Richard Moe. Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War. Pivotal Moments in American History Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xvi + 376 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-998191-5.
Reviewed by Steven Sheehan
Published on H-War (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In Roosevelt’s Second Act Richard Moe examines Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to break with a 150-year tradition and run for an unprecedented third term as president in 1940. The book provides a narrative of events related to that decision from 1937 through the November election in 1940. Moe emphasizes both the politics of the Roosevelt White House and presidential foreign policy as factors contributing to that decision. While the book presents few revelations regarding Roosevelt’s character or these crucial years of American foreign policy, it offers the first thorough, focused examination of the third-term decision.
Moe deflates the criticisms first made by Roosevelt political opponents and picked up by some historians that the president sought a third term for reasons of political ambition and that he made the decision but delayed its announcement in order to dodge potential public criticism and to avoid a coordinated challenge for the nomination.He argues that Roosevelt determined to run for a third term for moral reasons. He waited to announce his candidacy formally, not because he was playing coy with the voters or seeking to avoid attacks from potential opponents, but because he only decided to seek reelection in the days before the 1940 Democratic Convention. When he determined to run, he did so in response to new developments in the crisis abroad and out of a sense of moral obligation, not personal or political aggrandizement.
Moe develops his argument through a chronological narrative that focuses on maneuverings behind the scenes in the Roosevelt White House as the president and his advisers reacted to events abroad, political opposition, and popular opinion.The story begins with the president’s Quarantine Speech, delivered in Chicago in 1937, in which he called for an international cooperative effort to isolate aggressor nations. This speech is generally viewed as the start of FDR’s move beyond strict neutrality in the brewing crises in Asia and Europe.For the first eight chapters, the author tells a familiar account of a president who sincerely wished to confront German and Japanese aggression, and who sought to aid the Western Allies in the war against fascism after 1939, but who could only reasonably move so far in these efforts given the nation’s powerful isolationist lobby and the public’s tendency to shrink from military commitments. Moe argues that at the outset of this period, Roosevelt firmly intended and desired to retire from politics after 1940. He continued to vacillate between the retirement he desired and the third term that events seemed more and more to demand of him into the summer of 1940.
The book’s ninth chapter, titled “FDR Decides,” marks the key turning point in the narrative. Moe argues that two developments in the summer of 1940 pushed Roosevelt to decide to seek a third term.First, The fall of France left Great Britain isolated and in desperate need of support in the war. Second, Moe argues that when the Republican Party nominated Wendell Willkie, they had chosen a candidate with the strength to defeat any Democrat other than the incumbent president. Although not an isolationist himself, a Willkie presidency might allow the isolationist wing of the Republican Party greater influence over foreign policy. Thus, FDR believed he was the Democrat best suited to keep isolationist Republicans at bay and to conduct an active foreign policy to usher the nation through the crisis of the world war.
Moe argues for the importance of two memoranda, authored by Felix Frankfurter and Archibald MacLeish respectively, in both influencing the president’s decision to run for a third term and as a reflection of his thinking at the time he made that decision. Frankfurter, a recent appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, had served as confidante and informal adviser for Roosevelt for over a decade. The two men met privately in the White House oval study on the evening of July 11, 1940 to discuss the third-term possibility. Frankfurter urged Roosevelt to seek the nomination, and at the end of the meeting, FDR asked the judge to put his argument in writing.Frankfurter asked if he could get the assistance of MacLeish. MacLeish, a writer, poet, and close friend of Frankfurter, was currently serving as the librarian of Congress, also by Roosevelt’s appointment. Ultimately, each man produced a memorandum for the president addressing the third-term question. Frankfurter’s memo justified the need for Roosevelt to run, while MacLeish focused on how to explain the decision to the general public. Both memoranda emphasized the president’s duty to usher the nation safely through the war. The full text of both reports is published in the book’s appendix.
The remaining six chapters trace the story of the third term through the Democratic Convention and the November general election. Moe argues that Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins played critical roles at the Chicago convention.They secured FDR’s nomination and the vice presidential nod for Henry Wallace, the president’s choice for the position, all while maintaining party unity at a contentious convention that could have fractured the Democratic Party. Moe presents Willkie as a principled and even courageous candidate whose greatest failing was a political tin ear. The book concludes with a brief epilogue that presents the Lend-Lease Act as the ultimate outcome of Roosevelt’s decision to seek a third term.
Moe depends largely on secondary sources and published primary sources to build his argument. He draws particularly from Robert Dallek’s seminal Franklin Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 (1979). In his survey of Roosevelt’s presidential foreign policy, Dallek argues that Roosevelt vacillated and dissembled when building and discussing foreign policy, not because of any nefarious effort to deceive the American people into entering the world war, but because he changed his views in reaction to shifting events, and because he sincerely believed that he needed to help forge a public and political consensus if the United States were to achieve victory in war and at the bargaining table. Moe ascribes the same mindset specifically to the third-term decision, noting that FDR acted out of conscience and that he delayed his decision due to doubt rather than because of cynical political motives. For primary sources, Moe relies on the published memoirs of Roosevelt aides and cabinet members. For the most part, the authors of these memoirs, like Perkins, Harold Ickes, Cordell Hull, and Samuel Rosenman, worked closely with Roosevelt and maintained a friendly position toward the president. Even key documents, such as the aforementioned memoranda from Frankfurter and MacLeish, can be found in published collections.
The book’s greatest failure is that it sets out on what is ultimately an impossible task—attempting to explore what Roosevelt really felt and believed when considering whether or not to run for a third term.Roosevelt was the first president to create a presidential library to house his papers and many of the documents associated with his administration.Those documents have been a treasure trove for historians over the years. Yet few of those documents feature any personal introspection from Roosevelt, something he rarely did aloud and almost never recorded on paper. Therefore Moe is left trying to tease out Roosevelt’s psyche from memoirs and documents generated by his associates. So, instead of a straightforward private statement from FDR himself, Moe argues that the July 1940 memoranda from Frankfurter and MacLeish “offer probably the best window into FDR’s mind on the question of running for a third term” (p. 194). He even suspects the president “almost certainly” took “careful notes” on the two memos, yet admits that “those notes are not to be found among his papers or anywhere else” (p. 195). Thus, the closest we can get to a view into Roosevelt’s heart comes by way of two documents written by his colleagues, which he may or may not have read carefully.
Moe’s failure to bring light to the recesses of the Roosevelt soul puts him in good company. Generations of historians, colleagues, friends, and family members have experienced the same problem. As Frances Perkins quipped in her published recollection of her career with Roosevelt, “Franklin Roosevelt was not a simple man.… He was the most complicated human being I ever knew.” If the book fails to pick FDR’s brain, it succeeds in many other areas. Moe has written a highly readable narrative account of events and documented conversations leading to Roosevelt’s decision to run for an unprecedented third term. The book’s strength lies in Moe’s ability to place that decision within the historical context of public opinion, electoral politics, and the international crisis.
. Francis Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (New York: Viking, 1946), 3.
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Steven Sheehan. Review of Moe, Richard, Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War.
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