Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL L. RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
In “Final Victory,” Stanley Weintraub provides an in-depth account of the election of 1944 when Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term in office. Some readers might see an eerie similarity between the 1944 campaign and the 2012 campaign.
There were allegations from the party not in power that the New Deal was socialistic and unpatriotic, and there was a struggle between the two parties over who should be allowed to vote.
While we may think that Roosevelt’s victory was inevitable, Weintraub has created a dramatic account of the 1944 presidential campaign that shows that Roosevelt’s re-election was at times in doubt.
At the beginning of 1944, President Roosevelt was not showing enthusiasm for the presidential election. He was focused on the war in Europe and the Pacific. He was also ill, although he was able to keep that fact from the public.
The Republican Party had several possible candidates, but regional differences and internal politics kept all but Thomas Dewey from being nominated.
Roosevelt accepted his party’s nomination from his railway car at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base in Southern California. He was aware that he did not look well, and he wanted to avoid an appearance at the national convention in Chicago, fearing that his appearance would not benefit his campaign.
He further worked to project a positive campaign image by sailing to Hawaii to meet with Pacific Theater commanders, then it was on to Alaska to visit the Aleutian Islands recently abandoned by the Japanese army. Minnesota Rep. Harold Knutson alleged that the president had left his dog, Fala, in the Aleutians and sent a destroyer thousand of miles to fetch him. It was not a true story, and Roosevelt handled it with his typical humor in a speech to the Teamsters Union. His “Fala Speech” was a likely inspiration for Richard Nixon’s whining about his dog, Checkers, years later.
Roosevelt said that he and his family were accustomed to attacks by Republicans, but Fala, having heard that the president might have sent a destroyer to rescue him “does resent them.”
“Fala … a Scottie … learned that the Republican fiction writers, in Congress and out, had concocted a story that I left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scottish soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.” It was classic Roosevelt humor.
Dealing with another rumor — one that persists to this day — Dewey claimed that Roosevelt knew in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor and allowed it to happen to get Americans to accept entry into the war. Here Roosevelt had a powerful and secret ally — Gen. George C. Marshall.
Marshall dispatched an aide to talk with Dewey. Dewey was about to show “evidence” that the government had deciphered Japanese code prior to the attack. Marshall’s message was that the U.S. had deciphered the Japanese diplomatic code, not the military code. There were messages prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor that could have avoided the disaster. Disclosure of the code could cost American lives and prolong the war because Marshall’s code breakers were monitoring Japanese diplomatic messages from Berlin to Tokyo and learning valuable information about German troop movements. Dewey’s plan to disclose that the code was known would have stopped the vital flow of information. To his credit, Dewey abandoned his plan.
On another front, Dewey, the Republican Party and Southern Democrats conspired to limit access to the polls. This coalition worked hard to prevent active-duty military personnel from voting. Some felt that Americans in uniform would vote for their commander-in-chief. Others wanted to keep black Americans from voting.
The attempts to limit access to the polls failed, and Roosevelt did garner a large portion of the armed forces vote, not because the soldiers, sailors and airmen were Democrats, but because, according to Weintraub, they didn’t know much about either candidate so they voted for the incumbent.
The addition of Harry Truman to the ticket provides some valuable insight into Roosevelt’s vice president and successor. He was a tireless campaigner who, in letters to his wife, relished to excitement of speeches from the back of his train in small towns across America.
Dewey elected to bypass opportunities to campaign in the hustings, giving Roosevelt and Truman the advantage of being seen by voters who, like the soldiers, may not have known much about Dewey.