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Achieving an Unprecendented Third Term: Foreign Affairs and Roosevelt’s 1940 Nomination

Franklin D. Roosevelt and others posed under large guns on battleship.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and others posed under large guns on battleship.Department of the Navy; Courtesy of U.S. Navy Recruiting Bureau, P.D.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, July 19, 1940.

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Sixty-two years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, officially breaking the two-term precedent George Washington had set. In his speech to the delegates on July 19, 1940, Roosevelt’s reasoning for seeking and accepting the position was, not “the call of Party” alone, but the need for continuity in foreign and defense policy given the circumstances in Europe and Asia and the threats they posed to security of the United States. Roosevelt told the delegates:

Like most men of my age, I had made plans for myself, plans for a private life of my own choice and for my own satisfaction, a life of that kind to begin in January, 1941. These plans, like so many other plans, had been made in a world, which now seems as distant as another planet. Today all private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger. In the face of that public danger all those who can be of service to the Republic have no choice but to offer themselves for service in those capacities for which they may be fitted.

Indeed, the critical situation in foreign affairs played an important role in Roosevelt’s ability to control the 1940 convention. Following his failed attempt to purge anti-New Deal Democrats in the 1938 mid-term election campaign, Congress passed the 1939 Hatch Act, which barred federal employees from participating in campaigns. The Roosevelt administration had been making use of federal workers in local and state political activity, including in some of the 1938 purge campaigns. These workers were part of a New Deal organization that operated independent of the Democratic Party machinery. The New York Times reported on August 6, 1939 that the Hatch Act was a “direct outgrowth of strong arm federal politics, of partisan use of the money appropriated and the powers delegated to the executive by Congress…it was the child of ‘the purge’.”

Although Roosevelt had faced a “no third term” movement for the nomination from critics within his own party in the aftermath of the failed purge, the president carefully maneuvered to broaden his coalition in the 1940 campaign. This effort centered especially on building broad support for his internationalist and interventionist foreign policies. The president also strategically brought prominent Republican internationalists into his fold. Most deftly, following the 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt tapped Wendell Wilkie, the recently defeated Republican presidential candidate, to serve as the president’s personal emissary to Winston Churchill. Earlier in 1940, the president appointed Frank Knox, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1936, to his cabinet and drafted Henry Stimson, also a Republican leader, to serve as his new Secretary of War. The reconstruction of his coalitional base of support was indeed another way in which Roosevelt sought to transcend partisan politics.

Roosevelt’s speech accepting the nomination is also notable for suggesting a very different type of presidential campaign, justified once again by circumstances abroad. In his speech he laid out the need to stay in or near the White House given the rapid developing foreign situation and the “splendid work of the new defense machinery,” which required his administration. While not inclined to engage in “purely political debate,” Roosevelt said the he intended instead to give his “usual periodic reports to the country through the medium of press conferences and radio talks.”

After speaking informally to the delegates, Roosevelt then reminded the crowd of the progress made in domestic affairs over the previous seven years and laid out the threats to that progress, as well as threats to liberty, democracy and American values posed by foreign affairs:

But we all know that our progress at home and in the other American nations toward this realization of a better human decency—progress along free lines—is gravely endangered by what is happening on other continents. In Europe, many nations, through dictatorships or invasions, have been compelled to abandon normal democratic processes. They have been compelled to adopt forms of government which some call ‘new and efficient’…

We in our democracy, and those who live in still unconquered democracies, will never willingly descend to any form of this so-called security of efficiency which calls for the abandonment of other securities more vital to the dignity of man…
The Government of the United States for the past seven years has had the courage openly to oppose by every peaceful means the spread of the dictator form of Government. If our Government should pass to other hands next January—untried hands, inexperienced hands—we can merely hope and pray that they will not substitute appeasement and compromise with those who seek to destroy all democracies everywhere, including here.

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