The president continued to equivocate on whether he intended to seek a third term, clouding the political landscape for both parties. Republicans gathered in June in Philadelphia without a clear front-runner, and observers were expecting a Democratic-style free-for-all for the nomination. But Roosevelt stole the opposition’s thunder on the eve of the convention when he named two Republicans to vital cabinet posts. Henry L. Stimson, who had served in the cabinets of William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover, became secretary of war, and Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News and Alf Landon’s running mate in 1936, was appointed secretary of the navy, both replacing men whose tendencies were isolationist. The Republicans cried, “Dirty politics!” and then descended into a multiballot contest that was indeed reminiscent of Democratic conventions past. In the end, after six ballots, political neophyte and former Democrat Wendell L. Willkie, an Indiana lawyer and electric utility executive known primarily for waging war against the TVA, beat out two party insiders, Manhattan district attorney Thomas E. Dewey and Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, the son of the former president.
And Roosevelt still refused to declare his preferences. The Democratic delegates, convening in Chicago at the beginning of the third week of July, heard that Harry Hopkins knew the wishes of the president. Hopkins was now living at the White House, having felt ill after dinner on May 10, the day the Germans invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and been invited by Roosevelt to spend the night. He would end up staying for three and a half years, occupying what had once been Lincoln’s study. But even Hopkins, who had become the president’s closest advisor and confidant and even had a hot line to the White House in his Chicago hotel bathroom, did not know Roosevelt’s intentions.
On the second night of the convention, delegates at last heard a message from the president, delivered by Kentucky senator Alben Barkley. He said the president had no desire to continue in office and “wishes in all sincerity to make it clear that all the delegates to this convention are free to vote for any candidate.”
This demurral caused a moment of uncertainty in the convention hall. Then the loudspeakers erupted with a chant: “We want Roosevelt! We want Roosevelt!” These were the words the delegates wanted to hear; joining in, they started an hour-long demonstration that took over the convention floor. The demonstration appeared spontaneous, but it was not; the voice on the speakers belonged to the Chicago sewer commissioner, positioned at a basement microphone by Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Edward J. Kelly, to provoke it. Still, this maneuver was less important than the fact that it expressed what the convention really did want: a proven hand at the helm in a time of international crisis, and a proven vote getter at the top of the Democratic ticket. And Roosevelt, too, had gotten what he wanted—a draft that would let him keep the reins of office while allowing him to say he had not sought them. He was nominated the next day by acclamation after demonstrating decisive strength on the first ballot.
But a second fight lay ahead. The president had decided that he wanted Henry Wallace as his running mate. The agriculture secretary was a queer duck politically: he did not smoke, drink, or swear, and glad-handing and small talk were beyond him. Moreover, he was an ex-Republican and a religious mystic who sought spiritual truth “from the pews of mainstream Protestantism to the esoteric fringes of eastern occultism.” But as a champion of price supports to control farm output and increase farmers’ income, he was popular in the farm belt, where isolationist sentiment remained strong. And he was the dependable liberal Roosevelt had lacked in Garner, an advocate who had traveled, written, and spoken extensively in support of Roosevelt’s policies. This last was the key: the ticket would be united in its commitment to the philosophy of the New Deal; there would be no more defections. Party regulars were outraged, but the president had his way, and the ticket was set.
As the summer progressed, Willkie campaigned while Roosevelt devoted his attention to the ticklish prospects for actually aiding England. The challenge was to create a scenario that could be spun as a matter of national defense, thereby neutralizing the isolationists in Congress. Advocates of defensive preparedness were already arguing that the shipments to England to replace the weapons left behind at Dunkirk had rendered America unarmed and vulnerable in case of an attack. Moreover, a majority of the American public believed that England was certain to fall before the German juggernaut, making any arms shipments a double waste since they would end up in enemy hands. Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, formerly the head of the SEC, shared this dim view of British prospects and argued for a British armistice with Hitler. Against these dismal voices, the president now was called upon to meet additional requests from Churchill that were vital to England’s survival.
The stunning air war over England known as the Battle of Britain had started on July 10. German Heinkel and Junkers bombers, protected by outriding Messerschmitt and Stuka fighters, began bombarding the island’s coastal defenses in preparation for an invasion, which the Nazis had designated with the code name Operation Sea Lion. But the British refused to give up. Their cryptanalysts had broken the German Enigma code, giving British commanders some idea of German plans, and coastal installations employing the newly developed radar technology gave advance warning and location of specific attacks. The Royal Air Force swarmed the skies with Spitfire and Hurricane fighters and continued to bring down approximately three German planes for every loss of their own. In the meantime, the RAF’s own bombers were making nighttime raids that targeted German oil depots and aircraft and munitions factories. In mid-August, the air warfare intensified, with the German targets now shifting to England’s airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had decided that he needed to decimate the Royal Air Force before launching an invasion, so for five straight days, between August 13 and August 18, Goering sent the Luftwaffe to England: first 1,400 planes, then 1,800, then 1,700. At the end, the Germans had lost 376 planes, yet failed to break England’s air defenses. It was the astonishing bravery of the English pilots that spurred Churchill’s famous statement of gratitude: “Never before in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Nonetheless, England was in desperate straits. It, too, had lost many planes, and a quarter of its thousand pilots had been killed or wounded. Churchill pressed Roosevelt to announce a deal on the destroyers as much for psychological reasons as for military advantage; the ships in question were outmoded and slow, but the prime minister was certain that it would give Hitler pause to believe that America was actively on England’s side.
Still, Roosevelt made no mention of England’s needs when he dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina on September 2. Rather, he stressed the need for the ongoing defense buildup and the military draft legislation that was then working its way through Congress. It was not easy to ask men to leave their homes, he said, but “if we are to survive, we cannot be soft in a world in which there are dangers that threaten Americans—dangers far more deadly than were those that the frontiersmen had to face.”
A day later, he was back in Washington, where he at last announced a deal on the destroyers: they were to be a quid pro quo for ninety-nine-year leases on British bases in Bermuda, Newfoundland, and the Caribbean that could be said to contribute to America’s defenses. It was a deal that barely passed the test of political acceptability, and isolationist Senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts called it an act of war. Predictably, so did Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. And in its wake Charles Lindbergh, along with Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, and General Robert E. Wood of Sears Roebuck, announced the formation of the America First Committee to resist involvement in the war.
This new spearhead of isolationism drew the bulk of its membership from the Midwest. Its main principles stated that the United States had to build an impregnable defense that no foreign power or powers could successfully attack, that American democracy could be preserved only by staying out of the European war, and that any aid to allies unless war had been declared weakened the national defense and threatened to drag the country into foreign conflict. Underlying these fine sentiments, however, were the whispered slurs of anti-Semitism and conspiracy that were a staple of the Roosevelt-bashing arsenal: the Jews (including the closet Semites Franklin and Eleanor), along with the British and the arms profiteers, were in league to plunge the nation into war. It would be better, they believed—as did Joseph Kennedy—to accommodate Hitler and bring what Lindbergh called “peace and civilization throughout the world as far into the future as we can see.”
But by then Hitler had once again shifted the Luftwaffe’s priorities. In response to British air raids on Berlin, the German bombs now were raining down on London in a campaign of night bombings called the Blitz (another variation on blitzkrieg)—their purpose to kill civilians and spread terror. But these raids lacked the precision of the daytime bombing of British aircraft factories, and those factories were now able to replace more planes than were being lost in combat. Across the Atlantic, Americans who tuned in to nightly CBS radio reports heard Edward R. Murrow in London describing the destructive effects of the Blitz, and saw vivid pictures of that destruction on movie newsreels and in their daily papers. But while Congress and the anti-Roosevelt press may have been against the destroyer deal, in the brief months since May the tide had turned among the public. Americans strongly favored aid to England now, vindicating the president in his decision to bypass Congress on the destroyer transfer. And early in October, whether the result of the message sent by the destroyer deal or of some other factor in the mind of Adolf Hitler, who had now turned his thoughts to invading his erstwhile ally, Russia, the invasion of England planned in Operation Sea Lion was postponed until the following spring.