Once Upon a Time, Another Tycoon Stole the GOP
But unlike Donald Trump, Wendell Willkie was a powerful proponent of internationalism and America’s role as a global steward.
Donald Trump’s political successes this year have been unexpected, but they are not unprecedented. Trump is not the first charismatic businessman to win the Republican nomination for president and then take on a Democratic nominee who was the target of a whispering campaign over personal health issues.
Three-quarters of a century ago, another outsider, Wendell Willkie, seized control of the GOP. As with Trump, Willkie’s run of victories amazed professional politicians and experts. There are striking similarities between the political trajectories of the two men. But in their views of America’s place in the world, Willkie and Trump are opposites. Willkie took a generous view; Trump takes a mean view. Willkie saw an unstable world and proposed a strategy of engagement; Trump sees an unstable world and demands a policy of withdrawal.
In 1940, Willkie, the president of the Commonwealth & Southern Corp., a giant utilities holding company, decided to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then contemplating a third term. Willkie made the journey from registered Democrat to Republican presidential nominee in less than a year.
Like Trump, Willkie started with no campaign organization. His aides were not professional politicians but novices who had thrown in their jobs to work for him. As a supporter of the New Deal, he was outside the Republican mainstream. Perhaps most damaging of all, he was known to have voted for the hated FDR in 1932 and even contributed $150 (about $2,500 in today’s money) to his campaign. This was a lot for the Grand Old Party to swallow.
But Willkie had some advantages. His personality was, well, yuge. He stood out in any gathering like a “buffalo bill in a herd of cattle,” said the New York Herald Tribune. He attracted enthusiastic supporters who collected petitions and formed “Willkie Clubs” all around the country.
None of Willkie’s opponents could match him for star power. At the Republican convention in Philadelphia in June 1940, the galleries were full of fans chanting, “We want Willkie! We want Willkie!” Delegates were inundated with hundreds of thousands of telegrams demanding his nomination — which he won, against all odds, well after midnight on the sixth ballot.
Willkie’s full-throated internationalism enabled him to knock off better-known and better-credentialed Republican opponents, who were mainly isolationists. Of the Republican candidates for president that year, only Willkie clearly identified Adolf Hitler as a threat to U.S. national security and urged the dispatch of military aid to the allies.
In the 1940 election, Willkie received more popular votes than any previous Republican candidate for president but still 5 million fewer than Roosevelt.
Following the 1940 election, Willkie continued to argue for a broad definition of U.S. national security, coming out in favor of FDR’s concept of lend-lease aid. With lend-lease, Roosevelt proposed that the United States lend Britain the supplies it needed to continue the fight against the dictators, accepting in-kind repayment “when the show was over.” FDR didn’t want the bean-counters to weaken U.S. security. He told reporters at the White House that he intended to “get rid of the silly, foolish old dollar sign” — not a statement one can imagine emanating from the Trump Organization.
Opponents of lend-lease labeled it a “fascist” initiative that would turn the president into a dictator. The new isolationist pressure group America First (sound familiar, anyone?) promised to oppose the lend-lease bill “with all the vigor it can exert.” If Trump cavils at NATO commitments, then lend-lease would have sent him around the bend.
In early 1941, Willkie flew to the United Kingdom on a mission to boost British morale and focus Americans’ minds on Europe. He visited the ruined Coventry Cathedral, which had recently been destroyed by the German Luftwaffe. He climbed into air raid shelters, met with trade unions, and took tea with the king and queen at Buckingham Palace. Far from tallying up the cost of helping a friend — as Trump urges the United States to do — Willkie showed solidarity with the British people. After the recent Brexit vote, by contrast, Trump visited a golf course in Scotland (his own) and reveled in the regrettable British decision to leave the European Union.
Two days after his return to the United States in February 1941, Willkie testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of the lend-lease bill. Well over a thousand people watched Willkie parry attacks from hostile senators with wit and flair. Lend-lease passed the Senate in March. Willkie had deflated the bill’s opponents and prevented them from making it a partisan issue.
Wendell Willkie’s U.K. mission strengthened the morale of America’s allies and helped build a bipartisan consensus in favor of U.S. leadership. Donald Trump’s candidacy is undermining the confidence and unity of America’s allies and picking apart that consensus.
Indeed, the differences between these two men are striking. When Willkie lost, he declared: “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt, and I tried to keep from pulling any of my punches. He was elected president. He is my president now.” By contrast, Trump has attempted preemptively to delegitimize the result of the forthcoming election by stating, “We’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.”
Willkie sympathized with democrats; Trump identifies with strongmen. Willkie praised those Americans who fought for freedom; Trump disses their families. Willkie volunteered to serve in World War I; Trump received five deferments from the draft in the Vietnam War (including one for bone spurs in his feet). Willkie helped push isolationism to the margins of national life; Trump is bringing it back toward the center. Willkie saw the advantages of global leadership; Trump is oblivious to them.
Willkie saved the Republican Party from the ignominy of having been on the wrong side of the most important fight in world history. He helped steer the United States on a path toward global leadership, which has served the country’s interests well. Trump is on the wrong side of the most important international questions. He threatens to force the United States down the cul-de-sac of isolationism.
In May 1941, Wendell Willkie argued the case for U.S. leadership in a widely read article in Collier’s magazine, concluding: “Americans, stop being afraid!” He wanted to cure his countrymen of the belief that they could hide behind great oceans (or even beautiful walls). He believed that the United States was strongest when it was confident, optimistic, and outward-looking.
It is time American voters took that message to heart.
Photo credit: Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons