1940: FDR’s Third Presidential Campaign

A Third Term

Roosevelt’s decision to seek a third term as president broke the longtime precedent established by George Washington.  FDR left it until very late in the season to see if his own conditions for doing so had been met: the expansion of the war in Europe (most recently the fall of France), and wanting to be drafted for the nomination.  Not all Democrats wanted to give him a third term but enough did that he won the nomination handily after Eleanor flew to the Chicago convention and gave a rousing speech. Since Vice President Garner opposed a third term – and considered reaching for the post himself – FDR selected Iowa-born Henry Wallace, his Secretary of Agriculture, to be his running mate.  A Republican who turned Democrat to vote for FDR in 1932, Wallace embraced the New Deal. At Agriculture, he created school lunch and food stamp programs, and through the Agricultural Adjustment Act implemented farm production controls that helped raise prices and income for farmers.  The fact that FDR selected Wallace, rather than leaving the vice-presidential choice to the party, was also a first.

Wendell Willkie: Republican Candidate

The Republicans’ somewhat unusual choice was Wendell L. Willkie of Indiana, lawyer, successful businessman, and formerly head of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation which provided electricity to 11 states.  Having acquired a national reputation in the 1930s, he beat out better known Republicans like Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Thomas E. Dewey of New York.  Only recently a Republican, Willkie had supported Roosevelt and the New Deal until the creation of the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority)  – whose mission was to provide cheap electricity (and flood control) to areas not served by the private sector – seemed to threaten profits in the industry at large as well as at his own company. Years of protracted negotiations followed.  Willkie also had an international outlook and wanted to assist Britain “short of declaring war,” in contrast to the isolationist elements among Republicans and independents whose voices had been getting stronger even as the situation in Europe deteriorated. Among their leaders was Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who admired Hitler and shared his anti-Semitism.  The largest anti-war, anti-U.S. intervention organization was “America First” whose membership was initially drawn from across the political spectrum.  Willkie’s Vice Presidential candidate was Republican Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary of Oregon. His expertise in agricultural matters and ideas about helping farmers (not unlike those in the New Deal) may have prompted FDR to select Wallace as his running mate.

FDR sailed to victory with healthy margins, although the Republicans recovered somewhat from their drubbing in 1936.  FDR took 27.3 million popular votes (55%), 449 electoral votes, and 38 states; Willkie won 22.3 million (45%), 82 electoral votes, and 10 states, mostly in the Midwest.

1940 election materials included numerous campaign buttons opposing the third term candidacy of FDR and also expressions of dislike of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  Buttons for Republican candidate Wendell Willkie play with his name.



For Peace, Preparedness and Prosperity. Wendell Willkie. 1940. (N-YHS)

FDR stayed close to Washington during the 1940 race, even as Willkie traveled by train to 31 states during September and October. Willkie pledged to keep New Deal programs and make them more efficient. He campaigned against the third term warning “if one man is indispensable, then none of us is free.” Willkie seemed to gain momentum after he charged that FDR would take the U.S. into war if he was elected. FDR responded by spending more for preparedness and making the U.S. an “arsenal for democracy,” but promising not to send American soldiers into battle. The rhetoric from both parties ratcheted up during the fall. One historian wrote: “What they both had in common was a commitment to social justice and equality and a lucid understanding of the grave crisis abroad. They both knew that 1940 was not a year to fight the election of 1936 all over again and debate the New Deal. On the contrary, the one central issue of the campaign had been decided in Germany.”  In September FDR had signed the  Selective Service Act requiring men ages 21 to 30 to register with their local draft boards.  Willkie seemed poised for a possible upset until he endorsed FDR’s initiative for a peacetime military draft.  His support took the air out of the “FDR means war” campaign.

Willkie After the Election

After the 1940 election, Willkie continued to support Roosevelt’s positions on preparedness, and especially his forays into helping our potential allies – before we were actually at war – with the Lend-Lease program.  He traveled abroad as FDR’s personal representative in 1942 and 1943 to speak with world leaders and then reported his findings to FDR.  In 1943 Willkie published One World, a proposal for international peacekeeping after the war.  Not surprisingly the Republicans passed over him in 1944 and picked Thomas E. Dewey to run for the White House.  When Willkie died of a heart attack in October 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt attended his funeral and eulogized him in her My Day newspaper column:

No one who has watched his political career during the past few years could have failed to recognize the growth of the man and his great leadership qualities. The loss of a man of courage is deeply felt at all times by any American citizen as a loss to the country, but especially at the present time it affects each one of us to know that such potentialities for good leadership have been removed from this troubled world. It leaves us all poorer; for men of honest convictions, though they may differ, are bound to make a contribution to the thinking of the world…. Mr. Willkie placed great emphasis on the need we have in this country to be just to all of our citizens, because without equality there can be no democracy. His outspoken opinions on race relations were among his great contributions to the thinking of the world…Americans tend to forget the names of the men who lost their bid for the presidency. Willkie proved the exception to this rule.

Roosevelt and Wallace. 1940. (FDRL)

Roosevelt and Wallace. 1940. (FDRL)


Vote the Democratic Ticket. 1940. (FDRL)


A Challenge for Humanity. 1940. (FDRL)

November 5th, 1940. Re-elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (FDRL)

November 5th, 1940. Re-elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (FDRL)

Welcome to Brooklyn President Roosevelt. 1940. (FDRL)

Welcome to Brooklyn President Roosevelt. 1940. (FDRL)

On October 28, 1940, FDR made a campaign trip to New York City, traveling in an open car through all the boroughs on a cold, rainy day, accompanied by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.  He stopped at Hunter College to dedicate the new Park Avenue building at 68th Street which had been built with WPA funds.  He ended the day with an important speech at Madison Square Garden.  He accused the Republicans of playing “politics with defense, the defense of the United States, in 1938 and 1939. And they are playing politics with the national security of America today.”  He stated his continuing desire to seek peace:

I am asking the American people to support a continuance of this type of affirmative, realistic fight for peace. The alternative is to risk the future of the country in the hands of those with this record of timidity, weakness and short-sightedness or to risk it in the inexperienced hands of those who in these perilous days are willing recklessly to imply that our boys are already on their way to the transports. This affirmative search for peace calls for clear vision. It is necessary to mobilize resources, minds and skills, and every active force for peace in all the world.