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  • Writer's pictureSally Jameson Bond

Who remembers Wendell Willkie?

The name rings a bell, right? A few of you might know a lot about him, others might know a little or nothing at all. Truth be told, I had to be reminded that Wendell Willkie was the Republican candidate for President of the United States in 1940. (He lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented third term that fall.) Of course, it was before my time, but I do remember the name Wendell Willkie, most likely from a high school history class. (Maybe I paid attention that day.) As it turns out, he had a rather remarkable life. I guess that makes him blog-worthy. I hope you agree.

Wendell Willkie recently came to my attention as I was glancing through one of my research folders and found the eulogy that was given by Rev. Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell at Mr. Willkie’s funeral on October 10, 1944. (It was history in the making during the World War II era, so I kept a copy of it, just in case.) The eulogy was printed in the monthly periodical Vital Speeches of the Day, a useful resource that is still published today. (Impartial—Constructive—Authentic—Since 1934, publishing most salient speeches of the moment, on the most important issues of our time.) He was only fifty-two years old when he died at his home in New York City. Sixty thousand people filed by his casket in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and 35,000 stood outside around the church during the funeral. Clearly, he had made a significant impact on this country during his relatively short life.

Lewis Wendell Willkie was born in Elwood, Indiana (about forty miles northeast of Indianapolis), on February 18, 1892, the son of Herman and Henrietta Willkie, both of whom were lawyers and offspring of German immigrants. (His mother was one of the first woman admitted to the Indiana bar.) Wendell was one of six children in the Willkie household, and when he was fourteen, he got to spend the summer at the Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana. His parents were concerned about his proclivity for unruly behavior (lack of discipline). It must have helped, as he later thrived at Elwood High School, and was elected president of his senior class.

Somewhat interesting factoids: his older sister Julia and his younger brother Edward were both born on Christmas Day (Julia in 1885 and Edward in 1896). Also, Edward competed in the Greco-Roman heavyweight event at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. (The 1916 Olympic Games, scheduled to take place in Berlin, Germany, were cancelled because of World War I. Antwerp was selected as the site of the 1920 Games to honor the suffering and sacrifices of the Belgian people during the war. Berlin eventually hosted the 1936 Summer Games.)

After graduating from high school in 1910, Mr. Willkie enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington. He graduated in 1913 and immediately took a high school teaching job in Coffeyville, Kansas to earn money for law school. He returned to Bloomington in 1915, and the following year, graduated with high honors from the Indiana University School of Law. On April 2, 1917, the day President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, Willkie volunteered for the U. S. Army where he was eventually commissioned as a first lieutenant. He was sent to France in September 1918, eight months after his wedding to Edith Wilk (yes—Wilk), a librarian from Rushville, Indiana. Their only child, Philip, was born the next year, and the family moved to Akron, Ohio.

You might (or might not) be surprised to learn that Wendell Willkie was very active in the Democratic Party in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention where he urged the party to include a plank in the party platform condemning the Ku Klux Klan which had, by that time, become powerful in the party and the nation. His efforts were not successful that summer, but it was the beginning of his ongoing passion for civil rights. Later, he also supported an equal rights amendment for women.

Wendell and Edith Willkie moved to New York City in 1929, and for the next ten years, he worked in the legal offices of the Commonwealth and Southern Corporation, a U.S. electric utility holding company. Once again, Willkie was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, this time in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt, who was governor of the state of New York at the time, won his party’s nomination for president for the first time. Mr. Willkie favored former Secretary of War Newton Baker, but after Roosevelt’s success at the convention, he donated $150.00 (almost three thousand in today’s dollars) to his campaign.

So, how and why did Wendell Willkie become a Republican? As early as 1937, as many members of the Democratic Party assumed Roosevelt would not run for a third term, Willkie was considered a potential candidate. In 1938, he debated Assistant Attorney General Robert Jackson on the radio and enjoyed the positive press coverage after that event. Time magazine published a favorable cover story on Willkie in July 1939, and he received a considerable number of letters from supporters urging him to run. An April 1940 issue of Fortune magazine was devoted to Wendell Willkie. Clearly, the stars were lining up in his favor.

Willkie never doubted that Franklin Roosevelt would run for a third term. (The Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, limiting a president to two terms, wasn’t passed by Congress until 1947.) So, in late 1939, he changed his party affiliation from Democratic to Republican, blaming the switch on Roosevelt’s anti-business policies. He felt the party no longer represented his values. “I did not leave my party,” he said. “My party left me.” (Seems like I’ve heard that before, and not from him.)

By 1940, the war in Europe was underway, and it gave Willkie’s potential candidacy new purpose. He spoke often of the threat to America and the need to send aid to Britain and other Allies. He championed freedom at every opportunity. He did not enter any of the Republican primaries that year, instead waiting for the convention in Philadelphia where he expected it to be deadlocked. It was, and it wasn’t pretty. Besides Wendell Willkie, vying for the nomination that summer were Senators Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Robert Taft of Ohio and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey. On the sixth ballot, held at 12:20 a.m. on June 28th, it was unanimous: Wendell Willkie was the Republican nominee for President of the United States. He soon selected Senator Charles McNary of Oregon as his running mate, and the race was on.

Wendell Willkie formally accepted his party's nomination in his hometown of Elwood, Indiana on August 17, 1940. The crowd, estimated at 150,000, was the largest political gathering in U.S. history up to that point.

In the end, it wasn’t close. Roosevelt received 55% of the popular vote (38 states—449 electoral votes) to Willkie’s 45% (10 states—82 electoral votes). Willkie’s popular vote total (22,348,480) set a record for a Republican candidate. Five days after the election, he gave a radio address to his supporters which he titled “Cooperation But Loyal Opposition: Discord and Disunity Will Arise if Opposition is Suppressed.” In the speech, he said, “Two days after the election, this Administration recommended that the national debt limit be increased from $49 billion to $65 billion.” As I write this, our current national debt is over $28 trillion. I really can’t get my head around that.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Willkie offered his full support to the president. The following year, as Roosevelt’s personal representative, he embarked on a foreign mission trip to the Soviet Union, China, and the Middle East. His first stop was North Africa where he met with British General Bernard Montgomery and French General Charles de Gaulle. In the Soviet Union, he met with Josef Stalin, then flew to China to meet with Chiang Kai-shek, President of the Chinese Nationalist Party. After returning to the U.S. in October 1942, he gave a radio address to the nation, telling the American people about his around-the-world journey. Thirty-six million people listened in.

Wendell Willkie was passionate about equal rights for minorities. In 1942, he addressed a convention of the NAACP and consistently urged integration in the Armed Forces. During his presidential campaigns (he tried again in 1944), he refused to accept support from those who held racists views. He was, for a time, chairman of the board of Twentieth-Century Fox, and worked to give African-American actors better treatment in Hollywood films. He had some success, but for a time after his death, the movie industry reverted to their old ways, offering only stereotypical rolls to Blacks. After Willkie’s death in 1944, the NAACP named its headquarters in New York City the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building.

Like many men of his generation, Willkie did not live a “healthy” lifestyle. He smoked heavily, and his diet and lack of exercise began to take a toll. In August 1944, he suffered the first of several heart attacks, and on October 7th, he succumbed to the last of over a dozen. His 1940 running mate, Senator Charles McNary, had died the previous February. If they had been elected in 1940 and hadn’t survived their first term in office, the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 would have been invoked and Willkie’s Secretary of State would have become acting president until the following January. (The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 states that the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall become acting president until the end of the present term.)

After the 1940 presidential election was over, President Roosevelt told his son James, “I’m happy I won, but I’m sorry Wendell lost.” An interesting admission, I think.

Blessings to all.


Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here:

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