My Grandfather Was a Republican Nominee Who Put Country First

Wendell Willkie has been compared to Donald Trump, but he powerfully articulated liberal ideals of political and economic freedom.

Wendell Willkie
Wendell Willkie (Murray Becker / AP)

I didn’t know my grandfather. He died in 1944, before I was born, felled by a heart attack at 52. This was but four years after his dramatic, unanticipated nomination for president, on the sixth ballot at the bitterly contested Republican convention in Philadelphia in June 1940. His ensuing campaign was the most serious election challenge that Franklin Roosevelt ever faced.

Wendell Willkie is little-remembered now. But as his namesake—growing up in his Rushville, Indiana, home, still fresh with his memories, surrounded by those who knew him intimately as well as artifacts of his extraordinary career—I was keenly aware of his presence. Six decades later, the ideas he advanced, and examples he set, have renewed significance. In a time as bitterly divided as our own, Willkie rejected partisanship and sacrificed political advantage to advance liberal democracy.

Willkie’s nomination in 1940 inevitably prompts comparisons to the GOP’s 2016 nomination of Donald Trump. Trump, like Willkie, was a former Democrat and prominent business executive who won the presidential nomination of a major political party without ever having held public office. In capturing the party’s leadership, each substantially challenged and redefined then-prevailing Republican Party doctrine.

The parallels end there. Indeed, the contrast between the Trump and Willkie worldviews could not be more profound. Willkie is remembered for his optimistic, inspiring vision of America.  A thoughtful student of history and economics, he powerfully articulated classically liberal ideals of political and economic freedom. For all our nation’s faults, he passionately believed in American exceptionalism.  He took on unpopular causes, and battled discrimination and intolerance. But he also believed the world would be a far more dangerous place without American leadership.

In his new biography of my grandfather, The Improbable Wendell Willkie, David Levering Lewis correctly identifies the roots of Willkie’s idealism with his immigrant heritage. His German grandparents, inspired by America’s promise of freedom and justice, had fled Prussian autocracy for the American Midwest after the failed democratic revolutions of 1848.  Both his parents were prominent lawyers and civic leaders in the small industrial community of Elwood, Indiana. Wendell, the fourth of six children, grew up in a household with thousands of books and countless arguments about important issues.

A gifted if rebellious student at Indiana University, Willkie left Indiana after Army service in World War I for law practice in Akron, Ohio. In 1924, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He fought aggressively there for a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan, then experiencing an extraordinary national resurgence.

Willkie adamantly opposed racial, religious and ethnic bigotry. As he later wrote, immigrants of diverse backgrounds, drawn by our nation’s promise of opportunity and fairness, had always been a great source of strength to America—but were also easy scapegoats during periods of economic stress or wartime.

A brilliant lawyer with a growing reputation, Willkie was recruited to New York in 1929 to be general counsel of Commonwealth and Southern, a major public utility holding company. He was named company president in 1933 as the woes of the Depression mounted, Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated, and the utility industry came under adverse public scrutiny.

Shortly thereafter, the Roosevelt administration furthered its broader social objectives by launching the Tennessee Valley Authority, advancing electrification in the impoverished Southeast and putting the government in the unprecedented position of directly competing with the private sector.

Willkie had supported FDR in 1932. He believed irresponsible and fraudulent business activity had contributed to the economic collapse, and favored enlightened, limited regulation of business as well as the creation of a social safety net via Social Security and unemployment compensation.

But Willkie also believed economic freedom and private enterprise were vastly superior to a planned economy in delivering greater prosperity for all Americans. And as the Roosevelt administration tried to stimulate recovery through radical programs such as the National Recovery Administration and TVA, Willkie’s disillusionment with FDR’s policies grew.

Writing in The Atlantic, Willkie gained national prominence as a forceful critic of excessive government intervention in the economy. FDR’s unaccountable federal bureaucracies, coupled with his “class warfare” rhetoric, were contributing to pervasive economic uncertainty, chilling private sector investment, and stifling full recovery. By 1938, 15 million Americans remained unemployed. Willkie—a liberal of the old school, celebrating freedom of the individual over “collective rights” of interest groups—emerged as the New Deal’s most powerful critic.

In 1940, a group of Republicans known as the “eastern establishment” launched a campaign to win the GOP nomination for this articulate businessman, distinguished by his personal magnetism and midwestern authenticity. Although Willkie, thanks to his mistress and intellectual partner, Irita van Doren, had developed relationships with members of the journalistic and financial elite, the effort seemed, at first, quixotic. The leading Republican candidates—Bob Taft, Tom Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg—were all highly experienced politicians with strong delegate support. Unlike Willkie, they were also wedded to a policy of strict neutrality in Europe’s growing conflict. Senator Taft, admired for his principled conservativism, said in May that the New Deal posed a greater totalitarian threat to America than Hitler. As utterly bizarre as that statement sounds today, it reflected the extreme polarization in American society at that time, strikingly captured by Lynne Olson in Those Angry Days. Most Americans of both parties were eager to stay out of the war, especially as our participation in World War I was widely viewed (though not by Willkie) as a serious mistake.

But as the late-June Republican convention approached, Nazi forces were overrunning Western Europe—and this created an opening for Willkie. His spirited contention that America must support the democratic cause gained him many followers. Indeed, more than a million telegrams supporting his candidacy flooded convention delegates in Philadelphia. Young Willkie fans packed the galleries.  As Charlie Peters memorably recounts in Five Days in Philadelphia, pandemonium ensued.

Willkie’s nomination initially stirred tremendous enthusiasm. Seasoned observers anticipated a closely fought race. Willkie’s speech in August formally accepting the nomination drew more than 150,000 souls to little Elwood in blistering heat. According to Lewis, it was the largest political gathering in American history until the 1963 civil-rights March on Washington.

Willkie’s campaign was energetic, but undisciplined and disorganized. In a triumph of principle over political opportunity, he supported FDR’s legislation authorizing military conscription, as well as the controversial exchange of old U.S. destroyers for British bases in the Western Hemisphere. In the closing weeks, both Willkie and Roosevelt catered to isolationist sentiment, pledging not to enter the war—politically expedient rhetoric that Willkie after the election regretted and repudiated. Thus the growing crisis in Europe, which made Willkie’s nomination possible, arguably made Roosevelt’s reelection inevitable, as many Americans opted for the more seasoned hand.

One particularly salient lesson for our bitterly divided political moment came after the election, when Willkie pledged not to reflexively oppose the president. Instead, he offered his “loyal opposition.” His position was tested in January 1941, when FDR proposed the “Lend-Lease” policy, authorizing vast military assistance to the British and effectively terminating American neutrality. To the severe consternation of Republican elders, Willkie promptly endorsed the legislation and announced he was visiting Britain to evaluate its dire situation.

During a trip highly publicized on both sides of the Atlantic, he had long visits with Prime Minister Churchill; attended a heated debate in Parliament as German warplanes buzzed overhead; and met with ordinary Britons in military factories and bombed-out buildings, on public transportation, in pubs and bomb shelters. Willkie clearly had a flair for the photogenic, but he was also deeply moved by the stoicism and courage he encountered.

Willkie cut his visit short when the White House asked him to return immediately to testify for Lend-Lease before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, a man of extraordinary stature and influence—whom David Levering Lewis labels “the matinee idol Icarus”—had just testified before the committee on behalf of the isolationist America First Committee, proclaiming that aid to Britain would embroil America in Europe’s “civil war.” Willkie, however, extolled the courage of the British people and declared that, while the risk of war could not be discounted, the cause of freedom and our own vital national interests were critically at stake in Britain’s survival. To the exasperation of many prominent Republicans, Willkie’s testimony received extraordinary coverage and helped carry the day for FDR’s legislation.

Later in 1941, Lindbergh blamed FDR, the British, and the Jews for bringing America to the brink of war. Willkie led the condemnation of Lindbergh’s vile remarks as “un-American.” Thereafter the America First label, previously embraced by a diverse group of respected leaders, would, until our time, be thoroughly discredited.

Willkie’s leadership in the months before Pearl Harbor, often ahead of Roosevelt, helped prepare America for the inevitable global conflict. In recounting this oft-told story, the Lewis biography makes a singular contribution by highlighting Willkie’s battle against anti-Semitism, as well as his forceful advocacy for full civil rights for Americans of color, at a time when blacks were routinely denied the right to vote and lynching was shockingly common. Lewis describes Willkie’s moral leadership in condemning these practices, and calling for federal civil rights legislation, as simply unparalleled in that era among candidates for national office. As the chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, Willkie also condemned demeaning portrayals of black Americans in the motion picture industry, and worked with the great civil-rights leader Walter White to promote more positive images of black people in film.

Today, many politicians insist they put country over party, but do little to prove their ultimate loyalties. Willkie was different. In late 1942, GOP leaders wanted Willkie’s assistance in the fall elections. To their dismay, he instead embarked on a mission, coordinated with FDR, to visit international leaders allied with the U.S. in capitals from the Middle East through Russia and China. The trip was designed to serve a number of objectives; but the overarching purpose was to advance Willkie’s vision that American continuing engagement and leadership in a postwar world were critical to future peace and prosperity.

From a diplomatic standpoint, the trip was poorly choreographed (and there were moments of embarrassment, an ambassador’s nightmare); but it captured the imagination of the American people. According to Lewis, tens of millions listened to Willkie’s radio address upon his return. His book One World, published the following year, promptly sold more than a million copies, making it to that point one of the bestselling nonfiction books of the 20th century. In it, Willkie made a passionate case for American leadership in the wake of the vacuum soon to be left by the inevitable postwar demise of the great European empires:

Despite the functioning of our mischievous bureaucracies, and our sometimes excessively enterprising legislatures, and in isolated instances, the flaring of mob law, we have obtained here in America, the most reasonable expression of freedom that has yet existed in history … If our withdrawal from world affairs after the last war was a contributing factor to the present war and to the economic instability of the past 20 years and it seems plain that it was, a withdrawal from the problems and responsibilities of the world after this war would be sheer disaster.

Willkie, then widely perceived as Roosevelt’s successor, actively sought the Republican nomination in 1944. But he had done virtually nothing to court party regulars, and the party leadership resented his wartime assistance to the president. His quest for his second nomination therefore got little traction; the party instead chose New York Governor Tom Dewey.

He died a month before the election. Willkie was a cardiologist’s worst case: He smoked three packs of Camels daily, clearly enjoyed his scotch, ate more than he should, and never exercised. More than 60,000 people filed past his coffin in New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Willkie is widely credited for moving public opinion toward bipartisan support for American global leadership through a new, postwar international architecture. Republican Speaker of the House Joe Martin called this Wendell Willkie’s “monument.” After the war, Willkie’s political rival Arthur Vandenberg, once a strong isolationist, provided critical Republican support to President Truman in the development of the United Nations, NATO, the Marshall Plan, and international economic institutions.

American leadership in this global architecture created the environment for unprecedented peace and prosperity, notwithstanding the challenges of the Cold War. Willkie’s role in making this possible, coupled with his record on civil rights and acceptance of much of the New Deal, made him an iconic figure to liberal and moderate Republicans, as well as many independents and Democrats. Conservatives were often more ambivalent about Willkie. But some, including Barry Goldwater, greatly admired Willkie’s principles and his courage, despite serious policy differences.

Willkie is buried in a cemetery outside Rushville with other generations of our family. At his gravesite, one finds, carved in granite, several of his most uplifting remarks, manifesting his deep faith in the idea of America.

Shortly before he died, he had his own thoughts on his memorial:

If I could write my own epitaph and if I had to choose between saying, “Here lies an unimportant President,” or, “Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril,” I would prefer the latter.