The Most Important Presidential Election in History

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.

There is always a lively debate when people discuss “the most important” presidential elections in American history. Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and his leadership during the Civil War, the peaceful transfer of power from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt during the depths of the Great Depression are all contenders for the top spot. Certainly there are other important ones, the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan all mark major turning points in our history as our national identity underwent seismic changes. And presidential candidates routinely declare that THIS election is the most important one ever because …(fill in the blank.)

However if you step back and look at its impact on the world, no election was more important than the one that took place 75 years ago – the 1940 election of Franklin Roosevelt to an unprecedented third term in office. Being re-elected is never as dramatic as a major transfer of power from one party to the other. The fact that it was the only time in American history that a president defied the Two-Term limit established by George Washington is enough to give it great importance. But it is not the political contest that is important in this case, rather it is its consequences: if Wendell Willkie had been elected and Roosevelt defeated the outcome of World War II might have been very different. It might be a cliché but in this case it is true: the fate of the world hung in the balance.

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Richard Moe in his book Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War calls FDR’s decision to seek a third term “…one of the most consequential presidential decisions of the twentieth century, which led to a pivotal moment in American history. Roosevelt’s third term not only affected the course of the United States on the eve of the most horrific war in history but also affected how the world would be after it was over.”

83-7(20)There are few years in history where the forces of darkness and oppression were more powerful than 1940. In Europe the Axis Powers had conquered Albania, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and most of North Africa. The Japanese controlled large portions of China and were expanding their empire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The Nazi’s were building concentration camps, killing innocent women and children and dropping bombs on London. German submarines hunted in the North Atlantic and sank more than 1000 ships in 1940 alone. The British were on the verge of collapse and without American assistance they would not be able to withstand a Nazi assault.

Americans were strongly opposed to getting involved in another European war. Isolationist fever gripped the country and many powerful political leaders opposed President Roosevelt’s efforts to help England, even in his own party. When Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats to run for an unheard of third term people were outraged that he would violate such a sacred tradition.

72-18 69The Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie was a powerful Wall Street industrialist who had supported FDR in 1932, then turned against him when Roosevelt started to break up the electric monopolies. Willkie strongly opposed many aspects of the New Deal, but he supported giving some aid to Britain. He opposed getting involved in the conflict and accused Roosevelt of having a secret plan to join the war. Willkie attacked the president for running for a third term, claiming that “if one man is indispensable, then none of us is free.” He also harshly criticized the president for his Lend-Lease program saying it was “the most arbitrary and dictatorial action ever taken by any President in the history of the United States.”

Across the Atlantic the election was being watched very closely. Adolf Hitler detested Roosevelt and knew he would be a difficult adversary. He feared America’s industrial strength. An isolationist in the White House would make his plans to conquer Britain, and the world, much easier. Winston Churchill was terrified of the possibility that Roosevelt might lose the election. He believed that the fate of the British Empire and indeed the fate of the free world were at stake. He later wrote that he had followed the election “with profound anxiety” and that “No newcomer into power could possess or soon acquire the knowledge and experience of Franklin Roosevelt. None could equal his commanding gifts.” (Churchill : “Their Finest Hour”)

By election day, Nov. 5, 1940, Roosevelt had built a comfortable lead, and won the election by five million votes, with 54.8 percent of the popular vote and 84.5 percent of the electoral college. While this was the smallest of his victory margins, it was none-the-less a significant victory. A majority of citizens voted for experience at a time of crisis. Roosevelt spent the next year preparing the American public for the inevitable war with the Axis powers and transforming the industrial base to become the arsenal of democracy.

President Roosevelt’s leadership as the Commander In Chief during the next four years were extraordinary in every sense. Even as his health failed he continued to be a visionary leader laying the foundation for the United Nations and a future based on peace not war.

Longfellow letterOne final note. After the election Pres. Roosevelt enlisted Willkie into his war preparation efforts and sent him to England with a personal message for Winston Churchill. The letter contains a poem:

“Sail on, Oh Ship of State!

Sail on, Oh Union strong and great.

Humanity with all its fears

With all the hope of future years

Is hanging breathless on thy fate.”