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Equivocation. Indecision. Hesitation. Rumination. Ambiguity. Intrigue. Secrecy. Prevarication. Evasion. These concepts encapsulate the two most important White House questions in 1940: what to do about the war in Europe and what to do about the presidential election. Both debates revolved around distinct dichotomies—between isolation and intervention in the foreign-policy realm and between running and retiring in domestic politics—but the forums and participants differed in significant ways. Regarding the European war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt balanced arguments in the press and among the public against deliberations within the government about whether and how to aid the Allies. The president’s decision to run for an unprecedented third term, though, unfolded privately while political insiders speculated about what FDR would do. The two processes intersected in important ways as Susan Dunn shows in her new book, 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler.
Dunn begins with an anecdote describing Roosevelt’s trip to the polls to vote in Hyde Park, New York, in 1940, suggesting the story will be told from Roosevelt’s perspective. Later chapters shift and present the perspective of other major protagonists, namely Wendell Willkie and Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. What is the focus and contribution of the book, then? Although first consideration suggests the book will provide a comprehensive narrative of this pivotal election contest, 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler does not do that. Too [End Page 705] little attention is granted to maneuverings within the Democratic Party by others seeking the nomination in 1940, namely the oftenmaligned and overlooked vice president, John Nance Garner. These machinations faded once Roosevelt gained the Democratic nomination, but they nonetheless deserve more description and analysis; the process by which FDR claimed the nomination in 1940 later became a significant point of criticism for conservative Democrats and Republicans as a subversion of democracy. Given Dunn’s argument about the role of the election in the preservation of democracy, these concerns require assessment.
After early chapters laying the foundation for Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term and showing the worsening world conditions, Dunn takes readers through the nomination and election. Her parallel story is of the war, Hitler’s advancing control of Europe and Roosevelt’s creative efforts to aid the British. She captures the personalities and the backroom negotiations as well or better than any other scholar who has written about this era in American history. The most interesting chapters are those describing events after November 5, 1940, though. By linking the post-election relationship between Roosevelt and Willkie, whereby the defeated Republican publicly endorsed FDR’s foreign policies in 1941 with the story of their contest for the White House, Dunn highlights the real legacy of the election.
Featuring strong narratives and prodigious research in the secondary literature and readily available printed primary sources including newspapers, 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler reads like a traditional work of political history. Some readers, though, will question aspects of the research strategy. Two questions, in particular, emerge: why was there so little archival research and why did the author use the Washington Post and not the Washington Star, which was the much more important paper of the two in the mid-twentieth century?
Dunn is more interested in telling her story and letting the evidence speak for itself than in engaging in historiographic debates or making bold analytical claims. She executes her plan with great skill, [End Page 706] and readers who want a thoughtful recounting of this perilous moment in U.S. political history will be rewarded. Readers who want evaluation and interpretation will be less satisfied because the book’s narrative structure impedes the presentation and development of a strong thesis. The book is not without argument. Indeed, in subtle but sophisticated fashion, Dunn offers a celebratory account of the triumph of American democracy, showing the importance of moderation and compromise to the successful functioning of politics in the country. Her book is required reading for political historians of modern America.