1940 Presidential Elections - History

1940 Presidential Elections - History

1940 Election Results wilkie VS Roosevelt

The Republican convention of 1940 resulted in one of the most significant upsets in election convention history. In early 1940, the leading candidates for the Republican nomination were: Senator Robert Taft and Thomas E. Dewey, the New York District Attorney. As the international situation became worse, with the fall of France, both Taft and Dewey were considered by many as too isolationist. Wendell Wilkie's candidacy was promoted. Wilkie, who was best known as a utility executive, and had opposed Roosevelt's TVA. Wilkie was an outspoken supporter of American support for the Allies. When the time came for the balloting, Dewey led on the first three ballots. However, the galleries demanded Wilkie. On the fourth ballot, Wilkie took the lead. Wendell Wilkie clinched the nomination on the fourth ballot.

As the election of 1940 approached, the question arose as to whether Roosevelt would break with American tradition and run for a third term. The start of the war in Europe, in September 1939, persuaded Roosevelt to seek a third term. Roosevelt made it clear he was available for a draft by the Democratic party. The delegates at the Democratic convention chose to do just that.

The Republicans met in Philadelphia in June. There were three leading contenders for the Republican nomination. However, none of these leading candidates won. Instead, the party picked a political novice, Wendell Willkie. Wilkie was a Wall Street novice though he was charismatic and colorful.

. Roosevelt ran on a platform of maximum aid to Great Britain, while at the same time pledging to keep American boys home. Amid the campaign, Roosevelt proposed the first peacetime draft in American history. The draft did not become an issue, as Willkie supported it.

Another of Roosevelt's actions did, however, become an issue. Churchill asked Roosevelt for 50 old World War I destroyers that the US had mothballed. After much hesitation, Roosevelt agreed to a transaction in which Britain would give the United States five bases in the Western hemisphere in return for the destroyers. Roosevelt took this action without Congressional approval. Willkie attacked the action. Roosevelt repeatedly promised that American boys would not have to fight overseas. At one point Willkie hearing Roosevelt make his pledge of "your boys are not going to be sent into a foreign war, stated to his brother: "That hypocritical son of a bitch! This is going to beat me." Roosevelt won, easily receiving 25 million votes to Willkie's 22 million.

State results in 1940

Electoral Results in 1940

AlabamaFranklin Roosevelt250,72685.2Wendell Willkie42,18414.3
ArizonaFranklin Roosevelt95,26763.5Wendell Willkie54,03036.0
ArkansasFranklin Roosevelt157,21378.4Wendell Willkie42,12221.0
CaliforniaFranklin Roosevelt1,877,61857.4Wendell Willkie1,351,41941.3
ColoradoFranklin Roosevelt265,55448.4Wendell Willkie279,57650.9
ConnecticutFranklin Roosevelt417,62153.4Wendell Willkie361,81946.3
DelawareFranklin Roosevelt74,59954.7Wendell Willkie61,44045.1
FloridaFranklin Roosevelt359,33474.0Wendell Willkie126,15826.0
GeorgiaFranklin Roosevelt265,19484.8Wendell Willkie46,49514.9
IdahoFranklin Roosevelt127,84254.4Wendell Willkie106,55345.3
IllinoisFranklin Roosevelt2,149,93451.0Wendell Willkie2,047,24048.5
IndianaFranklin Roosevelt874,06349.0Wendell Willkie899,46650.5
IowaFranklin Roosevelt578,80247.6Wendell Willkie632,37052.0
KansasFranklin Roosevelt364,72542.4Wendell Willkie489,16956.9
KentuckyFranklin Roosevelt557,32257.4Wendell Willkie410,38442.3
LouisianaFranklin Roosevelt319,75185.9Wendell Willkie52,44614.1
MaineFranklin Roosevelt156,47848.8Wendell Willkie163,95151.1
MarylandFranklin Roosevelt384,54658.3Wendell Willkie269,53440.8
MassachusettsFranklin Roosevelt1,076,52253.1Wendell Willkie939,70046.4
MichiganFranklin Roosevelt1,032,99149.5Wendell Willkie1,039,91749.9
MinnesotaFranklin Roosevelt644,19651.5Wendell Willkie596,27447.7
MississippiFranklin Roosevelt168,26795.7Wendell Willkie7,3644.2
MissouriFranklin Roosevelt958,47652.3Wendell Willkie871,00947.5
MontanaFranklin Roosevelt145,69858.8Wendell Willkie99,57940.2
NebraskaFranklin Roosevelt263,67742.8Wendell Willkie352,20157.2
NevadaFranklin Roosevelt31,94560.1Wendell Willkie21,22939.9
Now HampshireFranklin Roosevelt125,29253.2Wendell Willkie110,12746.8
Now JerseyFranklin Roosevelt1,016,80851.5Wendell Willkie945,47547.9
New MexicoFranklin Roosevelt103,69956.6Wendell Willkie79,31543.3
New YorkFranklin Roosevelt3,251,91851.6Wendell Willkie3,027,47848.0
North CarolinaFranklin Roosevelt609,01574.0Wendell Willkie213,63326.0
North DakotaFranklin Roosevelt124,03644.2Wendell Willkie154,59055.1
OhioFranklin Roosevelt1,733,13952.2Wendell Willkie1,586,77347.8
OklahomaFranklin Roosevelt474,31357.4Wendell Willkie348,87242.2
OregonFranklin Roosevelt258,41553.7Wendell Willkie219,55545.6
PennsylvaniaFranklin Roosevelt2,171,03553.2Wendell Willkie1,889,84846.3
Rhode IslandFranklin Roosevelt182,18156.7Wendell Willkie138,65443.2
South CarolinaFranklin Roosevelt95,47095.6Wendell Willkie4,3604.4
South DakotaFranklin Roosevelt131,36242.6Wendell Willkie177,06557.4
TennesseeFranklin Roosevelt351,60167.3Wendell Willkie169,15332.4
TexasFranklin Roosevelt909,97480.9Wendell Willkie212,69218.9
UtahFranklin Roosevelt154,27762.3Wendell Willkie93,15137.6
VermontFranklin Roosevelt64,26944.9Wendell Willkie78,37154.8
VirginiaFranklin Roosevelt235,96168.1Wendell Willkie109,36331.6
WashingtonFranklin Roosevelt462,14558.2Wendell Willkie322,12340.6
West VirginiaFranklin Roosevelt495,66257.1Wendell Willkie372,41442.9
WisconsinFranklin Roosevelt704,82150.1Wendell Willkie679,20648.3
WyomingFranklin Roosevelt59,28752.8Wendell Willkie52,63346.9

1940 Presidential Election (FDR's Two Term Presidency)

The 1940 United States presidential election was the 39th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on Tuesday, November 5, 1940. The election was contested in the shadow of World War II in Europe, as the United States was emerging from the Great Depression. Democratic Nominee and Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Incumbent President Charles F. Adams III to be reelected for a second term in office and become the first president since Grover Cleveland to serve two nonconsecutive terms in office.

Roosevelt, in the wake of World War II erupting in Europe and Asia, wanted to campaign for a 2nd term in order to favor his previous promises of rebuilding alliances with the United Kingdom and France. In the 1940 Democratic National Convention Roosevelt was re-nominated on the first ballot, with Connecticut Senator Henry A. Wallace as his running mate (As Roosevelt's previous vice president John Nance Garner died shortly before the Convention).

Both Roosevelt and Adams favored similar foreign policy, as each of them did not wish to join the war against the Axis Powers or continue alliances with the previous Entente. In the weeks preceding Election Day, Adams was narrowly beating Dewey in national polls, however failed to properly campaign or deliver promises due to sickness, which saw a resurge in the Republican Party's base. Due to Long's primarily excessive popularity in most Conservative/Populist regions of the country, the election took place in a 3-day period with many news organizations projecting Dewey as the winner despite him not previously leading in many of the Northeastern swing states.

On November 8, The New York Times correctly projected Roosevelt winning re-election with him finishing in 1st and Adams finishing 2nd.

Adams had been projected to win North Dakota, however due to a partially tense delay in ballots, Roosevelt won the state instead, gaining an additional 4 electoral votes.

The Election of 1940 and the Might-Have-Been that Makes One Shudder

The Presidential Election of 1940 is well remembered as being one of the most crucial elections in American history, and rightfully.

America was facing the growing threat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, as World War II raged all over the globe. Meanwhile, in America, the isolationist crusade, as the central domestic controversy raging in America, was in full swing, as the America First Committee was having a dramatic effect on the nation, with many leading public figures of all political stripes, vehemently demanding that America stay out of the war, best personified by the organization’s most influential spokesman, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.

So the issue of staying out of war was the focus of the campaign, with the issue of a third term for President Franklin D. Roosevelt also promoting furious debate, as FDR pledged that he had no intentions of taking America to war, but his isolationist opponents convinced that his ultimate purpose was to enter the war on the side of Great Britain.

Franklin D. Roosevelt went on to win a substantial victory over the only Presidential nominee in American history to have no government experience, utilities executive Wendell Willkie of Indiana, who “conquered” the Republican National Convention with his soaring oratory. Willkie was very appealing to many as an “outsider”, and his charisma converted many people, but at the end, he lost out, but became a supporter of the World War II war effort, wishing to aid Great Britain even as a candidate, antagonizing the party that had nominated him for the White House. His cooperating with FDR and defying many in the Republican Party, infuriated party leaders who complained that this former Democrat was “flip flopping” on an issue, isolationism, which had united the Republican Party against the President. By supporting FDR on aid to Great Britain, Willkie took away the key issue of the Republican Party at the time, for which they never forgave him,

It seems clear the Willkie would have followed a similar pattern as FDR did in 1941 on aid to Great Britain, through Lend Lease, and would have pursued the war effort in similar fashion, and Willkie acted as an informal foreign envoy for the President during the war. By 1944, with the assumption that FDR would not seek a fourth term, Willkie made an attempt to win the Republican nomination, but bowed out of the race before the Republican National Convention.

Willkie’s role in history is significant for aiding FDR in the debates and strategy for America in World War II, but history also tells something not generally recognized. Willkie was only 52 in 1944, but he was in poor health, due to bad eating habits, incessant smoking, and heavy drinking, all of which went unreported. In October, he suffered a series of heart attacks, and died, so had he been the GOP nominee that year, he would not have made it alive to the election, unprecedented in American history.

But even more amazing is that this means that had Willkie won in 1940 over FDR, he would have died in office at a crucial moment when D Day had occurred, but the Battle of the Bulge had not yet happened. There was yet no certainty that America would prevail on the European or Asian war fronts. And one might say, well, his Vice President would have succeeded him, BUT his running mate in 1940, Oregon Senator Charles McNary, Senate Minority Leader throughout the New Deal years, actually had died eight months earlier in February, 1944, succumbing to a brain tumor which had been a problem for a year before his death.

So that means for the only time in American history, the potential President and Vice President in the Presidential Election of 1940 would both have died in office, leaving the Presidency to whoever would have been Secretary of State, under the Presidential Succession Law of 1886!

The whole history of World War II MIGHT have been very different, and certainly much more complicated by such a scenario. But ironically, now as we look back, we realize that FDR was dying, but made it through the Presidential Election of 1944, unwilling to retire but making the decision to choose Harry Truman to replace Henry A. Wallace as Vice President, itself a turning point in American history with massive long term ramifications!

So the 1940 Presidential Election had much more impact than most historians have actually recognized, and could be argued to be among the top five Presidential elections in historical impact, joining those in 1860, 1932, 2000, and 2008!

Why Charles Lindbergh?

In May 1927, 25-year-old Charles A. Lindbergh skyrocketed to fame after completing the first successful non-stop, solo transatlantic flight. (As Bess tells her husband in a “Plot Against America” trailer, “To most people, there’s never been a bigger hero in their lifetime.”) Dubbed “Lucky Lindy” and the “Lone Eagle,” he became an international celebrity, garnering his influence to promote the field of aviation. In 1929, he married Anne Morrow, daughter of a prominent American financier and diplomat shortly after, the couple welcomed a baby boy, whose kidnapping and murder three years later sparked a media circus.

Overwhelmed by the publicity, the family fled to Europe. While living abroad, Lindbergh, acting at the U.S. military’s request, made multiple trips to Germany to assess the country’s aviation capabilities. He was impressed by what he encountered: As historian Thomas Doherty says, Nazi Germany shared Lindbergh’s admiration of “Spartan physicality” and aviation-centric militarism. In 1938, the American hero attracted intense criticism for accepting—and later declining to return—a medal from Nazi military and political leader Hermann Göring.

After moving back to the U.S. in April 1939, Lindbergh became a key figurehead of the America First movement. He spoke at rallies, denouncing the war as a European affair with no relevance to the U.S., and soon shifted from isolationism to outright anti-Semitism. Among his most patently bigoted remarks: Western nations “can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood” and “It seems that anything can be discussed today in America except the Jewish problem.”

Radio broadcaster Walter Winchell emerged as one of Lindbergh’s most steadfast critics, updating Lindy’s “Lone Eagle” nickname to the “Lone Ostrich” and arguing that the aviator gave up the country’s goodwill to become the “star ‘Shill’ for the America First Committee.” Roth’s fictionalized Winchell takes a similarly irreverent approach, decrying Lindbergh as “our fascist-loving president” and his supporters as “Lindbergh’s fascists.” But while The Plot Against America’s version of Winchell defies the reviled commander-in-chief by staging his own presidential bid, the real journalist never ran for office.

Charles Lindbergh (right) and Senator Burton K. Wheeler (left) at a May 23, 1941, "America First" rally in New York (Getty Images)

During the 1930s, Lindbergh and his other Plot Against America presidential rival, Franklin D. Roosevelt, were arguably the two most famous men in the country. But while many respected the pilot, few viewed him as a viable political candidate. According to Hart, an August 1939 poll found that just 9 percent of Americans wanted Lindbergh, whose name had been raised as a potential alternative to Roosevelt, to run for the nation’s highest office. Of these individuals, less than three-fourths (72 percent) thought he would actually make a good president.

Though Roosevelt personally supported America entering the conflict, he “hedged and waffled on war” while campaigning during the 1940 presidential race, says Susan Dunn, author of 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—The Election Amid the Storm. “At the same time that he was speaking against American involvement in war,” adds Dunn, “his administration was preparing for possible war” by instituting a peacetime draft and formulating lists of priorities in the event that war broke out. Like Roosevelt, his real-life Republican opponent, businessman Wendell Willkie, was an interventionist and anti-fascist, though he, too, toned down these views on the campaign trail.

There was no love lost between Roosevelt and Lindbergh: The president likened the pilot to the “Copperheads” who had opposed the American Civil War, labeling him a “defeatist and appeaser.” Lindbergh, in turn, called the Roosevelt administration one of three groups “agitating for war” and accused it of practicing “subterfuge” to force the U.S. into “a foreign war.”

The president’s distaste for Lindbergh continued well beyond the United States’ 1941 entry into the war. Though the pilot attempted to volunteer for the Army Air Corps, he was blocked from doing so and forced to settle for a consulting position with Henry Ford’s bomber development program. Later in the war, under the auspices of United Aircraft, he was stationed in the Pacific theater, where he participated in around 50 combat missions despite his official status as a civilian.

Lindbergh’s reputation never fully recovered from his pre-war politics. Once the aviator accepted a medal from Göring, says Doherty, “the universal affection Americans had for Lindbergh dissipates, and people divide[d] into camps. There are still a lot of Americans that will always love Lindbergh, … but he becomes an increasingly provocative and controversial figure.”

Charles Lindbergh (left) enrolls as a member of the America First Committee. (Getty Images)

Whether the pilot actually came to regret his comments is a point of contention among scholars. Though his wife later claimed as much, he never personally apologized for his comments. Roth, writing in 2004, argued that “he was at heart a white supremacist, and … did not consider Jews, taken as a group, the genetic, moral or cultural equals of Nordic white men like himself and did not consider them desirable American citizens other than in very small numbers.”

Though Lindbergh is The Plot Against America’s clearest antagonist, his actual actions, according to Roth, matter less than what “American Jews suspect, rightly or wrongly, that he might be capable of doing”—and, conversely, how supporters interpret his words as permission to indulge their worst instincts.

As Roth concludes, “Lindbergh … chose himself as the leading political figure in a novel where I wanted America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.”

Who ran against FDR for President?

1932 United States Presidential Election

Presidential candidate Party Running mate
Vice-presidential candidate
Franklin D. Roosevelt Democratic John Nance Garner
Herbert Hoover (Incumbent) Republican Charles Curtis
Norman Thomas Socialist James H. Maurer

1940 Presidential Elections - History

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The Election [ edit | edit source ]

Smith won re-election in a close race. Taft had needed to win the west coast states to win the election, although he won California, Smith managed to take Washington and Oregon insuring his victory. Republican candidate Wendell Willkie won the electoral votes from his home state of Indiana.

Months after Smith was inaugurated, the Confederate States reneged on its agreement to make no further territorial demands, with C.S. President Jake Featherston making a speech calling for the return of occupied sections of northern Virginia, northwestern Sonora, and southeastern Arkansas declaring the results of the plebiscite in Sequoyah (which had kept that state in the U.S.A.) illegitimate.

A Look Back: 1940 has unconventional convention

In this 1940 photograph, a large crowd gathers to greet Wendell Willkie, on the back of the “Willkie Special.” His visit to South Bend, long an important stop for political figures during presidential elections, included a speech at the University of Notre Dame and a parade. Photo provided/The History Museum

South Bend was visited by a surprising nominee during the 1940 presidential election, an election even more surprising than this year’s.

American politics have often been fraught with contentious campaigns and political turmoil, and the 2016 presidential election certainly is turning out to be no exception. It probably has a ways to go, however, before comparing with events in the 1940 campaign, especially on the Republican side, where a Hoosier was the nominee.

With World War II as the election’s backdrop, the 1940 campaign stands out as a battle between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. FDR was the well-known, two-term incumbent, and Willkie, born Feb. 18, 1892, in Elwood, Ind., was a lawyer, corporate executive and political newcomer.

The Republican National Convention took place June 24, 1940, in Philadelphia, where the newcomer made a name for himself in American politics. Although he had never run for office before and had registered as a Republican only in late 1939, the Hoosier stormed into a deadlocked Republican convention and took the nomination.

Willkie had not participated in the Republican primary, but he stood out as an interventionist or someone willing to prepare for the war in Europe as opposed to the other candidates who supported isolationist policies. From Sept. 12 until Nov. 2, Willkie conducted a 2,000-mile campaign tour with stops in 31 states.

The “Willkie Special” campaign train arrived in South Bend in September, with the presidential candidate aboard. When Willkie’s campaign trail reached South Bend, there was a parade in town and a speech at the University of Notre Dame.

Despite garnering support within the Republican party, Willkie ultimately lost the election to FDR, by a large margin. Willkie eventually became one of FDR’s greatest champions. He traveled to Britain and the Middle East as a presidential representative in 1941, and visited the Soviet Union and China the following year.

Willkie sought the Republican nomination again in 1944, but his liberal views conflicted with the party, which was becoming increasingly conservative, Thomas E. Dewey was nominated instead.

This information was provided by The History Museum. If you would like to donate local photographs, or will allow a digital copy of your image to be made, call the museum at 574-235-9664.

Fake News and Election Meddling—1940s style

Delegates cram the busy floor of the 1940 Republican National Convention. Much went on behind the scenes, too, as German and British agents attempted to sway the outcome of the U.S. presidential election—and influence America’s role in the war.

Classic Stock/Alamy Stock Photo

Foreign meddling, FBI intrigue, political warfare: the 1940 U.S. presidential election had it all…

C o nvention Hall in Philadelphia, a mammoth art deco building on 34th and Spruce often used for prize boxing bouts, simmered in the glare of television lights as Republican delegates gathered there in the fourth week of June 1940 to choose their party’s candidate for president—and a plank on what, if anything, America should do about the war blazing in Europe.

The whiskey flowed freely, as at all such conclaves, but the war exerted a sobering influence on the proceedings. “Nazi fliers strike widely in Britain,” the New York Times reported in its June 25 edition, just three days after France’s formal surrender to Germany. Was it time, delegates asked themselves, to rally the party in favor of American intervention to put a stop to Hitler?

A full-page advertisement in that day’s Times, addressed to the convention-goers along with “American mothers, wage earners, farmers and veterans,” insisted the answer was no: “STOP THE MARCH TO WAR! STOP THE INTERVENTIONISTS AND WARMONGERS!” The missive was signed by a group calling itself THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE TO KEEP AMERICA OUT OF FOREIGN WARS.

Unbeknownst to the delegates, the ad was a propaganda plant, written by a German agent with close ties to Republican isolationists in Congress and paid for, in part, by the Nazi government in Berlin.

But two could play at this game. “Delegate Poll Says 60% Favor Help for Allies,” the New York Herald Tribune declared in a June 26 headline. The poll was said to represent a sampling of one-third of the delegates, conducted by Market Analysts, Inc., “an independent research organization.” In fact, Market Analysts was headed by an American secretly assisting a British intelligence unit operating out of Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Back and forth it went: a shadow information war waged on American soil, replete with “fake news” and dirty tricks, the Germans and the British targeting the United States and its political institutions in rival bids to sway the outcome of the 1940 presidential election—and in so doing, influence America’s policy and actions on the war across the Atlantic.

Hans Thomsen and wife Bebe arrive at a diplomatic reception. Officially the German chargé d’affaires, Thomsen was a Nazi propagandist promoting isolationist views and candidates. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

THE GERMANS WERE the first to strike in this inky theater of combat. In November 1938, as torched synagogues and ransacked Jewish shops in Berlin and other cities lay in ruin from the Nazi rampage known as Kristallnacht, Dr. Hans Thomsen took up his post as chargé d’affaires at the German embassy in Washington, DC. The title masked his true role as the mastermind of Nazi propaganda efforts in the United States. Tall and blonde, of Norwegian ancestry, Thomsen, 47, was accompanied by his wife, Bebe. The couple affected the role of “good Germans,” with Bebe, at diplomatic receptions, known to burst theatrically into tears in recounting the brute deeds of Nazi hoodlums in her beloved fatherland. He was handsome, she was beautiful, and they made for a luminous social presence on Embassy Row.

Thomsen was a shrewd observer of American politics. With Democrats having taken a pounding in the 1938 midterm elections for the House and Senate, and with a weak economy afflicted by the so-called “Roosevelt recession,” many analysts thought that incumbent president Franklin D. Roosevelt might shrink from a bid for an unprecedented third consecutive term in office. Even some of his fellow Democrats weren’t sure what Roosevelt, an interventionist at heart, would do. But Thomsen divined, correctly, that the president was merely waiting for the right moment to show his hand.

“The timing and strategy of the nomination will doubtless be so cleverly synchronized,” he told the foreign ministry in Berlin in a coded message in February 1940, “that not only will the wind be taken out of the sails of the Republicans but Roosevelt will also be able to take over the role of Cincinnatus, to whom his country appeals in its hour of need.” Thomsen was referring to the Roman patrician of legend, a self-sacrificing statesman who heroically vanquished Rome’s dire enemies only to relinquish power and return to his modest farm, and someone to whom, Thomsen was no doubt aware, America’s first president and eternal model for the job, George Washington, was often likened.

To counter Roosevelt and the interventionist cause, Thomsen proposed, in a subsequent dispatch, “a well-camouflaged lightning propaganda campaign,” secretly funded by Berlin. The essence of the strategy was to give disguised backing to the isolationist movement and its leading voices in Congress. Isolationism, especially resonant in America’s heartland, was animated by the conviction that nothing but grief would come from another entanglement in Europe’s seemingly endless strife. After all, the United States’ entry into Europe’s last war, the isolationists pointed out, had not made the world “safe for democracy,” as promised. It would be best, Thomsen advised Berlin, “if American politicians themselves provide enlightenment [his italics] regarding our political aims and the mistakes of Roosevelt’s foreign policy.”

Thomsen’s prized asset for executing this strategy was the hyper-energetic George Sylvester Viereck, 55, a native of Germany and an ardent admirer of Hitler (a “genius” in Viereck’s estimation). Viereck had lived in the U.S. since adolescence and was best known, to the degree he was known at all, as the author of a bizarre, semipornographic “autobiography,” My First Two Thousand Years, that blended male and female forms in an epic account of the “wandering Jew.” Placed on Thomsen’s payroll, Viereck churned out speeches and articles for Republican isolationists, who probably should have known, but apparently did not, that he was a Nazi agent.

Some of these materials bordered on the preposterous, as in an “interview” with Hitler—concocted out of thin air by the inventive Viereck—that a credulous Montana congressman, Jacob Thorkelson, an immigrant from Norway, inserted into the June 22, 1940, Congressional Record. Fears of a Nazi invasion of America are “stupid and fantastic,” Viereck’s Führer proclaimed. The fraud was on U.S. taxpayers, who paid for the delivery of hundreds of thousands of reprints of the rank propaganda to their homes by the post office, thanks to the franking privilege allowing members of Congress to dispatch “official” mail to their constituents at government expense.

British intelligence agent William Stephenson worked in secret with the FBI to oppose Nazi propaganda efforts. (Photo courtesy cia.gov)

IT WAS NOT UNTIL April 1940, seven months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, that the British moved in a systematic fashion to stymie Thomsen’s machinations. Whereas the Nazis targeted Congress as sympathetic ground for their campaign, the British focused on the executive branch, under friendly control of the Roosevelt administration. On the second day of the month, William Stephenson, a wealthy Canadian businessman, entered the United States, supposedly on behalf of the British Ministry of Supply. In fact, Stephenson was in America as a representative of British intelligence, to meet in secret with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. The appointment had been discreetly arranged by a mutual friend, former heavyweight prizefighter Gene Tunney.

Notwithstanding America’s official neutrality in the war in Europe, mandated by Congress, Stephenson proposed a secret collaboration between the FBI and British intelligence. He was seeking, in effect, the FBI’s permission to set up a base of British espionage operations aimed at undermining active Nazi propaganda efforts and advancing the interventionist cause. The turf-minded Hoover cautiously assented—so long as Roosevelt personally approved the arrangement and so long as no other government agency, the State Department included, was informed of it. Roosevelt gave his hearty endorsement, viewing a sullying of the isolationist movement and its mostly Republican leaders as in his political interest and the country’s, too. “There should be the closest possible marriage,” he said, “between the FBI and British intelligence.”

London had chosen its man well. Stephenson, 43, was clever and resourceful—a former World War I ace who, on being shot down and captured, took home from prison camp a new type of can opener for which he obtained a patent, so making his initial fortune. Known for serving killer martinis in quart glasses to his wide range of social contacts, including publishing baron Henry R. Luce and gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Stephenson was the inspiration, in part, for the debonair spy James Bond in novels by his friend, Ian Fleming. “He is a man of few words and has a magnetic personality and the quality of making anyone ready to follow him to the ends of the earth,” Fleming said of the “Quiet Canadian,” as the novelist dubbed Stephenson.

Stephenson operated under the cover of Passport Control Officer, his quarters at Rockefeller Center—cable address “Intrepid”—provided to him rent-free by the landlord, the Rockefellers themselves. His plan for “political warfare,” as he called it, was of the same character as Thomsen’s—only, in his case, the goal was “to bring the United States i nto the ‘shooting’ war by attacking isolationism and fostering interventionism,” as recounted in a “secret history” of the opera tion prepared at his instruction in 1945 (and published decades later). In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who took over for Neville Chamberlain in early May, backed Stephenson to the hilt.

The Quiet Canadian’s main idea was to plant stories in sympathetic press outlets to make the isolationists out to be puppets of Hitler—even though the truth, as he knew, was more complicated. Like Thomsen, Stephenson viewed the United States as a soft target for a propaganda campaign. Americans were yokels, in his estimation. “A country that is extremely heterogeneous in character offers a wide variety of choice in propaganda methods,” his secret history related. “While it is possibly true to say that all Americans are intensely suspicious of propaganda, it is certain that a great many of them are unusually susceptible to it even in its most patent form.”

According to the secret history, Stephenson’s shop “was able to initiate internal propaganda through its undercover contacts with selected newspapers, such as the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and the Baltimore Sun with newspaper columnists and radio commentators and with various political pressure organizations.” His outfit, for example, both wrote and “placed, through an intermediary” a series of front-page articles in the Herald Tribune about a Nazi agent, Dr. Gerhard Westrick. Arriving in the U.S. from Japan in the spring of 1940, Westrick leased a mansion outside of New York City, and met with American industrialists, especially in the oil business, to declare the war already “won by Germany” and to offer “business privileges in Axis-dominated Europe” for magnates backing the isolationist cause. The series resulted in “numerous editorials on Fifth Columnism in the United States,” the secret history boasted, and “even a proposal that the paper should receive the Pulitzer Prize for its good work.”

German “trade counselor” and Nazi representative Gerhard Westrick bones up on American history in a New York hotel. (AP Photo)

An angry mob gathered outside of Westrick’s house and he left the U.S. for Germany aboard a Japanese liner. A smoldering Thomsen told Berlin that Americans with business ties to Germany had been “compromised before the public” and “compelled to sever these relations.”

THE INTRIGUES NOURISHED an atmosphere in America’s political circles that went beyond healthy suspicion and crept into paranoia as the 1940 campaign got underway. In mid-May, during preparations for the Republican Convention, the head of the Arrangements Committee, Ralph E. Williams, died from an apparent heart attack while chairing a meeting of his panel at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. But was it truly a heart attack? Williams was the backer of an isolationist, Ohio’s Robert A. Taft, for president his sudden death allowed a supporter of interventionist-leaning Wendell Willkie of Indiana to take over the committee. There was no real evidence of foul play—Williams, at 70 years old, was hardly a spring chicken—but was not assassination part of a spy’s tool kit?

For Hans Thomsen, the convention was an opportunity to mobilize the sizable anti-intervention wing of the GOP, as with his secret sponsorship of a visit by some 50 Republican isolationist congressmen to Philadelphia—their aim, as he told Berlin, to “work on the delegates of the Republican Party in favor of an isolationist foreign policy.”

Stephenson, though, did not lack for assets, as in Market Analysts pollster and British intelligence agent Sandy Griffith: “a cheerful confident American utterly devoted to awakening American Opinion” to the Nazi threat, a Stephenson aide conveyed many years later. The British proved cannier than the Germans in understanding that the new “science” of opinion polling could be weaponized for use in an information war. (George Gallup, the pioneer, founded his American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935.) Griffith, a Long Islander, had fought for the Belgians and then the French before joining the U.S. Army in World War I and later worked as a European correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and other American newspapers. As in Philadelphia, his polls consistently showed a high degree of support for the interventionist cause—almost surely more support than actually existed. Ordinary Americans, and probably even the journalists who wrote up the findings of such polls, seemed not to realize how easily poll takers could massage their surveys.

In Philadelphia, however, the polling failed to achieve its desired effect on the foreign policy plank. “The Republican Party is firmly opposed to involving this nation in foreign war,” the platform declared.

But in the climactic battle over the party’s standard bearer, the delegates, on the sixth ballot, picked Willkie over Taft. A disconsolate Thomsen immediately cabled Berlin: “Willkie’s nomination is unfortunate for us. He is not an isolationist…he belongs to those Republicans who see America’s best defense in supporting England by all means ‘short of war.’”

IT IS TEMPTING to imagine the adversaries in the same room at, say, some swank social function in Manhattan or Washington—the British Passport Control Officer, martini glass in hand, exchanging thoughts on American politics with the German chargé d’affaires. But there is no record of Stephenson and Thomsen having met, although Stephenson, through his sources at the FBI or elsewhere, likely had knowledge of Thomsen’s schemes.

Stephenson’s liaison with Hoover—along with Churchill’s own direct line to Roosevelt—were advantages Thomsen could not match. And when Democrats convened in Chicago in mid-July for their convention, a plan hatched by the Nazis to bribe Pennsylvania’s delegates to oppose Roosevelt’s nomination came to naught, as the state’s delegation stood behind the president, the overwhelming choice of the party.

Still Thomsen persisted, informing Berlin that “after lengthy negotiations,” he had persuaded Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota to distribute copies of an isolationist speech to “200,000 especially selected persons.” And “this undertaking,” Thomsen said in his cable, “is not altogether easy, and is particularly delicate since Senator Nye, as a political opponent of the President, is under the careful observation of the secret state police here.”

Another ray of hope was the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, America’s most famous isolationist of them all: the voice of the America First Committee, organized in September 1940, expressly to keep the U.S. out of the war. Thomsen obliquely told Berlin that he maintained “good relations” with Lindbergh’s outfit, and on one occasion, Lindbergh delivered a radio speech at the behest of the Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee, a group secretly funded, in part, by the Nazis.

Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, top spokesman for the isolationist America First Committee, speaks at a peace rally. Inset: anti-FDR memorabilia. (Bettman/Getty Images)

But even as he labored to impress his superiors in Hitler’s regime, Thomsen must have felt beaten. The appetite for the isolationist message was diminishing as the Battle of Britain raged in Europe’s skies, with Hitler proving to be less than invincible in being made to put off an armed landing on the British Isles. In the final days before the election, the chargé d’affaires could find no prominent takers in the press for an article he sought to plant on how a malicious Roosevelt, even before Hitler’s attack on Poland, had plotted to get American boys into a savage European war. The best he could manage was publication of the piece in a weekly, the New York Enquirer, owned by an antiwar activist, William Griffin, later indicted for sedition. “Influential journalists of high repute will not lend themselves, even for money, to publishing such material,” Thomsen complained to Berlin.

On Election Day, November 5, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a resounding victory, though not quite as decisive as his blowout triumphs in 1932 and 1936. He took 55 percent of the popular vote, to 45 percent for Willkie, and 449 electoral votes, to 82 for Willkie, the winner of a mere 10 states.

THOUGH BUOYED BY Roosevelt’s performance, Stephenson did not let up. America was not yet in the war, after all. A prime British target was Republican congressman Hamilton Fish of New York, a leader of the anti-intervention camp. At a political rally in Milwaukee, a Stephenson plant presented Fish with a card that read, “Der Fuehrer thanks you for your loyalty.” Newspaper photographers, tipped by Stephenson to be on hand, captured the moment, flashbulbs popping. It was as deft a ruse as any he crafted.

A consummate politician, FDR promised during the campaign “not to send American boys into any foreign wars.” At top, the president heads toward Hyde Park —and victory—on election day. (Bettman/Getty Images)

Thomsen slogged on, but after Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry, at last, into the shooting war, he set sail for Germany on the SS Drottningholm, America behind him for good.

Stephenson remained stationed at Rockefeller Center during the war, working closely with the Americans to help them build their own espionage and counterespionage capabilities. The Quiet Canadian became known as Little Bill, in fraternal partnership with his larger-framed collaborator in the intelligence realm, Big Bill, aka “Wild Bill” Donovan, director of America’s Office of Strategic Services. At war’s end, King George VI knighted Stephenson for his work, prompting a letter from J. Edgar Hoover thanking the spymaster for his “very worthy contribution” to the Allied cause. Donovan presented Sir William with the Medal of Merit, at that time America’s highest civilian award. “Bill Stephenson taught us all we ever knew about foreign intelligence,” Donovan said.

THE NAZI-DIRECTED effort to manipulate American public opinion clearly failed. As for the British bid, historian Thomas E. Mahl, in his 1998 book, Desperate Deception, concluded that British covert operations to destroy isolationism and bring America into World War II “profoundly changed America forever, helping it become the global power we see today,” with isolationism itself becoming “a scandalous epithet, to be hurled at one’s enemies.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put a swift end to the isolationist cause—as dramatized on December 8, 1941, by prointerventionist cartoonist Ted Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss.” (Granger Collection, New York)

Mahl has a point in crediting British spycraft with helping to make isolationism a seemingly permanent swear word in American politics. But otherwise his claim is overstated. Roosevelt may have been conniving in his secret alliance with British intelligence, but in hindsight his sweeping victory at the ballot box seemed assured whether the British conducted their deception campaign or not, as the voters were not of a mind to change presidents in the midst of a global crisis. And it was not British espionage in America but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that in the end spurred America’s full-bore entry into the war. Certainly Churchill felt that way. On the evening of December 7, 1941, he wrote in a draft of his memoirs, “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and the thankful.”

Still, the Quiet Canadian was not wrong in apprehending sprawling America, “extremely heterogeneous in character,” as innately suspicious of propaganda and yet vulnerable to it. Such is always the case in a mass democratic society of free-flowing information, and therein lies the real lesson of this episode. Foreign powers, whether bent on aggression, as in the case of Nazi Germany, or on sheer survival, as in the case of reeling Britain in 1940, will not scruple when it comes to advancing their core interests. The United States’ prized openness is, for them, an opportunity to exploit. But while the U.S. should be on guard against attempts to mold its opinions and influence its policies—for these efforts are real—the country should not succumb to undue alarm. For in the end the U.S. is not quite as easy to manipulate as meddlesome outsiders may imagine. ✯

PAUL STAROBIN is the author of Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860, and the Mania for War. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He is currently at work on a book about the gold rush in Nome Alaska.

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