Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War
"In Roosevelt's Second Act Richard Moe has shown in superb fashion that what might seem to have been an inevitable decision of comparatively little interest was far from it." ―David McCullough
On August 31, 1939, nearing the end of his second and presumably final term in office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was working in the Oval Office and contemplating construction of his presidential library and planning retirement. The next day German tanks had crossed the Polish border; Britain and France had declared war. Overnight the world had changed, and FDR found himself being forced to consider a dramatically different set of circumstances. In Roosevelt's Second Act, Richard Moe focuses on a turning point in American political history: FDR's decision to seek a third term. Often overlooked between the passage and implementation of the New Deal and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that decision was far from inevitable. As the election loomed, he refused to comment, confiding in no one, scrambling the politics of his own party; but after the Republicans surprisingly nominated Wendell Willkie in July 1940, FDR became convinced that no other Democrat could both maintain the legitimacy of the New Deal and mobilize the nation for war. With Hitler on the verge of conquering Europe, Roosevelt, still hedging, began to maneuver his way to the center of the political stage. Moe offers a brilliant depiction of the duality that was FDR: The bold, perceptive, prescient and moral statesman who set lofty and principled goals, and the sometimes cautious, ambitious, arrogant and manipulative politician in pursuit of them. Immersive, insightful and written with an inside understanding of the presidency, this book challenges and illuminates our understanding of FDR and this pivotal moment in American history.
be inclined to take but, as Eleanor had said recently in Chicago, these were not ordinary times. Rather, this was at the core of why he was running for a third term—to steer the country through a dangerous period by helping Britain to survive. If that was the case, however, it raises the question of why it took Roosevelt three months to act after Churchill first asked for the destroyers. There was the Walsh Amendment, of course, which appeared to be an insuperable obstacle and which the navy
inviolable for a century and a half. Several presidents, among them FDR’s boyhood hero and distant cousin Theodore, had tried to breach the tradition, but none had succeeded. There was nothing inevitable about Franklin Roosevelt’s decision. He made it as he made all of his major decisions—virtually alone and not before the last possible moment, which is to say not until he had to. In the end, this decision by this most complicated human being, as Frances Perkins put it, was shaped decisively by
became chairman of the state party and helped Roosevelt in both of his gubernatorial elections. FDR valued him for his ability to work the Democratic organizations and the back rooms, and thus in 1932 Farley teamed up with Louis Howe to lay the groundwork for Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. Farley traveled the country meeting with party leaders, assuring them that Roosevelt was electable and, not incidentally, someone they could work with. He was effective because of his natural bonhomie and
as much as he enjoyed being president, and there can be no doubt that he did, more important was his supreme confidence in his own capacity to lead the country facing a dire emergency. Humility was not a factor here; it seldom was with FDR. Ralph Waldo Emerson had said a century earlier, “Events are in the saddle and ride mankind.” For Roosevelt, events were very much in the saddle, and they would ride him as well as mankind. 7 A Hurricane of Events As First Lord of the Admiralty,
the prospect of retaking the White House. Despite all of Roosevelt’s initiatives, there were still more than ten million unemployed, and the national debt had soared to an unprecedented $36 billion. While the president hadn’t announced his intentions, there were no other Democratic prospects who appeared to worry them. And if he did decide to run again, there remained serious opposition in the country as a whole—and especially among Republicans—to the idea of a third term. After Hitler’s invasion