Wendell Willkie: Wikis


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Wendell Willkie

Born February 18, 1892(1892-02-18)
Elwood, Indiana
Died October 8, 1944 (aged 52)
New York, New York
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Edith Willkie
Alma mater Indiana University
Profession Lawyer
Religion Episcopalian

Wendell Lewis Willkie (pronounced /ˈwɪlki/; February 18, 1892 – October 8, 1944) was a corporate lawyer in the United States and was the dark horse Republican Party nominee for the 1940 presidential election, where he crusaded against the inefficiency and anti-business policies of the New Deal.

Although Willkie won more votes in the 1940 presidential election (22.3 million votes) than any previous Republican candidate, he lost the popular vote 27 million to 22 million and the Electoral College vote to Franklin D. Roosevelt by 449 to 82, carrying ten states. He then joined Roosevelt's team as a roving ambassador, allowing him to promote a "One World" form of internationalism. He never held any political office. Willkie was the only major-party nominee for President in history never to have held elected office, a Cabinet position or high military rank.


Early life


Education and early career

Willkie's house in Rushville

Born Lewis Wendell Willkie in Elwood, Indiana, he was the son of Herman Willkie, a German immigrant from Aschersleben, and Henrietta Trisch. His parents were lawyers in Elwood, and Henrietta was one of the first women to be admitted to the bar in Indiana. Although his first name was Lewis, at home and among friends in Elwood he was called by his middle name, Wendell. When an Army error in 1917 transposed his first and middle names, Willkie did not correct it as he preferred the new version; he would thereafter spell his name as Wendell Lewis Willkie.

Willkie attended Elwood High School and graduated from Indiana University, where he was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. After teaching history for one year at the high school in Coffeyville, Kansas, he entered the Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington. Although trained as an Artillery Field Commander, 1 Lt.Willkie arrived on battle station just as the armistice was being signed. When someone realized that he was a lawyer, Wendell was quickly sent to Paris to participate in courts martial. He was present for the Treaty of Versailles. Upon retuning home, Willkie moved to Akron, Ohio, where he worked as a corporate lawyer for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. In Akron he also quickly gained status in the local Democratic Party, and he was a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention. In 1919 Willkie married Edith Wilk (no relation), a librarian from Rushville, Indiana. They had one son, Philip.

Business and politics

In 1929, Willkie became a legal counsel for the New York-based Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, the nation's largest electric utility holding company. Commonwealth & Southern provided electrical power to customers in eleven states. He rapidly rose through the ranks and became company president in 1933. Willkie was a delegate to the 1932 Democratic National Convention. He initially backed former Cleveland mayor and United States Secretary of War Newton D. Baker for the presidential nomination, but once Franklin Roosevelt captured the nomination, Willkie supported him and contributed money to his campaign.

In 1933, Roosevelt proposed legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government agency with far-reaching influence that promised to bring flood control and cheap electricity to the extremely poor Tennessee Valley. However, the TVA would compete with existing private power companies in the area, including Commonwealth & Southern. This prompted Willkie to become an active critic of the TVA, as well as other New Deal agencies that directly competed with private corporations. Willkie's argument was that government-controlled organizations (such as the TVA) had unfair advantages over private competitors, in that they did not have to make a profit and could thus charge cheaper rates than private corporations like the Commonwealth & Southern. This was not a new idea for Willkie; in 1930 he had stated publicly that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to enter the utility business. In April 1933, Willkie testified against the TVA legislation before the Military Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives. His testimony that the TVA supplanting Commonwealth & Southern could threaten $400 million in investors' equity convinced the House to limit the TVA's ability to build transmission lines that would compete with existing private utility companies.[1]

Roosevelt, however, persuaded the Senate to remove those restrictions and the resulting law gave the TVA extremely broad power. Because the government-run TVA could borrow unlimited funds at low interest rates, Willkie's Commonwealth & Southern was unable to compete, and Willkie was forced to sell C & S properties in the Tennessee Valley to the TVA in 1939 for $78.6 million. Willkie formally switched political parties in 1939 and began making speeches in opposition to the New Deal. However, Willkie did not condemn all New Deal programs, and he supported those programs that he felt could not be run better by private enterprise. His objection was that the government had unfair advantages over private businesses, and thus should avoid competing directly against them. In 1939 Willkie made a highly-publicized appearance on the popular "Town Hall" nationwide radio program, where he debated the merits of the private-enterprise system with Robert H. Jackson, President Roosevelt's Solicitor General and a possible candidate for the 1940 Democratic presidential nomination. Most observers felt that Willkie won the debate, and many liberal Republicans began — for the first time — to view him as a dark horse presidential candidate. (Parmet, 122)

1940 presidential election

Republican primaries

The 1940 presidential campaign was conducted against the backdrop of World War II. Although the United States was still neutral, the nation — and especially the Republican Party — was deeply divided between isolationists, or those who felt the nation should avoid helping any of the warring powers and not take any steps that could lead America into the war, and interventionists, who felt that America's survival depended upon helping the British and other Allied Powers defeat Nazi Germany. The three leading candidates for the 1940 Republican nomination were Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, and Thomas E. Dewey, the "gangbusting" District Attorney from Manhattan. All three men had campaigned vigorously, but only 300 of the 1,000 convention delegates had been pledged to a candidate by the time the Republican National Convention opened in Philadelphia. This left an opening for a dark horse candidate to emerge.

Willkie seemed an unlikely candidate as he was a former Democrat and a Wall Street-based industrialist who had never before run for public office. He had received backing from media magnates; key Willkie supporters were Ogden Reid of the New York Herald Tribune, Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and John and Gardner Cowles, publishers of the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune, as well as the Des Moines Register and Look magazine. Willkie's supporters established a national grassroots network, but his popularity was thinly spread, with a May 8 Gallup poll showing Dewey at 67% support among Republicans, followed by Vandenberg and Taft, with Willkie at a mere 3%.

Campaign pin

Willkie did try to appeal to the powerful isolationist wing of the Republican Party by saying, "No man has the right to use the great powers of the Presidency to lead the people, indirectly, into war." However, Willkie's greatest support came from the GOP's internationalist wing, which felt that America needed to provide all aid to the Allied forces short of war. Willkie consistently spoke of the need to aid the British in their fight against Germany; this made a direct contrast with the other leading Republican candidates, who were isolationists.

While Taft stressed that America needed to prevent the New Deal from using the international crisis to extend socialism at home, the Nazis' rapid blitz into France shook public opinion. In New York, Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish III warned Roosevelt was making the world vulnerable to international communism by becoming Winston Churchill's willing accomplice to lead the nation to war against Germany to save the British Empire. Fish denied being an isolationist, saying he was a non-interventionist who wanted negotiated settlements of disputes rather than American involvement in foreign wars. Nevertheless, sympathy for the embattled British was mounting. By mid-June, little over one week before the convention opened, Gallup reported Willkie had surged to second place with 17%, and that Dewey was slipping. Willkie was stumping the country getting the votes of liberal and East Coast Republicans who were concerned about the Nazis' conquest of western Europe. As the convention delegates were arriving at Philadelphia, Gallup reported Willkie had moved up to 29%, Dewey had slipped 5 more points to 47%, and Taft, Vandenberg and Hoover trailed at 8%, 8%, and 6% respectively. With the surrender of France to Germany on June 25, 1940, and the belief that Britain was under imminent threat of a Nazi invasion, the 1940 Republican Convention opened in an atmosphere of great excitement and national stress; this is believed to have boosted Willkie's chances even further. |

Republican nomination

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as one million, telegrams urging support for Willkie poured in, many from "Willkie Clubs" that had sprung up across the country. Millions more signed petitions circulating everywhere. At the convention itself Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota, the keynote speaker, announced for Willkie and became his official floor manager. Hundreds of vocal Willkie supporters packed the upper galleries of the convention hall. Willkie's amateur status and fresh face appealed to delegates as well as voters. The delegations were selected not by primaries but by party leaders in each state, and they had a keen sense of the fast changing pulse of public opinion. Gallup found the same thing in data not reported until after the convention: Willkie had pulled ahead among Republican voters by 44% to only 29% for the collapsing Dewey. On the first ballot Dewey was in the lead, but far short of a majority; Taft was in second place and Willkie was a surprisingly strong third. On the second and third ballots Dewey's support dwindled, as it did his delegates went to either Taft or Willkie, with most favoring Willkie. Meanwhile, Willkie's supporters in the galleries kept yelling "We Want Willkie" over and over, adding to the excitement and pro-Willkie momentum. By the fourth ballot Willkie had surged into first place, with Taft close behind; the other candidates began to drop out in favor of the two frontrunners. As the delegates belonging to these "favorite son" candidates were released, Willkie steadily gained more of them than Taft. Finally, on the sixth ballot, Willkie received a majority of the ballots cast and won the nomination. His victory is still considered by most political historians to be one of the most dramatic moments in the history of American presidential conventions.

Wendell Willkie receives official notification of the Republican presidential nomination at a ceremony in Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940.[2]

General election

Willkie left the vice presidential selection to convention chairman Joseph W. Martin, who suggested Senate Minority Leader Charles L. McNary of Oregon. Despite the fact that McNary had spearheaded a "Stop Willkie" campaign late in the balloting, Willkie selected McNary and he was nominated by acclamation.

:Willkie on the cover of TIME Magazine, July 31, 1939

Willkie's presidential campaign was centered around three major themes: the alleged inefficiency and corruption of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, Roosevelt's attempt to win an unprecedented third term as President, and the government's alleged lack of military preparedness. Willkie claimed that he would keep most of FDR's New Deal welfare and regulatory programs, but that he would make them more efficient and effective, and that he would work more closely with business leaders to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt's attempt to break the "two-term" tradition established by George Washington was also a focus of Willkie's criticism, as Willkie declared that "if one man is indispensable, then none of us is free." However, neither of these issues caught the public's attention, and as Willkie's support sagged he turned to criticism of Roosevelt's lack of preparedness in military matters. However, during the campaign Roosevelt shrewdly preempted the military issue by expanding military contracts and instituting a military draft. Although Willkie had initially supported the draft, he reversed his stance when polls showed that opposition to entering another world war was a popular issue for the Republicans. Willkie then began to claim that Roosevelt was secretly planning to take the USA into the European war against Germany. With this claim, his campaign managed to regain some of its momentum.[3]

Late in the campaign the Republicans uncovered a series of letters Democratic vice presidential nominee Henry A. Wallace had written to Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich. In the letters, Wallace addressed Roerich as "Dear Guru" and signed his name as "G" for Galahad — the name Roerich had assigned Wallace in the faith. Wallace assured Roerich he awaited "the breaking of the New Day," when the people of "Northern Shambhalla" (a Buddhist term roughly equivalent to the kingdom of heaven) would create an era of peace and plenty. Wallace also used code words to describe leaders such as Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Democratic leaders were fearful that if the letters became public knowledge and Wallace's "eccentric" beliefs and lifestyle were exposed, it would hurt their ticket in the election. In fact, the Republicans threatened to reveal the letters but balked when the Democrats threatened to release information about Wendell Willkie's rumored extramarital affair with the wealthy writer Irita Van Doren.[4] According to New Deal historian Joseph Lash: "The anti-Roosevelt underground campaign in 1940 was venomous, and (Democratic National Chairman) Flynn accused the Republicans of conducting the "most vicious, most shameful campaign since the time of Lincoln". Much of the abuse centered on Eleanor and the Roosevelt family" (Lash, p. 629). However, the abuse went both ways, as the historian William Manchester noted: "above all, he [Willkie] should never have been subjected to the accusation of Henry Wallace, FDR's new vice-presidential candidate, that Willkie was the Nazis' choice." (Manchester, p. 226)


On election day Roosevelt received 27 million votes to Willkie's 22 million, and in the Electoral College, Roosevelt defeated Willkie 449 to 82. Willkie carried ten states: Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. However, Willkie did gain over six million more votes than the GOP's 1936 nominee, Alf Landon, and he ran strong in the rural Midwest, taking 57% of the farm vote. Roosevelt, meanwhile, carried every city in the nation with a population of more than 400,000, except for Cincinnati. Willkie's popular-vote total would remain the highest for a Republican until Dwight Eisenhower's election in 1952.

Post-election life

Willkie became one of Roosevelt's most unlikely allies. To the chagrin of many in his party, Willkie called for greater national support for controversial Roosevelt initiatives such as the Lend-Lease Act and embarked on a new campaign against isolationism in America.

Diplomat and author

On July 23, 1941, he urged unlimited aid to the United Kingdom in its struggle against Nazi Germany. That same year he traveled to Britain and the Middle East as Roosevelt's personal representative, and in 1942 visited the USSR and China in the same capacity. In 1943, Willkie wrote One World, a plea for international peacekeeping after the war. Extremely popular, millions of copies of the book sold. In 1941, Willkie helped to establish Freedom House together with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Anti-racism activist

Willkie spoke often of the need to end racism in America, and addressed a convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1942, one of the most prominent whites ever so to do. When a violent race riot broke out in Detroit on June 20, 1943, Willkie went on national radio to criticize Republicans and Democrats for ignoring "the Negro question." To illustrate the similarity between racism and Fascism, he said, "The desire to deprive some of our citizens of their rights — economic, civic or political — has the same basic motivation as actuates the Fascist mind when it seeks to dominate whole peoples and nations. It is essential that we eliminate it at home as well as abroad." During this time, Willkie also worked with Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, to try to convince Hollywood to change its portrayal of blacks in the movies.

1944 Republican primaries

In the 1944 presidential election Willkie again sought the Republican nomination, choosing his wife's hometown, Rushville, Indiana, as his campaign headquarters. But his progressive views gained little support due to the rightward shift of the Republican Party, and to GOP resentment over Willkie's support of many of President Roosevelt's initiatives. The key event of Willkie's 1944 campaign was the Wisconsin primary. Willkie was considered a favorite but finished a distant third to his main rival, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, and behind General Douglas MacArthur. Following this crushing loss Willkie withdrew from the race.

Roosevelt actually considered asking Willkie to take the Vice-Presidential nomination on a unity ticket since he was dumping Henry Wallace at the insistence of the party.

By the time of his sudden death in October 1944 Willkie had not endorsed Dewey or his Democratic opponent, President Roosevelt. He had begun working with the new Liberal Party of New York to launch a new national party, but his death ended that movement.


In April 1941, Willkie joined the law firm of Miller, Boston, and Owen in New York City, and shortly thereafter the firm changed its name to Willkie, Owen, Otis, Farr, and Gallagher (and presently, Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP).


Rather than fly commercially, Wendell Willkie chose to travel between Indianapolis and New York City by rail. While crossing Ohio he experienced the first of more then an estimated 20 heart attacks. Although passengers implored him to de-train at Pittsburgh and enter hospital, Willkie refused. He wanted to get home and be seen by his own doctor. Too many hours later, an ambulance rushed him from the train station to hospital. He survived two days, dying on October 8, 1944, aged 52. Within minutes a call came to the White House and a secretary hastened to tell President Roosevelt in the Oval Office. A stunned FDR screamed back in her face: "What the hell was wrong with him?!" Willkie was 16 years younger than FDR - then in failing health - who deigned to attend the funeral. He dispatched Eleanor for that sad duty.

Willkie's 1940 running mate, McNary, died six months earlier, the only occasion where both halves of a major party ticket died during the term for which they sought election. 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. [5]

Eleanor Roosevelt in her October 12, 1944 My Day column eulogized Willkie as a "man of courage... (whose) 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."

Willkie is buried in East Hill Cemetery, Rushville, Indiana. In honor of his brief time practicing law in Akron as well as his national reputation, the Bar of the Summit County Courthouse erected a brass bas relief which is prominently displayed in the main hall.


A wall-mounted quote by Wendell Lewis Willkie in The American Adventure in the World Showcase pavilion of Walt Disney World's Epcot.

Willkie's name was prominently mentioned by keynote speaker and Democratic Senator Zell Miller at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Miller praised Willkie as a politician who embodied a non-partisan spirit of co-operation during wartime and praised his support of President Roosevelt's creation of a military draft. Miller spoke of Willkie saying

"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." [6]

He compared John Kerry negatively and blasted the senator for being critical of President George W. Bush's foreign policy by claiming Willkie refused to criticize FDR on foreign policy during a time of war.

State of the Union, a play by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, filmed by Frank Capra in 1948, was reportedly loosely inspired by Willkie and the role played in his campaign by his mistress Irita Bradford Van Doren.[citation needed]

Willkie was also featured as a character in Philip Roth's counterfactual history novel, The Plot Against America, in which Willkie opposes Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 presidential election.

A large dorm complex at Indiana University is named after him, and for several decades was home to the Willkie Co-op, an experimental housing cooperative that emphasized student operation of dormitory service.

In a humorous reference in the Bugs Bunny animated cartoon Falling Hare, Bugs is pestered by a gremlin while trying to fly a World War II bomber. When Bugs realizes what the gremlin is, he timidly asks, "Could that have been a, [whispering] gremlin?" In a Yiddish accent, the gremlin shouts in Bugs' ear, "It ain't Vendell Villkie!" This recalls an incident at the 1940 Republican National Convention when the head of a state delegation from the Midwest announced "two votes for Villkie" in a Scandinavian accent. This sound bite, broadcast on nationwide radio, enjoyed a brief vogue as a humorous catchphrase.[citation needed]

In an alternative history novel by S.M. Stirling, Marching Through Georgia, it is mentioned that Roosevelt retired after his second term and Willkie became his successor as President. Another alternative history describing exactly the same occurrence is the short story 'Trips' by Robert Silverberg.

A Liberty ship, laid down November 8, 1944 just one month after his death and commissioned December 9, 1944, was christened the SS Wendell L. Willkie. It served with the United States Maritime Commission until scrapped in 1970.


Willkie was the author of two books:

  • One World (1943)
  • An American Program (1944)

Electoral history


Further reading

  • Kavanagh, Dennis (1998). A Dictionary of Political Biography: Who's Who in Twentieth Century World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 505. ISBN 0198608527. 
  • Lash, Joseph (1971). Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393074595. 
  • Barnard, Ellsworth (1966). Wendell Willkie: Fighter for Freedom. Marquette, MI: Northern Michigan University Press. 
  • Madison, James H. (1992). Wendell Willkie: Hoosier Internationalist. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253336198. 
  • Manchester, William (1974). The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. Boston: Little & Brown. ISBN 0316544965. 
  • Neal, Steve (1984). Dark Horse: A Biography of Wendell Willkie. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0385184395. 
  • Parmet, Herbert S.; Hecht, Marie B. (1968). Never Again: A President Runs for a Third Term. New York: Macmillan. 
  • Peters, Charles (2006). Five Days in Philadelphia: 1940, Wendell Willkie, and the Political Convention That Freed FDR to Win World War II. New York: Public Affairs. ISBN 1586484508. 

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Alf Landon
Republican Party presidential candidate
Succeeded by
Thomas E. Dewey


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