York, nailing mobster “Lucky” Luciano and earning the nickname “Gangbuster”, but when Germany rolled over France in May 1940, non-interventionism suddenly lost its appeal to many voters, who were suddenly nervous about the war their country hadn’t entered yet.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, they didn’t have any non-isolationist options.

Well, they did have an option.  Their unlikely option was a savvy young man, a New York lawyer named Wendell Willkie.  Willkie had an unusual pedigree for a Republican: he had been a Democratic activist for his entire adult life.  He switched party affiliation in 1939, anticipating the problem the party would likely have after war broke out in Europe.  He was positioning himself as a potential compromise candidate at the 1940 Republican Convention in Philadelphia.

It was July, so the news from Europe had had plenty of time to sink in.  Also sinking were the poll numbers of the other Republican candidates.  Only twelve states held primaries that year, which meant that most of the delegates at the convention were going to be party insiders who weren’t pledged to any candidate in particular.  These insiders were free to act on shifting public opinion, and they did so.  Gallup showed interventionist Wendell Willkie was surging in the polls while all other Republicans were dropping.  While Willkie won only 1% of the Pennsylvania primary vote and 0% of all other states’, the Republicans at the convention rallied around the newly minted Republican and decided to nominate him for president, hoping to deny incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt (D-NY) a third term.

Willkie’s was a quixotic effort that actually paid off in the end.  Having an interventionist at the top of the ticket that year probably saved the GOP a number of seats in Congress that they likely would have lost that year if they’d nominated an isolationist.  Willkie came in third place on the first ballot, with Dewey and Taft in first and second places, respectively, but by the sixth ballot, Willkie had managed to build up enough support to lock down the nomination.

The convention was broadcast on the radio, of course.  The 48 states’ delegations approached the microphone and announced how many votes each candidate received.  Famously, the Minnesota delegation had a Norwegian immigrant make the announcement.  When he listed his state’s votes, he announced at one point, in his thick accent, “Two more votes for Vendell Villkie.”  The “Vendell Villkie” boomlet was a popular meme for a couple of years, getting repeated in the media and popular culture as a kind of cheeky phrase that didn’t mean much.  The most famous example of this meme appeared in the 1943 Bugs Bunny cartoon “Falling Hare”.  In it, Bugs is on a U.S. Army air base and is faced with a gremlin.  “Gremlin” was the all-purpose term for things that can cause problems with aircraft, so the cartoon was playing with another meme of the day.  After meeting the gremlin who’s trying to sabotage a bomber, Bugs turns to the fourth wall and asks the audience if they think that could have been a gremlin.  “Well, it ain’t Vendell Villkie!” the gremlin shouts at him as it runs off.

Left: Bugs Bunny tussles with a gremlin.  Right: U.S. Army poster warning airmen about gremlins.

Bugs Bunny in "Falling Hare", 1943

Willkie lost the election of 1940.  It’s likely he joined the Republican Party figuring that Roosevelt wouldn’t seek a third term.  No president had ever sought a third term before, and there was talk about Roosevelt’s failing health, so he might have figured he wouldn’t be up against a popular incumbent and the political juggernaut behind him.  Willkie won 82 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 449, and lost the popular vote by 5 million.  Had he won, he would have been the first president elected who had never held previous office, or been an officer in the military.

Willkie would not run for president again.  After the election, he announced he would return to practicing law, but those who knew Willkie doubted he would remain content in his old job.  Franklin Roosevelt kept in touch with Willkie throughout his administration, talking with him about the possibility of taking him on as his running mate in the 1944 election, since the president was famously discontented with Henry Wallace, his vice president since 1940.  There was even some talk of Roosevelt and Willkie creating a new liberal party in the United States, drawing from the left of both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Nothing came of this, and his relationship with the president started to sour.

In 1944, Willkie did not run, and was not even invited to speak at the Republican Convention in Chicago, where Thomas Dewey became nominated to be the last major-party candidate to date who had facial hair.  Dewey, having made a full conversion from isolationist to interventionist, sought Willkie’s endorsement, but did not get it.

Willkie was a heavy drinker and a smoker, and had poor diet and exercise habits throughout his life.  In August of that year he collapsed while traveling on a train.  It was his first heart attack.  His second came a month later.  By the time of his death on October 8, Willkie had suffered about a dozen heart attacks.  He was 52 years old.

Had Willkie been elected in 1940 and died in 1944, his vice president, Charles McNary, would not have become president, since McNary died in February of that year.  This would have been the only time in history that the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 would have been invoked, elevating whoever Willkie’s Secretary of State would have been to the presidency. 


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