February 24, 2024

1940. "Eyes of the World Turn to America's Election"

The Urgency of the 1940 Presidential Election
President Franklin Roosevelt in Kingston, New York on Election Day, November 5, 1940 (source)
From The New York Times, November 3, 1940:

Our Decisive Power in Both War and Peace Fully Recognized Abroad

Not since the wartime vote of 1916 has the choice of an American President interested the outside world so keenly as the present election. People everywhere, in the depths of Russia and China as well as in Britain and occupied Europe, will watch us anxiously as we cast our ballots next Tuesday. They will watch us because popular elections are becoming a rare sight on this planet. In most countries free choice is just a remembered luxury, like safety, coffee, planning ahead.

But the main reason for their intentness is selfish—the feeling that they, too, are involved in our choice. Sometimes vaguely, sometimes acutely, they feel that the man empowered to head this government for the next four years is destined to play a leading part in the widening drama of war and peace.

A Hope Disappointed

At home it was hoped that the candidates' agreement on such fundamentals as full aid to Britain, conscription, armament, to the limit of our speed and capacity, would expunge foreign policy from the political debate. Inevitably, however, the argument has tended to focus more and more on this issue. The earth revolves in a red fog of war, and as the campaign developed nothing could prevent the war from dominating all other questions in the mind of the American people.

The President recognized this when he changed his plan and went out to explain his attitude to the country. In the early days of his administration, scenes from his first campaign were thrown on a screen one evening in the upper hall of the White House. "How I miss the crowds!" was his comment as he looked. He is an extremely perceptive and observant man, and as he resumed the role of campaigner, in touch with the crowds, it is noteworthy that he laid increasing stress on his determination to keep the country out of the war.

Mr. Willkie also met the American crowd. In a few places they greeted him with eggs and "boos." Most of the time he was received with enthusiasm, louder, it seemed, as his own voice grew hoarser.

Thoughtful Americans

But what struck him in all the crowds was their seriousness. Hostile or friendly, the people were thoughtful and deeply in earnest, he told a friend after a cross-country tour. He, too, sensed the reason for this anxiety; his later speeches were almost entirely devoted to questions rising out of the war and the defense program.

The people, in short, raised the question the candidates at first wished to ignore. As the race neared the end, with Mr. Willkie demanding greater help to Britain and Mr. Roosevelt dispatching ships and planes and promising more, the main issues had narrowed down to two: Which contender will arm us fastest? Which is more likely to keep us out of the conflict?

Abroad, likewise, these questions overshadow more immediate concerns. For the past week or two, despite the thrust into Greece, the major struggle seems to have been held in suspense, almost as if the war were waiting for the result of the election. In the heat of the electoral battle it was charged that the British hope for the re-election of Mr. Roosevelt and the Axis Powers favor Mr. Willkie. If this is true, in each case the preference is based on the fact that both the Germans and the British know the President. Mr. Willkie is an unknown quantity; while he has given every assurance that his foreign policy will be identical with Mr. Roosevelt's, the Germans may figure that any change would be for the better and the British are quite satisfied with things as they are.

True or not, the preference does not affect many voters in this country. As between the two sides of the war, the American preference is solidly and almost unanimously "set." Few oppose helping the British or blocking the Axis. As between the two candidates, however, Americans were never so bent on deciding for themselves, according to their own conception of the national interests.

The injection of this red-herring issue is nevertheless significant. It proves that next Tuesday's balloting is an international event of far-reaching importance. The choice of Mr. Willkie may be taken in Germany as a sign of American unwillingness to enter the war. The choice of Mr. Roosevelt may be interpreted in England as an augury of more active participation. Europe inclines to echo our most contradictory campaign arguments—that the President will move more rapidly toward intervention than his opponent and that the Republican candidate will put more speed into the building of a war machine.

Fear of America Itself

The inner recesses of governmental minds are not likely to harbor these contradictions. If Hitler and Mussolini discussed this election at Florence, doubtless they agreed that we are already virtually in the war. Publicly they might cheer the defeat of Mr. Roosevelt; privately what they fear is America itself, the incalculable power of the people in a democracy. They are under no illusion that American policy in a crisis can be decided by any will but the will of the people.

The British know this even more certainly. Mr. Churchill is on close terms with the President and would regret to see him leave office. But the relations between the White House and Downing Street were just as intimate when Mr. Chamberlain was Prime Minister. Methods, persons, emphasis and conditions alter, but representative governments do not reverse their policies overnight, as dictators can. In the present case, moreover, a change of administration does not mean a change of policy, and this implies far more than a unity of view on the part of the candidates; it is striking proof of popular agreement on our primary interests.

Why, then, if the election supposes no drastic shift in policy, is it watched with such interest from Singapore to Narvik?

The answer lies in the nature of the world struggle now in process. It lies in the preponderant weight America throws into the balance as other powers are absorbed drained or by war. This conflict has a tidal quality; it ebbs and flows, roars and subsides. The spurts and lulls indicate that it is only partly military. From the beginning armies, navies and air fleets have merely supported other means of pressure. Between battles, behind the war front, all the manoeuvres have but one object—to anticipate and determine the shape of the peace.

Where Great Battles Lie

In this contest, in fact, military operations constitute only one phase. The great engagements are political, diplomatic and psychological. This is why the leader we select is of such importance in the international view.

People in Europe who are still able to think ahead look more and more to the White House as a lighthouse in the universal blackout. It is about the only normal seat of government to which they can look as a point of reference. This is true of the subjugated peoples and also of the British; engrossed wholly just now in the struggle to survive, they turn to us not for material support only but for visible reassurance that the life they are defending is still going on. Be sure, moreover, that the Germans and Italians regard this Federal union as the supreme standard of comparison, the challenging alternative to Hitler's "new order."

Even last Spring, before the Continent was "occupied," unofficial Europe was thinking of the United States as a factor in the war and as the arbiter of the peace that would eventually follow. Repeatedly, especially from government heads in small capitals, now no more, the writer heard remarks like these:

"The next Administration in your country will represent the new balance of power in the world." "In the next four years you will decide the fate of your country and ours." "The next President will have to be a greater statesman than your last Messiah, Wilson, presumed to be; he will have to make terms with a revolution."

With the world background in mind supporters of Mr. Roosevelt argue approximately thus: "The President is a great figure. He has played a conspicuous role in a world drama that has already destroyed most of the performers. His relations with foreign powers have been closer and more constant than those of any of his predecessors. This experience is invaluable; in foreign affairs he has knowledge, a sure touch, a horse trader's shrewdness, a useful confidence in the ability of this country to hold its own against any combination of brains or power. Above all he has imagination, a sense of American destiny as well as his own. He has been working for a long time on plans for peace, for a new order to oppose to Hitler's. If he ever fulfills his ambition to be a peacemaker, he will produce a blueprint that would inspire the world and reduce the Nazi organization to something like a prison code."

The Counter-Arguments

On the other hand, the arguments for Mr. Willkie might be these:

"Internationally, Mr. Willkie starts from scratch. If he lacks the advantages and renown of the President's experience he also lacks the disadvantages. Mr. Roosevelt has aroused great confidence abroad and sharpened deep antagonisms. The bitterness and disappointment of defeated peoples like the French are sometimes transferred to him. Some blame him for his part in Munich, others because his words encouraged the democracies to rely on American support we were not prepared to give. His name is associated, one way or another, with the tragic controversies that divide nations within themselves. Mr. Willkie has uncommon sense, the drive and energy needed to speed up our defenses, a fervent and contagious faith in the genius of this country and the benefit of being a new man with a fresh approach to problems the old hands have failed to solve."

Europe hangs on our choice—because Europe hangs on America. To the watching world, dictators and democrats, it is America and American power that count. The President may give a direction and emphasis to this power, but he cannot control it, and Hitler knows this as well as Churchill does.

As for Americans, they know that both candidates put American interests first. They are aware that this country will influence outside events in the degree in which it is strong, united, wise and faithful to itself. The President who will best mobilize that strength and express that unity and faith will be the best minister of our foreign policy and therefore the best hope of the world.