Wendell Willkie Defeats The Isolationists: The Most Dramatic Moment in GOP Convention History


GOP nominee Wendell Willkie is shown on August 17, 1940 in Elwood, Indiana. He remains the only native Hoosier to be nominated by a major party for the presidency. Willkie captured the nomination despite receiving just 3% support from Republicans seven weeks prior to the start of their convention.

“If we want to talk about freedom, we must mean freedom for others as well as ourselves, and we must mean freedom for everyone inside our frontiers as well as outside. . . When we talk of freedom and opportunity for all nations, the mocking paradoxes in our own society become so clear they can no longer be ignored.” – Wendell Willkie, the first major political figure to address the NAACP.

Wendell Willkie was the 1940 Republican nominee for President. He was the only major-party nominee who never held elected office, a Cabinet position, or high military rank. Willkie, an attorney and utility company executive, had been a delegate to the 1924 Democratic convention, and changed his registration only a year earlier. According to the Gallup Poll, he was receiving just 3% support from Republicans seven weeks before the start of their 1940 nominating convention.

Public opinion completely changed during that time period because of the rapid German invasion of France, and the nation clearly realized WW II was no longer a “phony war.”  Many Republicans thought they would be foolish to nominate staunch isolationists such as Senators Robert Taft (OH) and Arthur Vandenberg (MI), who later changed his viewpoint.  France surrendered to Germany one day after the opening of the GOP convention.

Willkie’s nomination on the 6th ballot is still regarded as one of the most dramatic moments in convention history. Columnist Joe Alsop said Willkie’s bandwagon was a demonstration of grass roots power, while Alice Roosevelt Longworth retorted that the candidate had actually come from “the grassroots of ten thousand country clubs.”

His campaign to secure the nomination had the support of many establishment figures within the party, and they made sure the Republican Platform called for the integration of the armed forces. This never happened while President Franklin Roosevelt was in office. In the general election Willkie was defeated by Roosevelt who won an unprecedented third term. The GOP nominee received 45% of the vote and carried 10 states.

Willkie helped to break the isolationist grip on the Republican Party. He was always a civil rights champion, even though it was not politically popular. Roosevelt not only carried all 16 states of the “Solid South,” but won them by huge majorities.

Willkie temporarily put partisanship on the back burner after his defeat. He campaigned for passage of the Lend-Lease bill to help Britain, even though it significantly increased FDR’s power. Willkie said Lend-Lease was needed to help the war effort:

I am greatly concerned about the Republican party. . . Whether we like it or not America cannot remove itself from the world.  Much as we would like to withdraw within ourselves and much as we would like to disregard the rest of the world—we cannot. We cannot be indifferent to what happens in Europe. We cannot forget the fighting men of Britain. They are defending our liberty as well as theirs.

If they are permitted to fail I say to you quite deliberately that I do not believe liberty can survive here. I take issue with all who say we can survive with freedom in a totalitarian world.  I want to say to you even though some of you may disagree with me, and I say it to you with all the emphasis of my being, that if Britain falls before the onslaught of Hitlerism, it will be impossible over a period of time to preserve the free way of life in America.

There has been a bill introduced in Congress to give the President quite extraordinary power to deal with the present crisis. . . . If Republicans are presented as the isolationist party, they will never again gain control of the American government. I beg of you—I plead with you—please do not act in blind opposition.  Do not act because of the hate of an individual.

Of all persons in the United States I have least cause to hold a brief for him. Republicans of 1941, you who gave to me the rarest privilege that could come to any man, the privilege of leading the greatest cause of this century —I call upon you now to rise to the opportunity of preserving the blessed principles of freedom . . . If during this critical period we play a wise and proper part, America in the near future will call us into power. Let us not fail.

Willkie died in 1944 at age 52 after suffering 20 heart attacks. His running mate, Senate Republican Leader Charles McNary (OR), had died six months earlier at 69. This was the only occasion where both members of a major party Presidential ticket died during the term for which they sought election.  During his 2004 keynote address to the Republican National Convention, Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA) said:

“Shortly before Willkie died, he told a friend, that if he could write his own epitaph and had to choose between ‘here lies a president’ or ‘here lies one who contributed to saving freedom,’ he would prefer the latter.”