Review of Richard Moe's "Roosevelt's Second Act"

tags: Hitler, FDR, Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War Two, Wendell Wilkie, Churchill

Bernard von Bothmer is an adjunct professor of history at the University of San Francisco and Dominican University of California. He is the author of “Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War
by Richard Moe
Oxford University Press (2013)

Can anything new be written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Yes, most certainly.

Ever since I can remember, presidential candidates have called the upcoming vote “the most important election of our lives.” The phrase has become a staple of political rhetoric. In an extraordinary new book, Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War, Richard Moe convincingly demonstrated why the contest that elected FDR to a third term might well have been the most important election in American history, rivaling that of 1864.

The author of several books, Moe served as Vice President Walter Mondale’s chief of staff and as a senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter and later served for 17 years as president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Moe’s government experience is a tremendous asset, as the author displays a highly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the many forces at work behind the curtain in the Roosevelt Administration. He writes with real insight about the key players of the time, and helps the reader to understand the competing forces at play in the political process.

The 1940 campaign is fascinating on many levels, not least the fact that 1940 would be not only the first, but also the last time, due to the 22nd Amendment (proposed in 1947 and ratified in 1951), that a candidate would be nominated for a third term. Moe has chosen a truly unique moment in American history, one that will never be repeated again. Surprisingly, FDR’s decision is the subject of little scholarship.

Woven throughout is how Roosevelt kept one eye on developments overseas in Europe and the other on the 1940 election, and his commitment both to stopping the spread of fascism abroad and preserving his reform programs at home. Neither was a given. In fact, each of FDR’s desires faced tough odds: America did not have the military means to enforce the former, and a slew of conservative opposition among not only Republicans but also among Democrats threatened the legacy of the New Deal.

The challenges FDR faced were many: the 1935 Neutrality Act; getting the blame for the recession following his 1936 reelection; and the lingering anger towards Roosevelt for both his court packing attempt and his effort in 1938 to rid the Democratic Party of conservatives opposed to his reforms. Above all, FDR was an internationalist in a traditionally isolationist nation. Moe shows how visionary Roosevelt was in warning of the fascist menace of world domination. In his January 1939 annual address to Congress, FDR called Hitler a threat to “religion, democracy, and international good faith” (44). Moe’s writing is filled with wonderful turn of phrases, such as “Roosevelt was learning how to shift policy gears from domestic to foreign, much as he had learned how to shift gears on the hand-operated car that he had designed himself and which he used at Hyde Park” (30).

Moe offers engaging and vivid portraits of a wide range of figures: Eleanor Roosevelt; Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, FDR’s secretary; isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who along with Roosevelt, were “the two best-known and most-admired people in America” (13); Joseph Kennedy, the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and the animosity the two had for each other; the possible successors to Roosevelt and his complicated relationships with them: Vice President John Nance Garner; WPA administer Harry L. Hopkins (“the new Louis Howe” (145)); Secretary of State Cordell Hull; DNC Chairman Jim Farley; Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes; Assistant Attorney General Robert H. Jackson; and Henry A. Wallace, a Republican from Iowa and a cabinet member since 1932.  Other figures in the drama include Senator William E. Borah, the government’s leading isolationist; the complicated Roosevelt/Churchill relationship; and, of course, Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie. Moe also offers a fascinating history of the two term tradition in American politics, with illuminating observations on Washington, Jefferson, Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt. The book is especially insightful in describing Roosevelt’s speech-writing process and the astonishing synchronicity FDR shared with Sam Rosenman, his principle writer.

Roosevelt’s Second Act convincingly challenges the notion that Roosevelt had long wanted a third term. In fact, Roosevelt was eager to retire to Hyde Park, for a variety of personal and financial reasons. He had already broken ground for his presidential library. “Retirement was on Roosevelt’s mind, and he enjoyed anticipating it” (15). In February 1940 FDR complained: “I am tied down to this chair day after day, week after week, and month after month. And I can’t stand it any longer. I can’t go on with it” (96). The main reason for even considering a third term was the threat of war. Moe argues that in early 1940, “there is nothing in the written record to suggest that he had made a decision” to run or not (97). As FDR told Henry Morganthau, “I do not want to run unless between now and the [July] convention things get very, very much worse in Europe” (109).

Moe concludes that were he to choose to run, “it would be more the result of duty than of desire” and, most of all, due to “his supreme confidence in his own capacity to lead the country facing a dire emergency” (120). Yet Roosevelt showed no signs of wanting to. A White House cook and housekeeper recalled that at the time “we were clearing out storerooms … in fact, the Roosevelts were closing up” (173). Furthermore, Roosevelt’s health was uncertain, and his family was nearly unanimous in wanting him to leave office.

Why delay the decision? One reason was that FDR did not want to appear as a lame duck and face the resulting political consequences. Furthermore, Roosevelt realized that Hitler was well aware of the limits the president faced at home should he announce his retirement from politics.

FDR faced a tough test. “My problem is to get the American people to think of conceivable consequences without scaring the American people into thinking that they are going to get dragged into this war,” he wrote in early 1940 (104). Isolationist sentiment was overwhelming: a mere 8% of Americans wanted the Nation to enter the war in 1940. America’s military preparedness was almost laughable.

It was under these circumstances that FDR chose the risky path of arming Britain, “one of the great gambles of history” (139). Military leaders were against it. Arms captured by Germany could be used against the United States. It would not be a stretch, Moe reminds us, to conceive of Roosevelt’s actions leading to impeachment. In many respects, FDR faced many of the same trials as that of Lincoln. Roosevelt’s challenge was making sure he did not get ahead of public opinion. As Lincoln famously uttered in 1858, “Public sentiment is everything” (328).

Moe’s understanding of the intricacies involved in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of politics provides for a rollicking account of the June 1940 Republican convention in Philadelphia, held just 10 days after France fell. Wilkie, until recently a Democrat, upset Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, New Yorker Thomas E. Dewey, and Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft—FDR’s predicted pick to be the G.O.P. nominee. Roosevelt was not the only candidate forced to juggle: though Wilkie opposed the regulations of the New Deal, he “unabashedly supported all-out aid to Britain and France” (158).

The wheeling and dealing at the convention—one candidate offering another a coin flip to decide who would be the head and who would be the vice presidential member of the ticket; the struggle over the wording of the party platform; the horse-trading needed to secure the nomination—makes for riveting reading. And in a line that could not more accurately describe today’s current fights in Washington, Moe writes of the “hard-core conservatives who left Philadelphia deeply resentful that the GOP had been captured by … the ‘establishment’” (169).

What would FDR decide to do? He speculated that if the war in Europe ended before Election Day, Wilkie would emerge victorious. Farley and Garner revved up their efforts to secure the nomination. The president spoke of being “forced to run for a third term” (188). In Moe’s analysis, FDR’s decision to seek reelection “was indeed justified … by the unprecedented danger confronting the nation and the world. Events had thrust this role upon him” (194). Roosevelt’s choice not to retire changed the very nature of the presidency. He broke tradition in other ways, too, such as by personally choosing his vice president, Wallace (who was not FDR’s first choice).

The chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago would see Democrats struggle with the content of their platform, among other concerns. As FDR remained holed up in Hyde Park, confusion reigned in the city where the President had accepted his party’s nomination in 1932. To complicate matters further, Moe describes FDR’s “threat to reject his own nomination if Wallace wasn’t selected as his running mate” (233). Between games of solitaire, FDR wrote out in longhand a speech declining the nomination. Here we see “the paradox that was Roosevelt at times:” the president “was willing to gamble everything to have his way,” to make sure Democrats “were the party of liberalism and … the party of internationalism.” To Moe, Roosevelt’s “stubbornness bordered on arrogance, and the arrogance sometimes on hubris” (236). But the remarkable speech he wrote that evening, of course never delivered, captured FDR’s vision of the “soul” of the Democratic Party as perhaps no other speech he gave.

Moe is at his best describing the inner workings of Congress in getting Churchill much needed military equipment, in the period following the convention, through the destroyer deal. Here we see Roosevelt playing a game of international-relations-chess at the level of a Grandmaster, causing one to question the first part of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous statement about FDR, for Roosevelt clearly had a first class intellect, too. FDR not only got the needed supplies to Churchill, but politically boxed in Wilkie, too, setting the stage for the president’s reelection. “Roosevelt is not running against Wendell Wilkie,” one wise Republican noted. “He’s running against Adolf Hitler” (p. 276).

Despite FDR’s wide lead in the polls that fall, Moe’s account still reads like a thriller as he describes the many hurdles in Roosevelt’s way: the CIO’s John Lewis’ endorsement of Wilkie; Lindbergh’s continued popularity; the lingering fear that FDR would send American boys into war; and the threat of an “October Surprise” (long before that term was coined) in the form of a last-minute Kennedy endorsement for Wilkie. (Moe’s depiction of the hatred between FDR and Kennedy leads one to wonder how JFK in 1960 ever managed to escape his Father’s dark shadow.) Moe captures perfectly the tension in the room in Hyde Park as Roosevelt waited for the election returns, writing with enormous sensitivity and insight and with the dramatic flair of a novelist. That scene alone is worth the price of this book.

Roosevelt’s Second Act ends with a splendid discussion of the Four Freedoms and the struggle to pass the Lend-Lease Act. “Although execution of the decision to run for a third term was often messy, unattractive, and laced with arrogance,” Moe concludes, “its essence came from Roosevelt’s moral core” (327). Had FDR not been elected, “it is anyone’s guess what the outcomes would have been, but they would not have been the same” (329).

Moe’s study reveals the essential character traits of FDR: calm, steadfast, and supremely confident of his own abilities, and yet at the same time secretive, manipulative, and needing to be in control.

But FDR also remains a paradox: a loner and a solitary figure, almost unknowable, yet a man who also had the need to be surrounded by people. Often a pragmatist, Roosevelt also emerges in these pages as an idealist of the utmost order. Moe’s interpretation reminds one of why Frances Perkins, in her 1946 book The Roosevelt I Knew, called FDR “the most complicated human being I ever knew.”

Above all, FDR showed political instincts of the highest degree: among his more successful moves in the 1940 campaign was his decision, announced days before the Republican convention, to bring into his cabinet as secretary of war and the navy Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox, “two of the most prominent and respected Republicans in the country” (159).

Indeed, what is striking about the era Moe recounts is that, for all its rancor, there existed an extraordinarily high level of bipartisanship, or at least fluidity among party identification. Wilkie and Wallace had each very recently switched political parties. And Knox had been the 1936 Republican vice presidential candidate. It is impossible to imagine either Sarah Palin or Paul Ryan assisting President Obama in any fashion whatsoever as Knox did by sending a Republican New Deal critic, William J. Donovan—“Wild Bill”—on a secret mission to England. Moe also writes of the genuine friendship that FDR and Wilkie developed after the election, again something completely foreign to our era, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, though that relationship developed a good fifteen years after their 1992 contest, not a mere few months, as in 1941.

The book occasionally suffers from excessive repetition. There are too frequent reminders of the failed 1937 court packing plan. When Moe writes that, “The most compelling issue moving Roosevelt toward running, however, was the war” (177), by that point in the text such an assertion has already been made obvious. And the rather detailed chapter on the Democrat’s Chicago Convention reads a little too much “Inside-baseball.”

But these are minor quibbles. Most of all, the topics raised by the book remain highly current.

Many of the attacks on Obama—and, for that matter, on George W. Bush and Clinton—seem tame by comparison to 1940. We forget how truly polarizing a figure FDR was. And today’s media would have had a field day with the tension between Roosevelt and his vice president, John Garner, whom the president “had come to detest” (84). The book is also a useful reminder of how hard it is, as John Kerry found out in 2004, to unseat a sitting president in time of war.

And then there is 2016. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton today has effectively “frozen the field.” The Nation eagerly awaits her decision whether or not to seek the presidency, and to a potential Third Term, of sorts, for Bill Clinton. Waiting in the wings, of course, is also Jeb Bush, who harbors dreams of a different type of Third Term for the Bush family. Should either (or both) run for the presidency, many of the same issues and concerns that first arose in 1940 will be in the public arena again.

When Theodore Roosevelt considered running in 1912, he said that Americans “were ‘sick and tired’ of the Roosevelts.” FDR shared the same concern in late 1939 (94). Recently, Barbara Bush echoed these sentiments regarding her family, as have, of course, critics of the Clintons. Will we see in a few years a return of much of the same rhetoric from 1940?

Roosevelt’s Second Act is a spellbinding read and a deeply impressive achievement, remarkably detailed and thoroughly researched. Moe makes both Roosevelt’s decision to run as well as the 1940 election incredibly suspenseful, even though both outcomes are known. This reader hopes that Moe himself has a second act within him to showcase his many gifts as an historian: perhaps another book, on the election of 1944?