After Labor Day 1940, Colonel Harrington had gone to Connecticut to visit his brother-in-law, William Rayburn, at his summer home. His wife, Rayburn’s sister, had died in February 1938, but the two men had stayed in touch. Harrington badly needed a break from the demanding WPA work schedule, and he lacked Hopkins’s network of wealthy friends who were able to offer their homes for convalescence. But he had taken ill during his visit and was admitted to a hospital in New London. He underwent an operation for what his doctors called an “intestinal ailment” and was apparently recovering, but his condition worsened at the end of September.
Hopkins learned the news at his suite at the Essex House hotel in New York City. He had resigned as commerce secretary in August because of several factors. As the man with the hot line to the White House at the Democratic convention, he had been identified, erroneously but insistently, as prompting the “voice from the sewers” that had triggered the “draft” of Roosevelt, and though he had had nothing to do with it or the contentious nomination of Wallace as the vice presidential candidate, party regulars aimed their fury at him. Moreover, he had never fully recovered from his own health problems; in fact, in his twenty months as commerce secretary he had not been able to spend more than two months in the office. Hated within the Democratic Party, with no cabinet record to defend, and with poverty—heretofore his strong suit—receding as an issue with the rise of war, he recognized that he was a political liability to the administration. Responding to his August 22 resignation letter, Roosevelt wrote, “You may resign the office—only the office—and nothing else. Our friendship will and must go on as always.” Hopkins had left the White House to return to New York, where he thought he would write and perhaps work at the presidential library Roosevelt was establishing at Hyde Park. As it happened, his absence would be short; he would return to Washington and the White House before the end of the year and emerge as the president’s closest confidant and emissary to Winston Churchill and the British government. But now, hearing Harrington was ill, he drove to New London and joined Howard Hunter, and Harrington’s son and daughter, at his bedside. Harrington died on September 30. He was only fifty-three.
The WPA was far different from the organization it had been when Harrington was named to replace Hopkins less than two years earlier. The non-political West Pointer had resisted controversy almost as strongly as Hopkins had attracted it. He had steered the WPA off the front pages for the most part. Even the reorganization and wildcat strikes of a year earlier, and the continuing accusations of the Dies Committee that Communists lurked within the WPA, lacked the resonance they might have had with a lightning rod such as Hopkins at the helm. By not playing the political card, Harrington had brought attention back to the WPA’s building accomplishments and its job of furnishing employment, and these were difficult to assail on any grounds. It was a very valuable contribution, and now, with the country’s defense needs taking on new urgency and the WPA drafted as part of the defense effort, the swirl of controversy was largely in the past. Howard Hunter became the acting commissioner, and his permanent appointment some months later was noted with very little comment of any kind. Controversy had moved on to find new targets.
One of these was the new Selective Service System. The Congress had approved the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history on September 16. Roosevelt had signed the executive order putting it into effect on September 23, calling it “an orderly, just, and democratic method” of obtaining men for military service. Wendell Willkie also supported the draft; the tousled, rumpled, folksy Indianan, who had already campaigned his way into a state of perpetual hoarseness, was considerably removed from the anti–New Deal Republican orthodoxy that had sent Alf Landon to his epic defeat in 1936. Nor was Willkie an isolationist. He based his early campaign not on criticizing the New Deal itself but on its ineffectiveness in reducing unemployment and on Roosevelt’s failure to move earlier to rebuild the nation’s defenses. But these positions failed to gain the Republican ticket any traction; if the president had been slow to throw money at the makers of airplanes, battleships, and tanks, he was certainly doing so now, as duly reported in the newspapers and on the radio. And unemployment was dropping; the weekly number of WPA workers leaving for private jobs had doubled by the end of October, and while the rolls rose as expected in response to seasonal employment patterns, the increase was less than the authorized number and below that of a year before. So as the days dwindled before the November election, Willkie shifted his tactics and painted Roosevelt as a provocateur who, despite his promises to the contrary, was likely to send America to war.
The draft system was on prominent display in this attack on Roosevelt as a warmonger who could not be trusted to keep his word. Under the law, all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five were required to register with local draft boards by October 16, and drawing lots for what was then a compulsory year’s service was scheduled for October 29. Millions of young men stood in line outside hastily established registration sites—Seattle, Washington, used the sprawling car barn at Fourteenth Avenue and East Jefferson Street that housed its trackless trolley cars—to place their names in the hopper for possible conscription. During the registration period, said Willkie in a Chicago campaign speech, “if his promise to keep our boys out of foreign wars is no better than his promise to balance the budget, they’re already almost on the transports.” He was more specific in a Baltimore campaign speech: “On the basis of his past performance with pledges to the people, if you re-elect him you may expect war in April 1941.”
Roosevelt finally took up the challenge late in October, when the polls showed Willkie narrowing the president’s comfortable early lead. His campaign staff worried that he was vulnerable on several fronts, primarily among German and Italian immigrants and the families of draft-age men. Nevertheless, the president himself oversaw the October 29 draft lottery drawing in an auditorium at the War Department building in Washington. He looked on from the onstage podium as Secretary of War Stimson, blindfolded for the occasion with a piece of linen that had covered the chair on which the Founding Fathers sat to sign the Declaration of Independence, reached into a large cylindrical glass jar containing 9,000 cobalt blue capsules and withdrew one. Stimson handed the capsule to Roosevelt, who opened it and read off the number on the slip that was inside: 158.
The men who held the number were thoroughly American in the variety of their origins. In New York, they included the names Cody and Chan, Tsatsaronis and Stazzone, O’Reilly and McDonald, Gonzales and Gerkowski, Wolf and Weisblum. By now the election was a week away, and Willkie kept saying the boys were almost at the boats, but Roosevelt had regained the initiative. He attacked the isolationists as foolish and unrealistic, and assembled three of them—Republican representatives Joe Martin, Bruce Barton, and Hamilton Fish—into a rhythmic catchphrase, “Martin, Barton, and Fish,” that delighted his partisan audiences when he tied them to Willkie. On October 31, he announced orders for 12,000 fighters and bombers, and artillery, machine guns, rifles, and tanks for England, orders that would continue to reenergize the nation’s once-moribund production lines. But those weapons, he insisted, would not be used in fighting by Americans—and each time he said it, his campaign aides insisted that he repeat it.
“But how often do they expect me to say that? It’s in the Democratic platform and I’ve repeated it a hundred times,” he protested to speechwriter Robert Sherwood.
“I know it, Mr. President, but they don’t seem to have heard you the first time,” Sherwood answered. “Evidently you’ve got to say it again—and again—and again.”
Sherwood put the insistent repetition into a speech that Roosevelt gave in Boston the night that Willkie, earlier in the day in Baltimore, had charged that if “the third-term candidate” was returned to office, Americans would be at war by April. “I have said this before,” said the president, speaking to the “mothers and fathers of America,” “but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
Normally he had added a qualifier at the end: “except in case of attack.” But this time he dropped it, reasoning that if America was attacked, it was no longer a foreign war. How much difference the redaction made was something the pundits of the time were left to speculate about and future isolationists to ridicule. But on election day, November 5, with an unprecedented turnout of 49,815,312 voters, Roosevelt compiled 55 percent of the popular vote, 27,243,466, to Willkie’s 22,304,755, and a much larger electoral majority, 449 to 82. The third term was a reality, and the hand at the helm in the storm of approaching war was one Americans had learned to trust.
The wars across the oceans continued without letup. Japan had signed the Tripartite Treaty with Germany and Italy in September, pledging with them to fight any American attempts to block their expansion. It now controlled a great swath of northeast China from Shanghai to the Soviet border, and after the surrender of France to Germany had taken positions along the coast of French Indochina. Although Hitler had postponed his plans to invade England in order to concentrate on building up his forces to the east for the invasion of Soviet Russia he now planned, in violation of their non-aggression pact, his Luftwaffe continued to rain bombs down on London and British military targets. German submarines stalked supply and arms convoys crossing the North Atlantic from Canada. (The danger from German U-boats off the coast of North America would eventually force Roosevelt to give up his seaborne vacations aboard the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, in favor of a WPA-built cabin camp in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains; converted to Roosevelt’s specifications into a presidential getaway, it is now famously known as Camp David.) The losses to submarine attacks reinforced Britain’s dependence on an unstemmed flow of American arms, but by now it had exhausted both its credits and its gold reserves.
On December 29, Roosevelt once again sat before the microphones and spoke to the American people. Freed by his election mandate, by Italy’s invasion of Greece that fall, and by a ranting speech by Hitler three weeks earlier in which the Führer declared that fascism and Western democracy stood at odds—“I can beat any other power in the world,” he proclaimed—the president spoke more frankly than he had during the campaign. He attacked both Nazi ruthlessness and American isolationists who are “doing exactly the kind of work that the dictators want done.” With that, he said America’s best defense against the world domination intended by the Axis lay in helping Britain and the Allies with “more ships, more guns, more planes—more of everything.”
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he said, producing yet another memorable phrase and launching the debate on a new stage of American involvement in the war in Europe—which now, with Italy and England fighting in North Africa, had expanded beyond the boundaries of the continent. The debate continued in his State of the Union address in January 1941, in which he again proved a master of persuasive rhetoric, calling for “a world founded upon four essential freedoms.” These were freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, and together they neatly dovetailed his commitment to the principles of the New Deal with what was at stake in the conflicts threatening to engulf the world. Most important, even before they were turned into icons of Americanism in four paintings by Norman Rockwell, citizens embraced these freedoms as matters worth defending. And when the debate finally concluded in March 1941, the Lend-Lease Act was law.
What this history-changing piece of legislation did, as Roosevelt initially described it, was to “get rid of the silly, foolish old dollar sign” in discussing how to meet Great Britain’s war needs. He compared it to lending a neighbor his garden hose to put out a fire. When it was out, the neighbor returned the hose or, if it was damaged, replaced it. In passing Lend-Lease, Congress authorized $7 billion in initial aid to Great Britain, Greece, and China, fulfilling the promise Roosevelt had made to Churchill that England did not stand alone. As soon as it passed, British merchant ships warped up to American docks and took on planes and aircraft parts, artillery and shells, rifles and machine guns, vehicles, food, fuel, industrial equipment, and other supplies to carry back across the ocean. Appropriate to Roosevelt’s original analogy, aboard one of the first cargo vessels to brave the U-boat–infested waters of the North Atlantic on its way to England was 900,000 feet of fire hose. And as the president had done in the economic emergency of the depression, when he needed to get relief to his own people, in the military emergency that now faced England he turned to Hopkins to manage the lifeline as his advisor and assistant on Lend-Lease.