From the Sidelines: The Role of Former Political Stars in New Campaigns

Those who have run for president, either successfully or not, play a curious role during new campaigns

By Kaleena Fraga

(to check out this piece in podcast form click here)

As the field of Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 begins to solidify, there is a heightened interest over who is meeting with whom. The New York Times recently published a piece entitled: Hillary Clinton Is Not a Candidate. She Looms Over 2020 AnywayThe paper also wrote about how former president Barack Obama has met with several Democrats running in 2020. Despite no longer holding office—despite, in the case of Clinton, losing her own bid for the presidency—figures like Clinton and Obama remain an important influence as the next big election looms.

So, historically, what role do former political stars—that is, either ex-presidents or those who got close to the presidency—play during a new presidential campaign?

The Role Ex-Presidents Play in Campaigns 

During the 2016 campaign, there was much discussion about the unique aspect of Barack Obama’s post-presidency life. Obama, who was only 55 when he left office, left at a much younger age than most presidents. With his former secretary of state running, pundits speculated the ex-president would play a strong role in her campaign, and he did.

Addressing a group of black voters in 2016, Obama said:

“I will consider it a personal insult — an insult to my legacy — if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote.”

Obama campaigned, hard, for Clinton. This isn’t always the case when an ex-president is put in the position of campaigning for the new candidate of his party.

When Richard Nixon sought the presidency after serving eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, the president was, at best, lukewarm. When asked about Nixon’s specific contributions during their partnership, Eisenhower fumbled the question.

Journalist: “if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted in that role as the decider and the final, ah….”

Eisenhower: “If you give me a week, I might think of one—I don’t remember.”

His fumble later became an attack ad.

Of course, this gets to a larger point about vice presidents running for a term consecutive to their vice presidency. We already know that it can be tough to move from the vice presidency to the presidency. While candidates need the president they served to point to their accomplishments, the president leaving office often doesn’t want to suggest that big decisions were made by anyone except himself.

Case in point: Eisenhower, in the same press conference, also said: “No one can make a decision except me.”

Even Obama, while he campaigned on Clinton’s aptitude for the presidency, also tied her victory to his own legacy.

Ronald Reagan, similar to Eisenhower, offered a somewhat tepid endorsement of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, fumbling his vice president’s name of eight years while announcing his endorsement.

Then there is Harry S Truman. Truman, who had been out of office eight years when John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, launched himself into the campaign. Although he had his doubts about Kennedy’s youth, he campaigned hard.

Truman’s case is slightly different than the above—unlike Obama, Eisenhower, or Reagan, he leaped into a race nearly a decade after his own administration.

Certainly, the party powerful often lend a hand—but it is rare to have a president campaign, simply because most of them either haven’t lived long after their presidencies (see Eisenhower or LBJ), they were unpopular post-presidency (Nixon, Ford, Carter), or their vice presidents didn’t want to rely on their help to win.

Vice Presidents Who Want to Forge Their Own Path 

If presidents are hesitant to relinquish their legacy to their vice presidents, then vice presidents can often be just as hesitant to use the same legacy as a step towards their own term in office.

In the election of 1992, the incumbent George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, ending twelve years of Republican power. Reports trickled out that Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were “upset, even angry” over how Bush had steered his campaign. According to their friends, they saw his campaign as “seriously flawed” not least because he had “failed to use Mr. Reagan as a campaigner until late October.”

This was, perhaps, because Bush had been haunted by Reagan’s legacy during his presidency. As the economy soured, a vice chairman for Goldman Sachs noted:

“”[Bush] was trapped by the Reagan legacy. Most Presidents can make changes when they come into office by blaming their predecessor. He couldn’t do that.”

Then again, Bush’s reluctance to use Reagan during his campaign could have less to do with wanting to define his political legacy apart from Reagan’s, and more with the fact that their partnership had been a “marriage of convenience.” Once their shared term ended, longterm tensions came out into the open.

“[Bush] doesn’t seem to stand for anything,” Reagan is reported to have remarked, eight months before the 1992 election. Reagan saw Bush’s performance as a reflection of his own legacy. Bush saw Reagan’s presence as a hindrance to his independence. His aides sneered that Reagan was “too senile” to make public appearances supporting the president.

The dynamic would be similar in the election of 2000 when the incumbent vice president, Al Gore, decided to run for president, following eight years of Bill Clinton’s White House. Gore and Clinton had a tense relationship during that campaign. For his part, Clinton wondered “why Mr. Gore was not making more of the successes of the administration.”

During a blunt exchange after Gore’s loss, Gore told Clinton that it was Clinton’s sex scandal and his low approval ratings that had eventually hobbled Gore’s bid for the White House.

Famous Losers in Presidental Campaigns 

Presidents have a natural role in campaigns of their own party, even years after their own administrations—assuming, of course, that they are popular, and that the party or candidate wants their help. So what about the famous losers?

The questions seem especially pertinent as 2020 looms, and pundits wonder what role Hillary Clinton will play. The quick answer—if she’s anything like the losers of old, she will definitely play a role.

Adlai Stevenson ran for president twice in 1952 and 1956 and lost his bid for the nomination in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. He played a role—giving speeches in support of Kennedy, and maintaining a correspondence with the nominee about his “youth and inexperience.”

Another famous loser, Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency, was consistently consulted by presidents of both parties. (Even if they chose to keep these consultations private).

Clinton, who lost her bid for the presidency in 2016, and her bid for the nomination eight years before that, remains a powerful figure in the Democratic party. So far, many of the Democrats seeking the nomination in 2020 have consulted with Clinton—everyone from Amy Klobuchar to Joe Biden.

***

Whether a winner or a loser—if you ran for president once, there’s a good chance you’ll be involved in the next campaign. The 2020 primaries will be crowded with Democrats vying for the nomination. With figures like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others, the actual race will be crowded too—this time, with winners, losers, and others looking to lend a hand to defeat President Trump.

Origin Stories: Where do Presidents Come From?

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

The election of 2020 is underway! So far it is the most diverse election in American history. The people running (or who will probably run) represent a mix of genders, sexual orientations, and race. One thing many of them have in common is that they serve or have served in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate has not, historically, been the best jumping off point to the presidency. Only Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama went directly from serving in the Senate to the White House (although many other presidents served in the Senate at some point in their career before the presidency). With this in mind, we’ve decided to look at where presidents came from: that is, what office did they hold, or what career did they leave, before entering the White House?

The Military : 5

George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all transitioned from military careers into the presidency. Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were strictly military men who left this life to be president.

In the case of Eisenhower and Taylor, their party preference was initially unknown. Eisenhower was especially cagey about his politics, and Harry Truman even floated that they run together with Eisenhower on top of a Democratic ticket in 1948. Taylor had never voted in an election–feeling that, as a military man, it wasn’t right to choose a party.

Of the five, only Franklin Pierce had prior political experience. He served in both the House and the Senate before enlisting in the Mexican-American war.

Vice Presidency :14

You can check out our great collaboration with Periodic Presidents to learn more about how the vice presidency doesn’t guarantee an easy path to the presidency. Still, many have made the leap (or have been pushed after the death of an incumbent).

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H.W. Bush directly succeeded a president in an election. Richard Nixon lost his election in 1960 directly after his vice presidency, but won in 1968.

John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman became president after the incumbent died of natural causes.

Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson became president after an assassination.

Gerald Ford became president after the only presidential resignation in American history.

The Cabinet :5

Although rare in recent history, a number of presidents came to the White House from next door–that is, they had served as a cabinet secretary before becoming president. In the early days of the Republic serving as secretary of state, not as vice president, seemed to be the best place for someone with presidential ambitions.

This group includes: James Madison (State), James Monroe (State), John Quincy Adams (State), Herbert Hoover (Commerce), and William Howard Taft (War).

Others used the secretary of state position as a stepping stone to higher office before the presidency. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren were secretary of state before becoming vice president. James Buchanan also held this office in the years before he became president.

In 2020, Julian Castro will be running after holding a place in Barack Obama’s Cabinet. He served as Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The Senate: 5

As we’ve established, the only sitting senators to move from the Senate to the White House have been Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

Andrew Jackson’s last stint in public office was in the Senate, but he resigned in 1825 after losing to John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824. He would not become president until 1828. Benjamin Harrison similarly lost reelection to the Senate in 1887, and decided to run for president a year later.

So far, the race for 2020 has quite a few candidates hoping to become the fourth sitting senator to become president. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren are all current United States senators who have announced an intention to run. There is speculation that Senators Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders could also throw their hats into the ring.

Other presidents who served in the United States Senate include: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

So, in terms of starting points, the Senate ain’t bad if you want to be president some day (although perhaps not some day soon).

Ministers/Ambassadors: 2

A few presidents previously served in diplomatic roles before they moved to the White House.

After a sparkling military career, William Henry Harrison had a rough time in politics before Henry Clay convinced John Quincy Adams to name him Minister to Colombia. Harrison had served two terms in the House, but had been passed over for diplomatic posts, and later lost a race for the governor of Ohio, as well as two races for the Senate,  as well as, a race that would have returned him to the House. When he did win a Senate seat, he used this to call on political favors, thus securing his posting in Colombia. He was ineffective as a minister, and spent his years before the presidency back on his Ohio farm.

James Buchanan also held significant political office before becoming Minister to England, the role which preceded his presidency. Buchanan served in the House, the Senate, and the Cabinet. Yet his time as Minister to England allowed him to avoid controversies surrounding slavery in the 1850s, which made him a desirable presidential candidate. As president, Buchanan’s inaction on the eve of the civil war made him one of the worst presidents in American history.

The House : 2

Although nineteen presidents served in the House of Representatives at some point in their career, it’s exceedingly rare to move directly from the House to the presidency. Only James Garfield made the consecutive leap in 1880. Serving in the House was Abraham Lincoln’s last public office before his run for the presidency, but in the decade in-between he mostly focused on his law practice.

Other House alum include: James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

Governor: 10

The race for 2020 could see quite a few current or former governors in the mix. Although none have announced, some perspective candidates are Terry McAuliffe (VA), Steve Bullock (MT), John Hickenlooper (CO), and Jay Inslee (WA).

Although this was not historically a popular route to the presidency, governors have recently found success in catapulting themselves from the governor’s mansion to the White House. Recent examples of governors who left their states to become president are George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In the 19th century, James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley all went from being governor to being president.

President: 1

Grover Cleveland represents a special case. Yes, he was a governor before he became president the first time. But he is also the only nonconsecutive president in American history. After serving one term in office, he lost his bid for a second, waited four years, and then returned to power to fulfill a nonconsecutive second term.

Business: 1

Donald J. Trump is the only president to come directly from the world of business, without strong affiliations to politics or the military. In 2020 a run from Howard Shultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, could change this.

Mayors: 0

No one has served as mayor of a city and then become president, however there are a few candidates in 2020 who hope to do just that. Pete Buttigieg has officially announced his candidacy. Other mayors (current and former) such as Michael Bloomberg, Bill De Blasio, and Andrew Gillum are considered possible candidates as well.

***

Power isn’t linear. Many presidents have jumped from one position to another, and have ended up in the presidency via unlikely avenues (see: James Garfield). Different historical trends promote different results. Two hundred years ago being secretary of state was a good move if you wanted to be president–today, it might be wiser to see a governorship.

Here’s what’s for sure: in 2020 candidates will come from a variety of backgrounds–all with the goal of ending up in the same place.

Why Mitt Romney’s Op-Ed Matters

By Kaleena Fraga

Many on the left are frustrated by Republicans like Jeff Flake, and now, Mitt Romney, who speak out against the president but support his policies. It’s easy to dismiss their speeches, articles, and tweets as empty politicking, meant to let them toe the line of Trump’s conservative base, while courting Republican voters who are dismayed at the behavior of the president.

This time, it’s different.

Mitt Romney’s forceful op-ed in the Washington Post called out the president for his behavior–for his diminishing of the office of the president. Yes, Romney will probably still vote for the Wall. He is a Republican, after all. But his words do matter. Why? Any impeachment vote is a likely given in the House, controlled by Democrats. The real battle will be in the chamber where Romney will sit, in the chamber controlled by Republicans. The Senate.

Impeachment is a political act, with political motivations. Yes, that’s not exactly what the founders intended, but that’s the form it’s taken. Andrew Johnson was impeached for breaking a law that Congress passed to spite him, and Bill Clinton faced impeachment over a stupid lie about a romantic affair–in other words, neither had committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution demands.

(Nixon, of course, got much closer to this bar, although his case came down to obstruction of justice. There is no physical evidence that Nixon himself ordered the break-in.)

In any case, an impeachment trial against President Trump in the Senate would require strong Republican support. Romney writes that Trump has not “risen to the mantle of the office.” This in itself is not a crime. But the politics of the moment could shift, giving the Republicans political reasons to think that removing the president would be the best thing for their party. In 1974, it took Barry Goldwater listing off names of Republicans and Southern Democrats who would vote for impeachment for Nixon to decide to resign.

Indeed, the founders left no provisions for what to do if the president is simply bad at being president. The 25th amendment does allow for the vice president, the Cabinet, and a majority of Congress to remove a president they see as unfit. This has never been invoked. If it were, dissident Republicans in the Senate would certainly be crucial to the cause.

“The High Road of Humility”: Modesty in American Presidents

By Kaleena Fraga

As the nation said goodbye to George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, his friend Senator Alan Simpson eulogized the former president by noting: 

“Those that travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

The line was met with laughter in the National Cathedral–packed with those who had spent their careers in Washington D.C.–and with a moment of reflection. Bush was famous for his aversion to the word I, an aversion with roots in the lessons of his mother to avoid self-aggrandizing. 

Bush led an exciting life. As a navy pilot, ambassador to the U.N., chairman of the RNC, envoy to China, vice president, and as president he certainly had plenty of stories to fill the pages. Family and friends urged him to sit down and pen his memoirs. “I was unpersuaded,” said Bush. A prolific letter writer and diary writer, Bush nevertheless saw no draw in writing a public memoir encapsulating his life. 

His reluctance to do so is reminiscent of another American president–Ulysses S. Grant. Grant himself wrote a remarkable account of his life and of the Civil War–but not because he wanted to write one. 

On the first page of his memoirs he insists: 

“Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication.”

Grant, at sixty-two, was suffering from lung cancer. He had been swindled by a former business partner and sought a way to support his family after he died. When approached to write articles about his life for Century Magazine, Grant agreed. Mark Twain later helped him market the complete memoirs. 

Grant, like Bush, internalized lessons he learned from his mother. In Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, Chernow writes: “It seems crystal-clear that Ulysses S. Grant modeled himself after his mutely subdued mother, avoiding his father’s bombast and internalizing her humility and self-control.”

Grant’s memoirs are far from personal. He is not particularly introspective–for example, he never mentions issues with alcohol, despite rumors that dogged him during the Civil War and, later, his presidency. Rather, Grant describes battles and muses candidly about sentiments on both the Union and Confederate sides. Grant died five days after his memoirs were published. 

At this time, in 1885, it was highly unusual for a president to write a memoir. President Buchanan published the first ever in 1866, in an attempt to save his legacy. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion didn’t work. Buchanan today is regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, for his inaction during the eve of the Civil War. 

But the 20th century saw a glut of presidential memoirs. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all wrote their autobiographies. Every president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump wrote some form of memoir–excluding John F. Kennedy, who died in office. 

It’s also becoming increasingly common for presidential candidates to release books–often before their candidacy is even declared. Barack Obama wrote two before he was nominated in 2008. Elizabeth Warren, a potential candidate for 2020, released a book in 2017. Bernie Sanders released a book in late 2018. John F. Kennedy, who did not have a chance to write a book reflecting on his presidency, released his book Profiles in Courage in 1955, which introduced him to a wider audience before his run in 1960. 

Today, there’s such an emphasis on personal brand that any politician going the route of Bush or Grant would risk being drowned out by others. Certainly Bush was criticized for failing to “sell” his accomplishments in the 1992 election, which he ultimately lost to Bill Clinton. Yet in our era of “Only I Can Fix it” perhaps some humility is just what the American political sphere needs. 

Thomas Jefferson, Time, and the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

michelle obama voteAddressing a rally in Las Vegas, former first lady Michelle Obama likened young people’s dismal voting records to her daughters letting their grandmother pick out their clothes or their playlists.

“Now, no offense to grandma,” said Obama. “When you don’t vote, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re letting other people make some really key decisions about the life you’re going to live.”

Michelle Obama would have an ally in Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, in a letter to his friend James Madison, professed his belief that each generation should play a role in determining their own destinies.

“The question,” Jefferson wrote Madison, in 1789, “whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.”

Jefferson was writing from Paris, less than a month before he would travel back to the newly formed United States to serve as George Washington’s secretary of state.

“I set out on this ground,” Jefferson wrote, “which I suppose to be self evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” After a lengthy piece describing how each generation should be free of the last generation’s debt, Jefferson mused:

“On similar grounds it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation…every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

Madison, having recently helped create a constitution which he hoped would last much longer than 19 years, refuted much of Jefferson’s claim, arguing that such a design would create anarchy.

Madison also belonged to the camp of Founders who believed  that judges should hold their positions as long as they exhibited “good-behavior,” a point which Jefferson routinely professed disagreement. In a letter written in 1822, Jefferson once mused to a friend, “Let the future appointments of judges be for four or six years and renewable by the President and Senate.” Jefferson oversaw the only attempted impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, a George Washington appointee whom Jefferson believed was overtly partisan.

As Congress grows more partisan itself, unable to pass significant legislation without a fight, the Supreme Court, and its judges, have become more powerful. Certainly, the Court is not what the Founders envisioned–the first ten justices only served for ten years, whereas most justices since 1970 have spent upwards of twenty-five years on the court.

In 2005, 45 leading legal scholars agreed “in principle” to a plan that would limit supreme court justices’ terms to just 18 years. The proposal’s authors, Paul Carrington (a Democrat) and Roger Cramton (a Republican) note that: “the Founders could not foresee that increases in longevity would imperil the rotation in powerful office essential to representative government.” Their plan, a staggered eighteen year term for justices, would allow for an appointment every two years, or two per presidential term, thus resolving the randomness and the overblown significance of Supreme Court appointments.

Thomas Jefferson, in his belief that the Constitution should be reviewed every nineteen years, would have found this an interesting idea. But it’s a complex one, and would be a tough sell to Congress and the American people, especially as life-terms for justices are engrained in American political life.

In the meantime, for people who want to see change on the political stage, there’s only one thing to do: VOTE!

Ulysses S. Grant, Reconstruction, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

By Kaleena Fraga

The 14th amendment guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws”, effectively ending the 3/5 Compromise enshrined in the Constitution (stating that states could count black people as 3/5 of a person). As president, Andrew Johnson fought against the 14th amendment and convinced southern states to do the same. Following his lead, southern states refused to ratify it. Still, the amendment was ratified on July 9th, 1868. It was followed by the 15th amendment, which ensured equal voting rights, regardless of race.

This was, Grant said during his presidency, a mistake.

Grant was no racist–far from it–but he recognized the inherent problem of states disenfranchising voters, while using their bodies as tallies toward their power in the electoral college.

What was it about the 14th and 15th amendments that Grant didn’t like?

Grant’s secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, recorded Grant’s thoughts during a particularly tense point in his presidency. The recent presidential election–which would eventually put Rutherford B. Hayes in office–had been highly contested, and Grant and Fish had heard reports from Louisiana that stated that black voters had been so terrorized that “overwhelmingly Republican parishes had ended up in Democratic columns.” A Senate investigation even later uncovered that in one parish 60 black Republicans had been murdered before the election.

Fish wrote of Grant, “He says he is opposed to the XV amendment and thinks it was a mistake; that it had done the negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.”

Grant later clarified what he meant: “[The South] keep[s] those votes, but disfranchise[s] the negroes,” he told journalist John Russell Young. “That is one of the gravest mistakes of reconstruction.” In other words, the 14th amendment increased the population of the South, which gave southern states more heft in the electoral college. So although the South suppressed the black vote, it could count them fully for election purposes. The result was an imbalance of power.

Grant saw it as his prime responsibility–indeed, the prime responsibility of the government–to ensure that everyone had safe, easy access to voting. “I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vested in the Executive,” he said, “for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws.”

Grant oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, schools, transportation, and juries. Democratic states did not bother to enforce it, and it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883 as unconstitutional. It would take almost 100 years for Congress to attempt anything similar.

It wasn’t until 1957 that Congress passed another civil rights bill; and it wasn’t until 1964 that laws first proposed in 1875 were enshrined into law. Then, in 1965 the country saw the Voting Rights Act, which enabled fair voting to the very citizens that Grant sought to protect, 90 years earlier.

Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency was a long time ago, but his mission, to protect voters, is today more important than ever.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key tenets of the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, stated that such protections were no longer needed because “our country has changed” for the better. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much,” Roberts wrote, “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy the problem speaks to the current conditions.”

Since 2013, it’s become harder for Americans to vote. In light of the 2013 ruling, southern states have closed at least 868 polling places–the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed the Department of Justice to stop closures like these, but that part of the legislation was struck down. Vox points out that these 868 closures are in about half of the counties that were once targeted by the Voting Rights Act because of their history of racial discrimination. This means that there could be hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of closures that are untracked.

In 2018, the United States faces the same problem it faced in the 1860s and 1870s. Americans have a limited ability to vote. Those who work long hours, or shifts, or live far away from polling places, face difficulties having their voices heard. Yet they are still counted, and states can use their bodies (even while it silences their voices) on the electoral stage. To Grant, this oversight on the part of the U.S. government would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.

Preparing America for World War II: Franklin Roosevelt, Isolationism, and America First

By Aaron Bauer

June 1940 was a dark time in human history. After the conquest of Poland in October 1939, Hitler unleashed his armies on Western Europe in the spring of 1940. Denmark and Norway fell quickly, Belgium was overrun, and by early June, France was near total collapse. On June 10th, Italy entered the war on Germany’s side, declaring war on its former allies France and Britain. That same day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt FDR at UVAwas scheduled to address the graduating class at the University of Virginia. He used the opportunity to comment on the events transpiring across the Atlantic. Roosevelt condemned Italy’s aggression as a stab in the back, and spoke of the dangers of a world dominated by the brutal fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. Going a step further, the president declared that the U.S. would “extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense.”

To most Americans today, Roosevelt’s statement would seem natural, expected even, in the face of unprovoked aggression. Yet, the profound isolationism that followed the utter implosion of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalist vision in 1919 still dominated U.S. politics in 1940. From 1920 onwards, the financial heft of Wall Street and the material resources of a continent ensured America’s place as an economic giant, but disengagement and disinterest were the order of the day when it came to global affairs. Throughout the next two decades, both the American people and their government saw events beyond the nation’s shores as none of their concern. Congress translated this sentiment into law in the form of immigration restrictions, tariffs, and even repeated proposals for a constitutional amendment requiring a popular referendum for any declaration of war. As totalitarian wars of conquest raged in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt had to contend with a dominant political faction at home who believed taking sides the height of folly.

In his June 10 address, Roosevelt met the isolationists head on:

Some indeed still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.

Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare of a people without freedom—the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.

Leading isolationists of both parties fired right back. Roosevelt’s pronouncements were “nothing but dangerous adventurism” in the opinion of North Dakota Republican Gerald Nye. Massachusetts Democrat David Walsh decried the idea of sending armaments overseas to aid those fighting Hitler: “I do not want our forces deprived of one gun, or one bomb or one ship which can aid that American boy whom you and I may someday have to draft.” Aviation celebrity and arch isolationist Charles Lindbergh derided the June 10 speech as “defense hysteria” and argued that foreign invasion was only a threat if “the American people bring it on through their own quarreling and meddling with affairs abroad.”

This was not the first time Roosevelt and isolationists had come to rhetorical blows. When Japan began its bloody conquest of China in 1937, Roosevelt called for a “quarantine” of aggressor nations. Isolationists in Congress responded by threatening impeachment. Realizing the strength of the opposition, Roosevelt resolved to take an incremental approach. The president was very conscious of the risk in getting too far ahead of public opinion. As he put it to an aide, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”

Despite the challenges, by mid-1940 Roosevelt’s incremental strategy had begun to show signs of life. Though the overwhelming majority of the public continued to oppose direct involvement in the war, polls showed two-thirds now supported some kind of aid to Britain. Mainstream newspaper editors, who enjoyed far more influence in 1940 than the print media of 2018, came around and began to advocate for sending aid. Dr. Seuss, who in the war years drew political cartoons for the New York paper PM, mocked Republican isolationists as half-elephant/half-ostrich creature with its head in the sand (the GOPstrich). As Americans bickered and dawdled, the war in Europe was going from badchurchill june to worse. The French surrender on June 22nd left Britain as the sole nation still in the fight against Hitler. German aircraft pounded British cities and there were fears of an imminent German invasion of the British Isles. The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that getting America into the war was his country’s only hope for victory. In a defiant speech to the House of Commons that June, he promised that Britain would fight on “until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

In the face of the crisis, Roosevelt knew he must act decisively. The U.S. desperately needed to build up its army, which at the beginning of 1940 was approximately one twentieth the size of Germany’s and armed with weapons decades out of date. By the end of World War I, America had fielded the fourth largest army in the world. Between post-war disarmament and an isolationist Congress opposed to military spending and determined to shut down weapons manufacturers, the U.S. army had slid to eighteenth by 1939, just ahead of the Portuguese. To give the U.S. the time it needed to rearm, Britain had to be kept in the war. Further complicating matters, 1940 was a presidential election year, and Roosevelt had to undertake all this while running for reelection to an unprecedented third term. It would take every bit of his considerable political skill to see it done.

One of Britain’s most urgent needs was additional ships to defend her shores and commerce. Roosevelt negotiated with Churchill to trade unused U.S. destroyers for leases establishing military bases on a number of British territories in the Western hemisphere. Knowing there was no time for a lengthy fight in Congress, Roosevelt simply bypassed it and announced that the deal had been made. With characteristic deviousness, Roosevelt tried to steal some media attention from his 1940 opponent Wendell Willkie by making this announcement at the same time as Willkie’s speech accepting the Republican nomination. While Roosevelt was praised for getting the better end of the deal with the British, his end-run around Congress brought on full-throated condemnation from his critics. Willkie called the move “the most dictatorial and arbitrary of any President in the history of the U.S,” and the St. Louis Post Dispatch proclaimed “Mr. Roosevelt today committed an act of war. He also becomes America’s first dictator.” Public criticism aside, Roosevelt had taken an important step in forging a transatlantic alliance against Hitler, and U.S. arms sales became a crucial lifeline for the British.

Preparing the U.S. military required a far greater act of political courage. With the Army’s need to begin training an army of more than a million men as soon as possible, Roosevelt took the risky step of vigorously supporting the first-ever peacetime draft in U.S. history. On this issue, the president received key support from an unexpected quarter: Wendell Willkie. Though critical of Roosevelt’s methods and parts of the New Deal agenda, Willkie differed from many Republican elected officials in his belief that “we cannot brush the pitiless picture of their [the stricken people of Europe] destruction from our eyes or escape the profound effects of it upon the world in which we live,” and that “some form of selective service is the only democratic way in which to assure the trained and competent manpower we need in our national defense.” The selective service bill made it through Congress with bipartisan support, and Roosevelt, over the objections of his advisers, began conscription just a week before voters went to the polls. America would have a military capable of meeting the threats abroad.

Neither conscription nor Willkie’s charisma proved able to shake Roosevelt’s political coalition, and 1940 saw the nation’s first (and only) election of a third-term president. His electoral victory did not, however, signal the defeat of the forces of isolationism. September 1940 saw the formation of the America First Committee, which would become one of the largest anti-war organizations in U.S. history. Its spokesperson, Charles Lindbergh, clashed frequently with the Roosevelt administration. Largely based in the Midwest, the Committee argued that staying out of the war was vital to the preservation of American democracy and that the sending of aid weakened the U.S. and risked drawing the country into the war. Roosevelt had his own case to make, and in December delivered the sixteenth “fireside chat” radio address of his presidency to put it before the American people. If the Axis is victorious, he argued, Americans would be “living at the point of a gun.” Roosevelt pointed out the futility of negotiating, that experience had “proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis. No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb.” America’s role was clear, he declared, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself.”

As 1940 drew to a close a new emergency arose: the financial underpinnings of the American aid to Britain were in dire straights. The previous year, Roosevelt had pried from Congress authorization for “cash and carry” arms sales to Britain. But after more than a year of war, Britain had nearly exhausted its ability to pay hard cash. The mess of debts that had languished after the First World War (Britain still owed the US $4.4 billion in 1934) killed any political appetite in the U.S. to loan the British the funds they needed. A creative solution was required, and fast, if American weapons and supplies were to remain on the front lines of the war. The solution came to Roosevelt, almost fully formed, while he was enjoying a post-election vacation cruise. The Lend-Lease policy, as it came to be called, was a classic Roosevelt workaround. The U.S. would lend, rather than sell, Britain the equipment it needed for the duration of the war, with the expectation that it would either be returned or Britain would pay to replace it. The president’s staff were stunned by his sudden insight. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins called it a “flash of almost clairvoyant knowledge and understanding.” “He did not seem to talk much about the subject in hand, or to consult the advice of others, or to ‘read up’ on it,” recounted speechwriter Bob Sherwood. “One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece.”

Conceiving of Lend-Lease was one thing, but getting it through Congress was something else entirely. Roosevelt’s first step was to explain the idea to the public. In a press conference, he used an accessible and compelling metaphor:

Well, let me give you an illustration: Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

The President’s critics were having none of it. Such an arrangement would inevitably entangle the country in foreign wars. Ohio Republican Senator Robert Taft, the son of former president William Howard Taft, believe that Lend-Lease would give Roosevelt dictatorial powers “to carry on a kind of undeclared war all over the world.” Charles Lindbergh characterized the policy as “another step away from democracy and another step closer to war.” But during the weeks of hearings Congress held in early 1941, the law’s supporters won the argument—public support rose from 50 percent to 61 percent and Roosevelt signed it into law in March 1941. In a time when totalitarian regimes were ascendent across much of the world, Roosevelt saw this process as exemplifying the strength of a democratic system: “Yes, the decisions of our democracy may be slowly arrived at. But when the decision is made, it is proclaimed not with the voice of one man but with the voice of 130 million.”

Even as the passage of Lend-Lease allowed for continued and increasing U.S. aid to Britain, the American public and its government remained deeply divided over the nation’s path. German submarines were sinking a lot of American supplies in transit, but public support for U.S. Navy convoys to protect them remained lukewarm (52 percent in May). Enough isolationists in Congress pledged “unalterable opposition” to convoys to block any possible action. Furthermore, large majorities opposed getting further involved, with 79 percent of Americans expressing desire to stay out of the war and 70 percent believing Roosevelt was doing enough or too much for Britain. In late May, Roosevelt exercised one of the few remaining available options and used his authority to declare an “unlimited national emergency.” This granted him additional unilateral authority to prepare the country for war by increasing the size of the military and exercising more control over the defense industry. Roosevelt announced this move in a national radio address in which he cast the war in Europe not as a local squabble, but as “a war for world domination.” He painted a bleak picture of a world culturally and economically dominated by Nazi Germany, and implored Americans to realize the danger: “Some people seem to think that we are not attacked until bombs actually drop in the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago, but they are simply shutting their eyes to the lesson that we must learn from the fate of every nation that the Nazis have conquered…”

By the summer of 1941, Roosevelt felt he had reached the limit of where he could lead the public. When Germany launched its massive invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941, Roosevelt intervened again and again to break through a reluctant bureaucracy and get aid flowing to the war’s Eastern front. Missouri Democrat Bennett Clark spoke for many when he described Nazism versus Communism as “a case of dog eat dog.” “Stalin is as bloody-handed as Hitler,” Bennett said, “I don’t think we should help either one.”

It was the German U-boats, just as in 1917, that swung public opinion decisively in favor of war. Repeated sinkings of U.S. merchant and military ships throughout 1941 that killed more than a hundred American sailors convinced a majority that war was necessary. Support for the arming of merchant ships (forbidden by a Neutrality Act passed by Congress in the 1930s) rose from 30 percent in April 1941 to 72 percent by the fall. Even so, isolationists in the Senate were able to stall a Neutrality Act revision. Roosevelt again took to the airwaves, announcing in a September fireside chat a “shoot-on-sight” policy. “No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, we will keep open the line of legitimate commerce in these defensive waters…. Let this warning be clear. From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril…. When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” With public opinion continuing to shift (a September 1941 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent agreed that the defeat of Germany was more important than keeping America out of war), the revision eventually passed the Senate by a small margin.

Roosevelt once said “I am a juggler. I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” Across 1939 to 1941, he indeed performed a remarkable feat of political juggling. The president removed legal and political barriers to supplying military aid to the nations fighting Hitler, played a role in the complete reversal of public opinion on the importance of defeating Germany, and rebuilt the U.S. military from a state of near complete neglect, all the while dealing with entrenched isolationism in Congress, weathering attacks from America First, and winning the only third term in U.S. history. Roosevelt’s public leadership, along with German submarine warfare and the news of the destruction wrought by Hitler’s armies relayed by American journalists in Europe, emotionally prepared the U.S. for war. Though it was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war that brought the U.S. into the Second World War, Roosevelt’s dogged, incremental efforts to overcome isolationism were essential to prevent Axis victory in the war’s opening years. This same persistence in building up the nation’s army, navy, and military production saved precious months and years when the time came to truly get into the fight. Roosevelt had succeeded in making America an arsenal of democracy.

Sources:

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

American Warlords by Jonathan W. Jordan

The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by George McJimsey

The American Presidency Project by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley